Here at the California Golden Blogs, we are always interested in learning more about every aspect of the UC Berkeley sports experience. There's certainly been a lot of talk about football, which is always exciting. But there are many other sports at Cal and many other stories to tell. Today, we'd like to tell the story of John Baker, former California Golden Bear and current professional baseball player with the Florida Marlins. We contacted Mr. Baker through a mutual friend and he was generous enough with his time to speak over the phone about a variety of subjects.
Not only is John a beloved Golden Bear, he is also a local boy made good. Here is some more information about him from his Wikipedia site:
He graduated from De La Salle High School (Concord, California) in 1999 before attending the University of California, Berkeley. As a junior in 2002, he led the Pac-10 with a .383 batting average and was selected to the All Pac-10 team.
In this post, John discusses growing up in the Bay Area, the process of picking Cal as his college, and life as a collegiate baseball player. In Part II, he will discuss professional baseball and some general thoughts. We are very excited to have this interview and again wish to thank John Baker for his time and effort. Please enjoy Part I of the interview after the jump. Also, here is Part II. GO BEARS AND GO MARLINS!
1. TwistNHook here with former California Golden Bear and current Florida Marlin John Baker. He was kind enough to sit down for an interview. Thanks so much, John. I have sort of sorted these thematically. I wanted to start with these at the start. What originally interested you in baseball?
I think it was a sport that I grew up playing as a kid. My dad played baseball and some of my earliest memories are of my dad playing softball as a kid in Walnut Creek, Ca. It was always a game I enjoyed. As I matured into adulthood, I realized it is the one game of the 3 major sports in the US that you can work hard at and become a good player and have a chance to play professionally. It is very difficult to work your way onto a NFL team. You have to be a great physical specimen. It is impossible to work really hard to become seven foot and play in the NBA. It was early childhood experience and then the idea that it’s more of a blue collar than the other games.
2. So your dad was the biggest influence on your game going up?
Ya, probably, he coached all my teams. I don’t know if it’s offensive to say on a Cal website, but my dad played baseball for Stanford.
3. Interview over.
My parents met at Stanford. My dad played baseball there and got drafted by the Phillies in the 5th round as a catcher as well. He always coached my teams, but never pushed me into playing baseball. It was always something I did on the side. I always focused on school. It was something I always enjoyed doing and he was the main influence on me as a kid.
4. So you grew up in WC?
5. Where I am calling you from right now. Anyway, was it your dad playing catcher that inspired you to play one of the toughest positions in baseball or were there other factors?
Oh, actually it was [Cal baseball coach] Dave Esquer. I signed up to go to UCLA and had got into the Honors Political Science program. I really wanted to major in Political Science and go to law school. Dave Esquer called me about a week before school started at Cal and told me that he had gotten the head job. He asked me if I was interested in playing college baseball. He had kinda followed my career. I had seen him at Stanford baseball camp and Pepperdine baseball camp. The only scholarship offer I had was as a relief pitcher. I didn't throw hard enough, just 82 or 83 mph.
He called me and said I think you have a good enough swing to play college baseball and how would you like to go to Cal and play. That was fantastic, as I lived 20 to 25 minutes away from Berkeley. I walked into his office and he said have you played catcher before? I said not really and he said well here's the gear, we'll teach you how to play catcher.
6. So Coach Esquer really helped you develop as a player? You feel like you owe him a lot?
He is the only person in college baseball that at the time had seen any potential in me, in my opinion. He is pretty much the only reason I went to Cal. He was the head baseball coach. The one thing that I really really appreciate about Dave Esquer is that he didn't ever do anything politically towards the players. He ran the best team on the field; the team that he thought had the best chance of winning. If you played better than the guy you were competing against, you played in the game. I really respected that out of him, it was very fair. He did not play into any of the political stuff that goes around. There is a lot of political stuff that goes on in baseball. He said he we are going to put the best team on the field that gives us the best chance to win. Because of that I got an opportunity to play.
7. Were there any other aspects to the recruiting process or was it you had this conversation with Coach Esquer. What other options were you considering? You said Pepperdine, were the minor leagues calling you?
No, no at all. Pepperdine was the only one who had any interest. I knew that I didn't have a chance to pitch. In high school, I was more concerned with school than with sports. I enjoyed playing baseball, being part of a team, working hard, working out, and doing all the stuff that it took to be an athlete. When it came down to it, I know that the slim chance of me making a career in baseball or any sport, it is very difficult. I did not really have any aspirations beyond playing high school baseball. It was a dream of mine to play college and in the big leagues. Without the opportunity at Cal, it would have never happened for me.
8. That sounds great. I have a bunch of questions here about the college years, so our readers can get a look into what it’s like to be a baseball player. What were the demands of being a baseball player? Did you feel like you dint have an opportunity to study what you wanted, because baseball took up too much time?
