At the moment David Freese flailed at a last changeup, Mike Baxter was in the bowels of Citi Field, not alone but not with his team, resting on a training-room table and watching on television as the Mets mobbed Johan Santana on the field above.
That was eight years ago, on June 1, 2012, when Santana pitched the first no-hitter in the Mets’ 51 seasons of existence. Baxter provided a critical assist: a hit-robbing, body-risking catch in the seventh inning. His reward? A displaced right collarbone and fractured rib cartilage — and missing the initial celebration.
“I probably don’t regret that,” Baxter, laughing, said by phone in a recent interview with Newsday. “I wasn’t in great shape. I didn’t particularly want to be running into a dogpile.”
Baxter then was a Queens native lighting it up for his hometown team, a 27-year-old rookie finally getting an extended chance in the majors. He now is the hitting coach and recruiting coordinator for Vanderbilt, his alma mater, living in Nashville with his wife and their children.
Every once in a while, he relives his brightest moment in the spotlight. “It doesn’t necessarily feel like it was super-long ago,” he said. “It just feels like a different life.”
Every no-hitter, it seems, has that one signature defensive play. This one came with one out in the seventh inning. When Yadier Molina hooked a 3-and-1 fastball deep to left, Baxter had it the whole way, he said.
“As an outfielder, you generally know if it’s catchable or not catchable, right?” he said. “As he hit it, I see it off the bat, it’s catchable and you’re going to give your best effort going after it.”
Said former Mets manager Terry Collins: “Unbelievable. Spectacular. Spectacular catch.”
But by the time Baxter made the catch, maybe two steps shy of the wall, he was off balance. He had no shot at stopping or even bracing himself. He crashed into the wall at full speed, shoulder first. “I lost control and just couldn’t slow down or do a little jump into it or hit it at a better angle,” he said. “For whatever reason, I couldn’t get my feet there. That’s when I ran out of space.”
Watching from the stands along the first-base line was Ray Baxter, Mike’s dad, who never missed a home game when his kid played, always making the short drive from Whitestone.
The elder Baxter had a special appreciation for the Mets’ no-hitter drought. He was 6 when the Mets played their first season in 1962, and as a child he idolized Tom Seaver, who carried no-nos into the ninth three times with the Mets.
To watch his son make that play under those circumstances? “Sitting there being a parent was probably one of the greatest experiences,” Ray Baxter said. “For let’s say 30 seconds, you’re at the highest of highs. Then all of a sudden, your son is laying there on the ground. The highest of highs turns into the lowest of the lows.”
Mike Baxter gingerly walked off the field to a standing ovation. X-rays were negative. The Mets’ medical personnel determined that it was not an emergency, which meant that — despite the pain and an inevitable trip to the disabled list — he would be OK.
The car ride
Ray drove Mike home to his Long Island City apartment after the game. Mike can readily recall Ray noting his son’s new permanent place in the lore of their favorite franchise.
No matter what happens during the rest of his career, father told son, he was a part of history now. He will always have this.
The younger Baxter, hoping he was at the beginning of what would be a long stay in the majors, didn’t want to hear it.
“That’s the gist,” Ray said. “All throughout Michael’s career, we’ve had conversations like that. He was never touted as being the best player on the best team. We would always have good talks about life, good talks about how work ethic is important, setting goals and preparing yourself for life. Whether it’s sports or something else, you have to work hard at it.”
Mike said: “I remember that conversation] because when you’re on the outside, you probably have a greater perspective of these little defining moments in a career. He was always in the moment. He was very aware of how special these days were together.”
The catch and collision seemed to alter the course of Baxter’s season and maybe his career. To that point, he was hitting .323 with a .523 slugging percentage, playing well enough to earn a regular spot in the lineup by late May. Upon his return two months later, he batted .228 and slugged .351. He never again found that degree of success.
“I can’t sit here and tell you that’s why I never carved out a regular role in that league,” Baxter said. “Obviously, when you do look back at moments, it is a checkpoint where you say, wow, after that, I didn’t really perform at maybe the level I had prior to that. Physically, I felt like I returned to a playable strength and returned to full strength definitely for the next season. But yeah, I never really played at a high enough level to stay in that league again. And that’s too bad, but that’s just what it is.”
Baxter stayed with the Mets until the end of the following season, then bounced from the Dodgers to the Cubs to the Mariners.
He wound up playing a dozen professional seasons, including parts of six in the majors.
“If you would have laid it out, I would have signed up for my career every day of the week when I was 15, taking the 7 train to [Archbishop] Molloy,” Baxter said, referencing his Queens high school. “[The catch] didn’t affect my life in any way other than sharing experiences with the people I love and having a cool story and being a part of a very special night.”