Baker thankful for father's commitment
Former Army Lieutenant Colonel always found time for son
The advice usually comes in the form of a text message, sent before each Rockies game. But Larry Baker, a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel, decided it was better spoken to his son over the phone.
Rockies second baseman Jeff Baker was feeling down as he headed to Wrigley Field. He was at the tail end of an 0-for-13 slump over an eight-game stretch. The words may have been the same ones he's heard from his dad his whole life, but he really needed them.
"Just playing hard and having fun -- the same as back in the day when I was a little kid," Baker said, smiling. "Sometimes I think I might lose sight of that."
It took Baker -- who will share more warmth and memories with his dad on Father's Day -- back to his elementary school days, when his dad taught him that lesson on a ball field in an odd place to have a ball field.
That was about the time for Jeff to begin playing tee ball.
For background, Larry Baker was a good enough athlete to play catcher at West Point in 1971 and 1972 until a knee injury forced him to concentrate solely on academics. But he never lost his love for baseball, and Jeff adopted it.
Larry remembers Jeff being a Cub Scout when the family lived in West Point. There was a softball throwing contest.
"He was getting ready to throw and they had some people in front of him ready to catch it," recalled dad, now living with his wife in Montclair, Va., about 25 miles outside of Washington, D.C. "He turns to me and says, 'They're too close.' I said it'll be OK.
"Then he says, 'Should I go ahead and crow-hop, then throw. At that point, the people there got the message and moved back."
Larry Baker knew he couldn't let being in the Middle East keep his son from a game he already loved.
Other children of base personnel had children who either were interested in the sport or simply wanted a nice outdoor activity. So dad helped spearhead a tee ball league. It turned out to be a blast.
"That was great," Larry Baker said. "There was a small group of children whose parents were stationed over there, and there were Arabic kids that were excited to learn something new -- they had heard about baseball and were somewhat familiar with it, but they wanted to learn how to play it. So we started a league, and made sure mom had the treats after the game."
Summer day games were out -- it was often 115 degrees in the morning, hotter in the afternoon. What's considered the winter, when it was 75, was more like baseball weather. During the Muslim observance of Ramadan, such activity was forbidden when the sun was up. But the Bakers said the league worked around such conditions. Not being able to run down to the sporting good store for a fashionable baseball uniform, Jeff Baker recalls the team being outfitted in Jams -- baggy casual pants that came to about the calf.
Jeff Baker's skills were beyond those of his friends. He ended up playing first base -- a spot he has filled sometimes at the Major League level -- because he was about the only one who could catch a thrown ball. So even at such a young age, he had developed a seriousness that would serve him well in the future.
But his dad emphasized fun. And one day when he looked around the field, he couldn't help but realize that his dad was right in saying the game was supposed to be fun.
"I'd look over, I can't remember if it's left or right field, and they're out there making sand castles in the outfield with their backs turned," Baker said, laughing. "In tee ball, the coaches and everyone are all out there on the field. It was kind of funny that those kids eluded their radar, flopped on the ground and started playing in the sand out there.
"One thing I always give both my parents is no matter where we were, they never made excuses about playing athletics. My dad could have said, 'Hey, my military commitments are this. We don't have a whole lot of time, please understand.' But they always went out of our way to make sure we had an opportunity to play sports."
Jeff Baker would be coached by his dad much of his life. At Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge, Va., his father served as assistant coach. By the time he retired from the Army, where he ended his career specializing in nuclear weapons and air defense, he joined the faculty as a teacher of computer science and computer math.
It helped Baker, who without prompting would strictly call his dad 'Coach Baker' at the field, realize that there was more to life than athletics. He also admired that his dad didn't just center on him.
"It's pretty cool to know that it was not only what he was teaching me, but what he taught the other guys helped them," Baker said. "A lot of us went on to play in college."
Larry Baker continues to teach, but he gave up coaching a few years ago. It allowed him and his wife to travel to Jeff's games at Clemson, where he set the all-time school record with 59 home runs, as well as to games in the Minors and, now, the Majors.
Baker, who spent part of his share of last season's playoff money on a new car for mom, appreciates dad's presence and advice.
"That means a lot," Larry Baker said. "I text message him before every game and after every game. Sometimes it's not fun when you're struggling, up there fighting it, thinking too much. It's easier when he can put it out of his mind and just enjoy himself."
In Baker's next start after his conversation with his father from Chicago, he blistered the Cubs by knocking doubles on four consecutive at-bats. No Rockies player had ever had four two-baggers in a game, and he tied a Major League record by doing it in four consecutive at-bats. His next two hits would be his first home run of the season and another double.
It was almost as if he was back in the Middle East, learning to love the game. All that was missing was outfielders making sculptures on the warning track.
"I'd look around and go, 'Am I on the right field?'" Baker said, enjoying the memory.
Thanks to his dad, anytime there are balls, bats and gloves involved, Baker is in the right place.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.