John Baker hasn’t made his major league debut yet, but he is a relative veteran in Phoenix this spring. The Cal alum has been a fixture at major league spring training camp with the Oakland A’s since 2005. Last season, Baker was one of the stars of camp, as he had 10 hits in 20 at-bats, including a homerun. He also drove-in 13 runs in 15 games.
Baker parlayed that spring performance into a solid rebound season for Triple-A Sacramento. After struggling in 2005 with the River Cats to the tune of a .234 batting average, Baker recovered to hit .273 for Sacramento in 2006. He was a Pacific Coast League All-Star, as well.
Baker has spent the last two and a quarter seasons in Sacramento, during which time he has become a fan favorite in the Capitol City. We spoke to the East Bay native after the A’s first spring training game on Thursday.
To listen to the interview, click the link to the right. Watch Video Please note that this movie file is audio only and is for subscribers-only and that Windows Media Player is recommended. A full transcript of the interview is below.
OaklandClubhouse: I was following the game on-line today and saw you had an at-bat. It must be nice to not be just practicing any more right?
John Baker: Yeah, it was about time to see some other faces on the field. We’ve been here for a couple of weeks and the days were nice and short. Bob [Geren] did a great job keeping the camps short early so people could go out and play golf and do whatever they had to do and we were playing games, but yeah, it’s always nice to get out there and play. That’s what we love to do. You do all of the practicing and training so that you can go out there and play games so it was good to get out there and see a different team.
OC: How would you compare the pace and the mood around this camp compared to the last two with pretty much an entirely new coaching staff, save Curt Young and Rene Lachemann?
JB: It’s a little bit different. I think that the people who benefit most from having Bob as the manager are the catchers because being a major league catcher himself, he really tries to make everything easy for us. A lot of times early in spring training, the catchers really have a large work load, doing bullpens and early work, but he is really good about letting us know “here is what you are going to do, you are going to do this, you are going to do that.” There is no questions about “are we doing this, or are we doing that or what’s going on.” He lets you know ahead of time that this person is probably going to play. We didn’t have that in the past, and it is nice to know when you are going to the game. Like today, with Kurt [Suzuki], he knew that he was likely going to catch so he could get ready, and we were told, look, you guys are probably going to get an at-bat, so it’s nice to know that.
All in all, I wouldn’t say it is too big of a change. It’s a little different without Ron Washington, but I think everybody really wishes him well with Texas – unless Oakland is playing Texas. But Schaef [Bob Schaeffer, the A’s new bench coach] is a good guy and he is very knowledgeable, and Ty Waller, we really have a lot of experience coming into the organization, so that is positive for everybody. I think Bob is going to do a great job as the manager and, obviously, we have Rene Lachemann, who is kind of the clown of spring training. He keeps it fresh, he keeps it fun. He’s got such a positive attitude and he is great to have around.
OC: I read that Mike Piazza had been sitting in on a lot of your catching meetings, even though he wasn’t taking bullpens and that sort of thing. Have you had a chance to pick his brain about his experiences behind the plate all those years?
JB: Yeah, he is in my defense group. It’s me, him, [Adam] Melhuse and Suzuki and he has also been down with us for all of the catching stuff that we’ve done, whether it be throwing, footwork or blocking, he makes it a point to go down there. He’s with us, he plays catch with us and he talks about things that work for him. The two guys I have had a chance to play with now, Frank Thomas and Mike Piazza – both Hall of Fame guys – it’s just amazing how open they are and how much they want to help out younger players.
It’s really cool for me to hear him tell stories about when he came up in the eighties and stuff that happened to him and we’ve been able to ask him all sorts of questions like “tell us what happened when Clemens threw the bat” and all of those things that I’ve seen growing up, watching him on TV. It’s just amazing to hear him talk about it first-hand. He’s really interactive with everybody. He doesn’t really seem to have any ego when it comes to who he is going to talk to and he’ll just talk to whomever is around him. He’s just a really nice guy.
It’s great having him and we have such a wealth of catching experience for us to learn from. Between him and Jason [Kendall] and Adam, as well, you’ve got three established major league players, one in the Hall of Fame and one maybe on the way, and to be able to learn from those guys is such a positive experience.
OC: How do you feel like you have progressed, now that this is your third major league camp? Do you feel like there has been a learning curve for you over the last two-and-a-half years?
JB: Yeah, definitely. I think that every year that comes I improve a little bit and I think that is what every player tries to do. I have also realized, too, that the first year [in major league camp] is really about getting over the shock of the whole thing, that you are sitting in the lockerroom and there is Eric Chavez and there’s Barry Zito, when he was with us, and there is Mike Piazza.
I got over the shock of that the first year, and then last year having some success and getting to play a lot, then you start to feel like maybe you belong here. Now coming back here a third time, I know everyone really well and it is a really comfortable atmosphere. The guys that we have in the major leagues really try to accommodate younger players and try to bring them in and really make them feel like part of the team. It’s really great for guys who are new to the organization, like Ryan Goleski and Donnie Murphy. You hear them talk about our major league players and how relaxed everyone is and they are shocked.
You know Goleski came from Cleveland where there are rules and everything is very strict and in Oakland everything is just so much more laid back and contusive to relaxing. You realize that you can become a better player when you can calm down and relax. I think I have taken that personally, too. Being out there now, I don’t have the same amount of butterflies that I used to because it is more of a routine now and I think that is a positive thing.
OC: You had a much better year offensively for Triple-A Sacramento last season as opposed to the year before. Was there anything that you worked on in the off-season to make those improvements?
