15th of Jun | Story

Always warming up


PEARL, Mississippi | Todd Baker sits on a stool in the bullpen, ready for whenever his name might be called.

Originally an outfielder, he’s still getting used to watching the game from behind a fence in the outfield and not from the dugout. He has learned, though, that when the good Lord gives you an opportunity, you take it.

Baker endured seven major injuries — some arm, some leg, some hand — and a couple surgeries in three years. He left Bethel College with a degree in liberal studies and no chance for a professional baseball career.

“When you’re hurt, you either pout about it and get upset or, while you’re not playing, you focus on watching the game and learning,” Baker says.

He did the latter. He watched coaches and how they handled players and game situations. He studied the game from different angles – more than he ever could from standing in the outfield. That time and experience opened doors to coaching jobs for colleges and independent teams.

One day, when he was coaching for the Evansville Otters, both catchers were hurt. The manager pointed to Baker and told him to catch bullpen sessions. He strapped on shin guards and a chest protector, and popped a batting helmet on his head and a mask over his face. Then he crouched behind the plate for the first time in his life.

The pitching coach asked if Baker had ever thought about being a bullpen catcher. He hadn’t.

The idea came up again the next year, while coaching the Quebec Capitales. Coaching colleague Pierre Luc “Pete” LaForest, a former Big League catcher, suggested he become a bullpen catcher. Might be a fast track for him in professional baseball. 

Baker sent his resume to every Major League team that offseason. Most minor league teams don’t have a bullpen catcher on staff, so to get one of the coveted spots has a lot to do with connections. Baker is a good friend of Indians righty Justin Masterson, another former Bethel player. Cleveland called. 

“They gave me a chance to come out to minor league camp, spring training, to catch bullpens, set up all of the fields,” Baker says. “It was kind of an internship. They gave me a shot to be the bullpen catcher at High-A last year in Kinston.”

He returned this year to the Carolina Mudcats in Zebulon, North Carolina, where the former Kinston Indians moved during the offseason. Then Mississippi Braves manager Aaron Holbert, who managed Kinston last season, called Baker with an offer to coach and catch at Double-A.

Any given day, anywhere between one and four pitchers might want to throw, or work on pitches and grips and framing. During batting practice, Baker hits fungos and shags flies in the outfield. Then he goes to the cage and throws extra BP. During the game, he puts on his gear and catches every reliever before they enter the game.

“Being a bullpen catcher, you’re behind the scenes, nobody really knows about you, you do a lot of the dirty work,” Baker says. “You throw long toss if a guy wants to throw long toss, you’re catching pens all the time. I don’t look at it as being the low man on the totem pole. I look at it as an opportunity to serve, to serve for the pitchers, to help them get better and to take pride in my job.”

As Baker climbs through the ranks of minor league baseball, his job will develop into helping pitchers maintain their routine, rather than helping them find the zone. Once, he was warming up a pitcher who threw close to 100 mph, sometimes erratically. With the bullpen on the field, he lunged and blocked a warmup pitch that landed on the field during the game. Everyone in the stands cheered.

At 30, Baker is still a rock. He maintains his body as if he was still playing. Day after day of chasing balls out of the zone, popping up and squatting back down, throwing back to the mound hundreds of times — it all takes a toll on the body.

“You have to take care of your body,” Baker says. “If you lose your legs or if you get hurt, you don’t really tell anybody. They respect you, but you don’t want guys to know that you’re hurt or you’re having pain issues. You just bite the bullet.”

Baker’s goal is to catch in a Major League bullpen one day. Two years into professional ball, he’s two steps away. Just like a manager, there are only 30 spots available. Every day is filled with faith and hard work that he’ll be there one day.

“Every day, I get to come to the park and put on a uniform is a blessing from God,” he says. “I don’t want to take that for granted at all.”


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Time for minor league trivia. Prior to the Mississippi Braves moving to the Jackson area, the state’s capital city fielded a baseball team with this name nine different times between 1904 and 2005. What was the name? Another capital city currently fields a team with this name. (Keep reading for the answer.)

The Mississippi Braves fell, 6-1, to the Jacksonville Suns in a game with excellent starting pitching. Braves lefty Luis Avilan walked the game’s leadoff batter, who advanced to third on a fielding error and scored on a wild pitch. After settling down, Avilan allowed two hits and one more run over six innings but picked up his first loss of the season. A pair of singles and a bunt ground out in the seventh allowed the Braves to score their only run. The Suns answered by scoring four in the eighth inning off righty Brett Cammons.

How much has minor league baseball changed during the last three decades? General manager Steve DeSalvo started in the industry in 1981 and has been with the Braves organization since 1987. The overall concept of affordable, family entertainment hasn’t changed and probably never will, he says. What has changed, though, is the economics of minor league baseball. When he entered baseball in the early ’80s, he says he remembers that when a team changed hands, the new owner just took over the bills. “A lot of the operations were mom-and-pop,” he says. “Now a mom-and-pop couldn’t even think about buying a franchise. There is a wide array of franchise values from Rookie ball to Triple-A, but if you’re looking at an average franchise price, I would say anywhere from $14 to $20 million.” As franchises have become more corporate, the teams and industry have grown. “That is probably really good from just a common sense, liability standpoint, because I know there are some teams that still do some crazy things. But I think they do a lot less crazy things than they even used to.” DeSalvo isn’t talking about promotions. He’s talking operationally how teams were, and some still are, run. For instance, during one stretch of his career, the staff wasn’t allowed to leave for the night until a keg was tapped. He won’t name the team, though.

Want the answer? The Jackson Senators played in 1904, 1906-1908, 1912, 1923, 1925-1933, 1936-1942, 1946-1950, 1953 and 2002-2005. In the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, the team was mainly known as the Jackson Mets and Jackson Generals.

And in random statistical news, the game started four minutes late, the first pitch was a ball and, as mentioned before, the first batter walked and scored. A three-piece brass band played the national anthem in 1 minute and 13.4 seconds. For dinner, Matt ate wings and Carolyn had a salad. Kyle Tait, the voice of the Braves, made sure everyone in his radio booth ate ice cream during the sixth inning.

Carolyn@AMinorLeagueSeason.com ♦ @CarolynLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason 

Want to read stories about the other teams on our schedule? Click here and scroll to the calendar.