No-no hero Baxter tries to catch up in competition
Outfielder trails in 2013 spring battle after great grab in Santana's '12 milestone
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Johan Santana plans to commemorate his no-hitter with a gift. Santana is working with club photographers to commission some sort of painting or collage of his June 1 no-no, which he will distribute to every Mets player on the roster at the time.
One will go to Mike Baxter, who was otherwise uncompensated for the catch that saved Santana's slice of history -- at the temporary expense of his own career. The catch set Baxter back for months, displacing his collarbone and forcing him to endure weeks of pain, followed by weeks of rehab, then weeks of lingering discomfort.
Now he is left to fight for a job, already a tick behind Marlon Byrd on New York's depth chart.
"I never looked at it in terms of, 'Was it worth it or not?'" Baxter said, reflecting back on his catch and the aftermath. "The rehab took long. It was actually in tune with what the doctors said, but I had hoped it would have progressed quicker than it did. But I never really evaluated it on the scale of 'Was it worth it? Would I change it?' It was something that happened. I just had to deal with it."
Mostly, the catch was instinct. In the seventh inning, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina lined a shot to left, where Baxter took somewhat of an awkward route to it. At the last possible moment he thrust out his glove, snagging the ball as his momentum carried him to the fence. He crumpled.
"It was amazing," Santana said. "It wouldn't have happened if he didn't make that play, so it's going to be remembered forever. And especially the way everything ended up in that play, having him walking out of the field -- at the time, I didn't know what happened to him. But knowing that he was out of the game, I really appreciated his effort."
For two weeks, Baxter could not sleep in a bed. He chose a reclining chair instead. For another two weeks, he remained in pain. It was not until Baxter began a month-long physical therapy regimen that his spirits began to improve -- though in retrospect he admits that "I don't know if I ever got back to 100 percent."
For his efforts, Baxter only received a modicum of fame; just once outside the ballpark did someone recognize him. A jogger in Bayside, Queens spotted Baxter as he crossed the street, yelling something to the effect of: "Hey, Mike, great catch man! Great catch!"
That was it. Cooperstown never came calling, as it did for Santana. Neither did David Letterman. Santana never bought him a gift, but did voice his concern, querying trainers about Baxter's condition. Still, weeks after the catch, Baxter found himself in the same place he had been to start the season: relative anonymity.
"It was definitely a topic of conversation," Baxter said. "But day to day, nothing changed."
And so a year after reporting to camp as one of several candidates for a bench outfield spot, Baxter is again in Florida fighting for a job. He was the presumed favorite entering this spring, considering his success as a pinch-hitter early in 2012, his .323 average and .915 OPS at the time of his catch, and his .263/.365/.413 slash line by season's end. As recently as last week, manager Terry Collins talked about Baxter as a possible leadoff solution.
Days later, the manager addressed his starting outfield alignment more specifically, saying he considers Byrd the favorite to win the right-field job. With Lucas Duda entrenched in left and Kirk Nieuwenhuis a more experienced center fielder, that leaves Baxter on the competition's fringe.
"I'm still going to come out here like I need to make the team, because I do," Baxter said. "That's the reality. As much as we want to pretend it's not, the reality is that you have to come in and you have to perform day in and day out. Whether I'm fighting for a starting job or a bench job, I'm going to approach it the same way I did last year, and that's just to come in and play focused baseball."
The catch will need to become a distant memory.
"I definitely want to do a lot more with my career than just that," Baxter said. "With that said, it's still something that I look back at fondly, and I'm proud to be a part of that night with Johan. But I really hope that there's a lot more out there for me than just being a part of that one thing."
At the least, Baxter will soon have a tangible souvenir. Once Santana commissions his artwork, he will distribute a copy to everyone involved. Baxter should be first on the list, even if he insists he does not expect or deserve a gift.
"I'm not big on keepsakes," Baxter said. "I don't have a lot of stuff that I look back at and save. But it's in my head. I know it happened. I'll never forget the memory of it."