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MINOR LEAGUES

Shouldering the Load

Three Surgeries Later, Baker Is Back in the Swing

May 22, 2000|CHRIS FOSTER

There were days Derek Baker thought he might never throw a baseball again. That his professional career, which had barely started, was already over.

But those days, Baker says with a sigh of relief, are over.

After undergoing three shoulder surgeries, he returned last season as a designated hitter for Charlotte, a Class-A team in the Texas Rangers' system. This season, he returned to the field as a first baseman.

"It is nice being back out there," said Baker, who was a third-round pick out of Rancho Santiago College by the Rangers in 1996. "The shoulder feels better than it has in a long time. It is still not 100%. But I can't complain because I'm back. Things are going pretty good."

Pretty good?

Baker had two doubles and a home run, driving in three runs, in Charlotte's 6-2 victory over Dunedin Tuesday. That type of performance is becoming common for him. He is hitting .330 with eight home runs and has driven in 40 runs to lead the Florida State League this season.

What's even better is he is back in the infield, playing first base three to four games a week.

"Fortunately, I don't make as many throws from first base, so I'm protected a little," said Baker, who was a third baseman at Tustin High and Rancho Santiago. "It took a little while to get used to first. The ball definitely comes off the bat differently on this side of the infield."

Baker was just coming into his own, hitting for average and power in 1997, when his first shoulder injury knocked him out.

He batted .355 in 20 games split between Gulf Coast, a rookie-league team, and Charlotte. But the pain Baker had been feeling in his shoulder beginning in spring training turned out to be a torn muscle. He had surgery and missed the remainder of the season. He re-injured the shoulder the following season and had two more surgeries.

"After I got hurt that second time, there was some doubt in my mind," Baker said. "I never questioned my ability. I wondered if my arm would ever get better so I could play again.

"I got depressed and frustrated. The support of my family was big. They were right there with me."

His confidence soared in late April last season, when he went on an 11-for-21 streak during a five-game stretch.

He hit .260 with seven home runs and drove in 55 runs for the season.

"The injuries forced me to grow up and look at things as they really are," Baker said. "I definitely appreciate this game a lot more than I did. I'm just happy to be playing at full capacity again."

FULL HOUSE

Baker and the Rangers got a treat Tuesday. They played before fans.

More than 800 students from a local middle school arrived by bus, bringing the attendance to 846 at Charlotte County Stadium.

Baker entertained them with his three-RBI day.

"Probably none of them noticed," Baker joked. "Still, it's nice to play in front of a big crowd, even if most of them aren't paying attention. It's nice to hear all the noise."

Well, until the ninth inning, when the buses took the kids back to school.

"When they left, the whole stadium fell silent," Baker said.

READY AND ABLE

Colorado Sky Sox pitcher Doug Linton seems back up to speed after throwing a two-hit shutout against Nashville on May 14. He struck out 12, didn't walk a batter and even drove home a run with a single in the fifth inning.

Linton, 34, played at Canyon High and UC Irvine. He was named the Pacific Coast League's co-player of the week. He was 2-0 with a 1.76 earned-run average and 17 strikeouts in two starts for the Colorado Rockies' triple-A team.

"I went to big league camp and was ready to go this spring," said Linton, who pitched for the Baltimore Orioles last season. "Then I got only 2 1/3 innings in four weeks. Last year, I threw 25 innings in camp with Baltimore. I came to camp in shape and was able to sustain it. This year, I didn't get any consistent throwing in game situations. I think I regressed."

Linton was 0-3 with a 5.40 ERA in his first five starts for the Sky Sox.

TRUE TO YOUR SCHOOL

Linton and Baltimore Oriole outfielder Brady Anderson are the only active players from Irvine's baseball program, which was dropped in 1992. But UCI students approved a referendum that will bring the program back in 2001-2002.

Linton and Anderson played together two seasons at Irvine but have had radically different pro careers. Anderson went on to fame and fortune with the Orioles after being signed by the Boston Red Sox. Linton, who underwent shoulder and elbow surgery, is with his eighth organization.

"We're the surviving two," said Linton, who was 1-4 and had a 5.95 ERA in 14 games with the Orioles last season. "Brady and I talked a lot about old times last year. We were both following the vote to bring the sport back.

"It just didn't make any sense for a Southern California university to not have a baseball team," Linton said. "I'm happy they're bringing it back."

But don't look for Linton to apply for the Anteater pitching coach job any time soon. He plans to pitch as long as possible.

"If I'm not embarrassing myself on the field, I'll continue to play," said Linton, who has a 17-20 career record in six major league seasons. "Hopefully, I can get back to the big leagues."

WHO'S HOT

Third baseman Tony Zuniga (Saddleback High/Santa Ana College) highlighted a three-run 10th inning with a two-out, two-run double to lead double-A Shreveport (San Francisco Giants) past Wichita, 5-2, on May 14.

Second baseman Pat Manning (Mater Dei High), for Class-A Macon, had an RBI double with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat Augusta, 6-5, Tuesday. Manning was a third-round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves last June.

Mike Robertson (Servite High) singled home the game-winning run in the ninth inning for New Orleans (Giants) in a 5-4 victory over Iowa Thursday. Robertson also had a two-run double in the first inning.

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