Mike Baxter’s still getting used to playing baseball in Albuquerque.
Isotopes Park, with its spacious dimensions, unique berm, high elevation and frequent gusty winds, is a new experience for the ‘Topes outfielder.
“It’s not an easy outfield,” Baxter said.
If anyone can adjust, it’s Baxter. After all, this is a guy who’s played baseball on four continents, to say nothing of his stints with nine minor league clubs and the major league San Diego Padres, New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers.
At 29, Baxter’s been around a few basepaths.
But even if he’s the senior member of the Isotopes’ outfield, Baxter is far from a grizzled veteran on the downside of his career. Instead, Baxter’s playing the type of inspired baseball that may force the Dodgers to take another look.
After going 1-for-4 in the Isotopes’ 6-4 home loss to Fresno on Saturday night, Baxter is hitting .328. In 16 games he has 20 hits, including four triples and two home runs. One of the long balls plated the tying run in the ninth inning of an extra-inning win.
“He’s been outstanding here,” ‘Topes manager Damon Berryhill said of Baxter. “He’s been a starter on big league teams, and he came here with a great attitude wanting to play. The effort’s great, and he’s done everything well.”
Baxter discovered a long time ago that playing hard can have benefits. As a teenager in his native New York, he earned spots on traveling teams that played in Japan and Italy.
“I remember Tokyo was extremely clean,” Baxter said, “and Italy was beautiful. Nice baseball tour, but I was like 13 when I went to those places. I wish I remembered more.”
More vivid in Baxter’s memory is growing up just blocks from Shea Stadium and later Citi Field, which provided easy access to his favorite major league team.
“I was a big Met fan as a kid,” Baxter said. “I went to games all the time.”
Years later Baxter would play a role in Mets history, but not before playing college ball at Columbia and later Vanderbilt. He was drafted by the San Diego Padres in 2005 and spent the next few years climbing the organizational ladder.
After a Triple-A stint with Portland (he played one three-game series in Albuquerque), Baxter got his first major league call-up in September 2010 with the Padres and got his first big league hit off Cincinnati’s Francisco Cordero. He also played with the Padres in an exhibition series against the Chicago Cubs in China.
But Baxter’s best moments to date came with the Mets, who claimed him off waivers in 2011. He was called up in August and hit a double in his first at-bat, aiding New York in a come-from-behind win.
“That was an awesome feeling,” Baxter said. “What a blast.”
His New York tenure got better and worse all in one day the following season. On June 1, 2012, Baxter made a highlight-reel catch while crashing into the fence in a game against the St. Louis Cardinals. Turned out it would help preserve a no-hitter for Johan Santana – the first no-hitter in Mets history.
“Growing up a Met fan, I knew they’d never had one,” Baxter said. “It was fun to be a part of history and to help Johan get it. It was a great night.”
Great but painful.
On that same memorable catch Baxter fractured ribs and tore a muscle in his shoulder. He spent the next eight weeks on the disabled list.
“Injuries are just part of the game,” Baxter said with a smile and a shrug. “At least mine came in a good cause.”
Baxter remained with the Mets organization through an up-and-down 2013 and was claimed off waivers by the Dodgers in October. It wasn’t necessarily what he expected.
“At first I was surprised,” Baxter said, “because the Dodgers have All-Star outfielders everywhere. But then I thought about how I can help a team win, by being a good bat off the bench. That’s what I’m trying to provide.”
Baxter made the Dodgers’ Opening Day roster and joined he team on its trip to Australia.