Mark From Gastonia, famed longtime caller to WFNZ sports-talk show in Charlotte, dies

Mark Baker, who became a cult figure as a regular caller to Charlotte sports-talk-radio station WFNZ and achieved legendary status in Charlotte sports circles as he dealt with serious health problems, died on Sunday evening. The man much better known as “Mark From Gastonia” was 54.

His mother, Elizabeth Baker, said the family didn’t know the official cause yet, but Mark Baker had been ailing since February, when doctors discovered the recurrence of a serious heart condition along with cancer in his stomach.

In the days and weeks following his diagnoses, the longtime caller to 92.7 WFNZ’s “Mac & Bone” morning show was transformed into a minor social-media star for being on the receiving end of dozens of video messages featuring well-wishes from an array of increasingly famous current and former sports figures.

“Hang in there, big fella. Do the best you can every day, try to do it again tomorrow,” Hall of Fame basketball coach Roy Williams said in one, before deadpanning: “But take care of those guys on the radio station, ’cause there’s no telling how bad their ratings would be if you were not calling in.”

The viral effort to get notable athletes and coaches to record messages for Baker — led by “Mac & Bone” co-host Travis “T-Bone” Hancock, who over the years had become a personal friend of Baker’s — also yielded contributions from legendary former Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, and former Carolina Panthers Greg Olsen, Luke Kuechly and Christian McCaffrey.

“Mark From Gastonia,” in fact, was not originally from Gastonia but rather Virginia, born into a military family stationed at the time at Fort Lee (now Fort Gregg-Adams) in the city of Petersburg.

Shortly after his birth, his parents were told their new son had two holes in his heart, and that he wouldn’t live to be six months old. That turned out to not be an accurate forecast. At age 5, not long after the family settled in Gastonia, he underwent successful surgery on his heart at Duke University Hospital to repair its holes. He went on to graduate from Robinson Elementary School, Grier Middle School, and Ashbrook High School.

Despite his parents’ longtime allegiance to Florida State, Baker had been faithful to the University of North Carolina Tar Heels’ basketball and football programs since childhood. He also was an O.G. fan of both the Carolina Panthers and the Charlotte Hornets.

It’s not exactly clear when he started listening to WFNZ, but the best guess is mid-2000s.

Over the past decade or so, the “Mac & Bone” show was responsible for helping elevate “Mark From Gastonia” to near-legend status among its listeners by incorporating him into regular segments; for a time, Baker was their “Panther Friday Pep Talk Guy.” He became as notorious for his distinctive Southern drawl as he did for his ridiculous, pot-stirring hot takes.

‘Mark From Gastonia’ became a fixture on WFNZ show. Will he get to call in one more time?

“He always wanted to be famous, and without even realizing it himself, he became famous in his own world,” WFNZ’s Hancock told the Observer in March. “He became famous with those that know him. He never became ‘American Idol’-famous, but he did — in his own way — accidentally back into his own fame. ...

“He kind of accomplished his goal without ever really doing anything,” Hancock said, laughing.

In addition to all the video messages, Baker received jerseys with “MFG” embroidered on the back from all three of the city’s major pro sports teams — the Panthers, the Charlotte Hornets and Charlotte FC. Among other public appearances, he was recognized last month at the UNC Charlotte football team’s spring game, as well as at a Kannapolis Cannon Ballers game.

“You have no idea how happy ... the community made his last days,” Elizabeth Baker said in a text message to the Observer on Monday morning. She added that “he was in no pain” when “he passed quietly, in his sleep, at home” — which indeed was in Gastonia.

Twelve days before he died, from a wheelchair, Baker threw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Charlotte Knights minor-league baseball game at Truist Field.

“Live life in the moment,” he told the Observer in March, from his ICU room at Gastonia’s CaroMont Regional Medical Center. “Don’t take it for granted. Just live it. Don’t let people tell you what to do. Don’t let nobody tell you how to be. Be yourself. That’s how I lived my life all these years.

“Just live in the moment — and have fun.”