After a slow rise through the minors, John Baker(notes) joined the Florida Marlins in July 2008. He hit a home run in his second major league game and quickly established himself as the team's starting catcher. His fortunes turned sour in the 2010 season, when a lingering elbow injury eventually required Tommy John ligament replacement surgery in September.
We are humbled to host Baker's comeback story in an open-ended series of posts written by him.
The similarities end there.
I am a 30-year-old catcher, not the 22-year-old hopeful future ace of a pitching staff. I don't have a $15 million guaranteed contract, or a $100 million arm. Like Jake Taylor in "Major League" said, "I make the league minimum."
I batted seventh on my high school team. I walked on at Cal-Berkeley and earned a scholarship by my junior year. Baseball America named me the 13th-best draft-eligible catcher in NORTHERN CALIFORNIA in 2002. The A's took me in the fourth round. I was named MVP of my minor league team twice and was selected for four All-Star games (two at the Class-AAA level) before being called up. It took me seven seasons in the minors to make it to the big leagues.
I wouldn't have done it any other way. I worked as hard as possible and, because of that, when I step between the lines I am the best player I can be. My approach comes from my love for the game. It took me seven years to get here and I am not going away without a serious effort to return. It's that simple.
I remember like it was yesterday. I had gotten called up three days prior, but today — today was the day. Dodger Stadium sits up on a hill, like a castle. People have told me that baseball stadiums are cathedrals, but I beg to differ. To me, cathedrals are not imposing — they are inviting.
After the cab dropped me off and I managed to navigate my way to the actual field, I had my first real "Oh, s**t" moment in the big leagues. As I walked down the right-field line toward the visitor's dugout I looked up. Five decks. Five decks! I couldn't believe what it looked like from the field. It felt more like I was on a stadium tour as opposed to someone who would be playing in a game later that night. Before I went into the clubhouse, I turned to the right-field bleachers, closed my eyes and mouthed a silent curse at Kirk Gibson. Growing up in the Bay Area, I was (and still am) an Oakland A's fan. I still don't like Kirk Gibson.
The magic happened in my first at-bat. I had faced Chan Ho Park(notes) before in the minor leagues, but never in front of 55,000 people. I already had played in my first big league game at San Diego, but a day game there is nothing like a sold-out night game in L.A. The atmosphere was electric and I was high on the energy. I had gone 0 for 3 against the Padres and was still looking for my first base hit when I dug in for my first at-bat of the game.
I fell behind in the count quickly, 1 and 2. It was at that moment when I just gave in to the experience. I felt my pulse slow, and my vision seemed so clear, like switching from standard definition to HDTV. Park got his sign from Russell Martin(notes) and began his delivery. I can't explain how slow it all felt — I don't think the English language has a phrase for that feeling — but right after he released the ball, before I began to swing, I saw it happen.
Front-door sinker. Nice, easy swing. Perfect point of contact. Gone. First major league hit. A home run. I knew it was gone before it even left the bat. The baseball gods were rewarding me for all of the years in Sacramento, Albuquerque, Midland, Kane County and Vancouver.
Rounding the bases, I made sure to put my right foot in front of the left and not fall down. Have you ever realized what was going to happen, and then immediately not believed what had just happened? That was how I felt. I high-fived my way through the dugout and sat down in utter disbelief. Luis Gonzalez joked, "Nice swing kid — only 499 more!"
I just stared out, onto the field and toward the bleachers where Kirk Gibson broke my young heart. Amazed that 20 years later I was looking out into those bleachers with the same intensity — only this time the emotion was joy.
Another special thing happened that night, too. Our starting pitcher was making his first start after having Tommy John surgery some 11 months before. I knew the name, Josh Johnson(notes), but had only caught one of his bullpens in spring training. He was not at full strength at that time and I had no way of judging his ability.
But after he pitched that night, I knew two things: One, the surgery had worked for him. Two, this guy was really, really good. In fact, I commented to my wife later that night that it would be really tough to stay up with the Marlins if most of the pitchers at this level were like J.J. Thank God there are only about five others as good as him!
J.J. pitched well, the Fish won, and I ended up 2 for 5 with a homer and a double. I went back to the hotel and watched "SportsCenter" reruns until 5 a.m. I felt validated, satisfied and peaceful. After the birth of my child and my wedding, it was the best day of my life.
But little did I know then, that only 3 ½ years later I would also be looking to make a comeback from Tommy John. I had dreamed of playing Major League Baseball as a child. I dreamed the same dream as an adult playing my way through small towns all over our country. And as I fight back after this surgery, I find myself dreaming the same dream again.
Follow John Baker on Twitter — @manbearwolf — and follow Big League Stew all season for his inside look at what it's really like to be a baseball player rehabilitating from a serious elbow injury.