JB: Last year, during the off-season and in spring training and during the season, I really give a lot of credit to Brian McArn, our hitting coach. When I was struggling a couple of years ago it was the first time in my life that I had really struggled, and you try to change things. I’m going to stand up taller or get down lower or I’m going to try put my hands there. He really did a good job last year keeping me using one swing, one stance, one set-up the entire season. I think that is a big part of it. A lot of people can be quick to try to adjust and they say that baseball is a game of adjustments. Well, you can kind of over-adjust yourself. I think that is what happened the year before. I learned last year to be patient and to try to stick with the same approach and the same swing and the same routine day-in and day-out and that is going to help me have success over long periods of time.
OC: I know you have had a chance to share time with Jeremy Brown over the course of both of your careers. Was it comfortable to have him on the same team last year since you have played so much together, or do you guys feel like it is going to be hard to distinguish between the two of you because you have traveled up the system at relatively the same pace?
JB: Jeremy and I are really close friends. I’d say that he is if not the best, he is one of my best friends in baseball. We always talk about how we want to be together. The whole time we were coming up, especially when we were in the low levels of the minor leagues, we would both get a lot of questions like “you guys are competing against each other and what do you feel about each other.” I told [Oakland A’s announcer] Robert Buan last year that when Jeremy got called up [to Oakland] that we have the kind of relationship where, yeah, everyone wants to get to the big leagues, and I wanted to get called up last year, but if there was one guy that I could say, “if not me, him,” it would definitely be Jeremy.
We have such a good relationship. We help each other out offensively, we are always hitting together early, and we always do our defensive stuff together and it great for me and him to be together, I think. And then you get a little bit of that competition with each other of “who did this yesterday” and “who did this today,” but it is all positive and it is all fun. We’ve never had any negative thoughts towards each other. We spent a lot of time together.
Yesterday, for example, after the day, we went and got haircuts and went to the mall. We hang out a lot, eat dinner a lot together, so it was comfortable for me to have him back on the team with me last year, somebody who has seen me have success and who is a positive influence around me.
OC: Have you been taking any groundballs at first base? I know that earlier in your career, you saw a little time over there.
JB: No, but I’ll always have that [ability to play at first]. I played first base in high school and then I played about 30 games at Double-A Midland at first. I remember the first game of the season in 2004, I got to the field and looked at the line-up and I was playing first base. I didn’t even have a first baseman’s glove [laughs]. I hadn’t taken a groundball in awhile either.
I haven’t taken too many groundballs [recently]. Although right now we are doing bullpen work during batting practice so there hasn’t really been time to take groundballs. Last year, I went out early with Wash and did some first base stuff. I think that once we get into the routine of games, I’ll get out there and take some groundballs.
OC: Has there been anyone who has stood out so far in the bullpen sessions, like maybe some of the young guys?
JB: Mike Mitchell, he’s got some phenomenal stuff. If he can harness it and throw strikes, he’s a guy who I think has a chance to be in the big leagues by the end of the year. He’s got a power arm and a lot of sink and a good attitude. I really see him being a major leaguer. Another guy who has really impressed me, and he’s been around for about 15 years, is Alan Embree. Just another guy who is willing to share with other players and is just a good guy all the way around. Also, just watching him throw – I got to catch him in a pitcher’s batting practice session where he threw – and just watching him throw, it was just incredible. How relaxed and easy he is and how hard he throws, it’s surprising the first time you see it.
OC: With him and Lou Merloni and Lenny DiNardo in camp, is it like a little Red Sox cabal in camp?
JB:[laughing] A little bit. Alan Embree was showing us his Red Sox World Series ring around the other day in spring training. It’s pretty fun to have Lou Merloni around. He’s another guy who has been around the block and he knows what he is doing. A funny story about Lou is that when I was in the Cape Cod League in college I made the All-Star team and we went down to Fenway Park. They had players who had played in the Cape League handing us plaques and we shook their hands. The guy who gave me mine was Lou Merloni. Seven years later, getting to talk to him, he and I had a laugh about that story. He’s another great guy to have around. We do have a little bit of that Red Sox lore floating around.
OC: Has it been different for the pitchers without Barry Zito there to kind of set the tone?
JB: I haven’t really noticed a big difference. The staff that we have is so strong and to lose someone like Barry, a former Cy Young winner who is a superstar basically, I think for a lot of teams would be devastating, but with this team, just with the young talent that Oakland has – Dan Haren, Joe Blanton – those guys are still young, and to have them – Rich Harden, as well – I think they’ll miss Zito a little bit with some of the stuff that he brought to the clubhouse, but I think those guys are all very capable of filling those shoes.
OC: What is your mindset coming into this season? You’ve been in Triple-A for the last couple of years now. Are you starting to get antsy at this point, or are you still on the path that you were hoping to be?
JB: I try to think short-term in baseball. The more I start thinking about where I am going to be and what is going to happen, those thoughts can kind of bring you down a little bit. You really have to think day-to-day because if you start looking at the big picture too much, it can be overwhelming. One of the main things that I try to remember is that when you are out there, you are playing for every other major league team.
I just want to go out and have a good showing in spring training and if I go to Sacramento, I go to Sacramento. And if something happens and I have to go to another organization, then that is the path that is supposed to be. When I start to worry about “I should be here, and this person should be there” it is an overwhelming feeling and that stuff is out of my control. What is out of my control, I really, really try not to even think about it.
OC: I know you have been very popular in Sacramento on the sports radio programs and that sort of thing. How has it been to play in Sacramento the last few years?
JB: I tell you what, for me, if not Oakland, then Sacramento is [a good situation]. My grandfather lives in Sacramento and my family is 70 miles away and my wife, Megan, can drive up on the weekends – she teaches first grade – and stay up for the whole time when we are there. It is a very comfortable feeling. Having been there for a couple of years, the way that organization is run is just incredible. It is so fan friendly, but it is also player friendly at the same time. It has been just an incredibly positive experience being in Sacramento and there is a real comfort level there.