That was not really too much of a concern for me. What Cal has is the American Studies program. It becomes really difficult when it comes to your upper division classes. A lot of times those classes are in the afternoon. You go to Haas, you gotta take classes at 3:30 or 2 and that is when practice is. With American Studies, you can pick and choose the things you are interested in and form them into your own major. That was cool, because I could study the things I wanted to study. I kind of created my own business major there when I was there, which was interesting. I definitely enjoyed my classes. I did not feel like baseball got in the way. It helped in the sense that I had priority registration, which was a big deal in playing college baseball.
I could pick my classes before everybody else and manage my schedule the way I wanted to manage it. I didn't think it inhibited my study. I think the only thing that was difficult was that I felt some bias and prejudice from teachers and teachers’ assistants when it came to being an athlete. I think a few of them immediately assumed I was stupid, I wasn’t going to be able to hang in class and the only reason I got into school was because of sports. That was kinda frustrating, because I was always somebody who was a student first and an athlete second.
9. I can appreciate that, although I was more of a student first and an athlete 85th. That's neither here nor there. Can you take us through the daily life for the baseball player? When do you wake up? How much time do you spend on the practice field? What does a gameday look like?
Are you talking about college baseball or professional baseball?
Right now, just college baseball. For a Cal baseball player.
College baseball can be tough. When I played, we only played Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, so 4 games a week. You have an offseason and an onseason, obviously. When you get back from your winter break, you are back early, because you are practicing in January. Our season started at the end of January or start of February, I want to say. I think it starts a lot later now. The season has changed to allow the East Coast to catch up. We started pretty early, we were back early.
A typical day during the season, if we had a game on a Tuesday or a Friday, was wake up at 8:30 and go to class. Do the school thing first and make sure that you show your face in the class if they required attendance. Then, head to the ballpark. We didn't have lights at Cal, so all our games were at 1. You got that first class in and then you headed over to the ballpark for the little pregame routine. It was a talk about who was pitching against us, stuff about the other team. Then, get in the cage, taking batting practice on the field, taking our ground balls, taking infield practice and then play the game. It was like that every game we played with the exception of the weekend games, which are a little different, because you don't have class.
The offseason, it is a lot of practice. Go to class and get to the ballpark by 1 and usually leave at about 6:30 or 7. 4 times a week, we'd have morning weights. It was a big demand for time. At the same time, you really learn time management as a result. You have to learn how to prioritize and compartmentalize. It teaches you how to be an adult.
10. What was your favorite baseball moment at Cal?
Oh man. I think there are a couple that really stand out. I can remember my freshman year, we were playing at Stanford. I had gotten hurt my first game and I got to come back and play at Sunken Diamond. As a kid I had grown up going to Stanford football games and Stanford baseball games and being this huge Stanford fan. Coming in, I was DHing in the game and they called time out and they took out the starting pitcher.
They brought in a left hander to pitch to me. They walked the guy in front of me and brought in that left hander. I hit a double off of that guy. It was the first hit I got at that ballpark. It helped us win that game. Anytime we beat Stanford was always special to me. My sophomore year, definitely the greatest moment was finding out we had won a regional berth. We went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and played at Alex Puck Stadium. We played against Virginia Commonwealth and Minnesota. That was very big to me, because that is what you work for as a baseball player.
Sometimes the individual accomplishments, they don't last as long as the team thing. A few of the guys from the baseball team were in my wedding. Three of the guys in the baseball team were in my wedding. They will be my friends for life. I would say it is definitely the team stuff. I won the batting title for the Pac10 my junior year, but I kinda backed my way into it. Guys had a higher average, but they made the post-season and struggled, so it came down. I kinda found out like a month after the season was over that I had won the batting title. That was not as special to me as my sophomore year, going to a regional.
11. What was your general favorite moment, whether it was a sports or non-sports related moment or even non baseball related moment at Cal?
The stumpers, I know.
It is really tough for me to pick one. I would say that almost every day for me was so much fun. I had great teammates. I had great roommates. It is a time of my life that I can look back on and I have a smile on my face. We gave each other a hard time and played jokes on each other. Spending time with my roommates, who were Dave Weiner, Nick Medrano, Carson White, Andy Hnilo, and then the next year, Conor Jackson. All the time that we spent together, all the stupid stuff that we did, all the hard times we gave each other, it was so awesome and so much fun, it was a great memory.
12. Who was your favorite athlete that you hung out with at Cal? Whether it was on the baseball team or not.
Oh, it was definitely baseball players, we definitely hung out together. Guys kinda shifted in or shifted out. Guys graduated or got drafted. For me, it was probably Dave Weiner, Nick Medrano, two of the guys I played baseball with, three of the guys I lived with. Dave was the same year as me, so we were freshman together.
13. You said earlier that you felt like you were very much of a student first and an athlete second. Do you think that was typical of a lot of the student athletes you interacted with or atypical?
I think it was atypical. I think it was more typical for baseball, because we do not have a lot of scholarships in baseball. I think it is 11 and you have 40 guys on the team. Some of these guys you meet, they have a 1400 SAT score and a 4.7 GPA and all these AP units and they are guys on the baseball team. From the other encounters and I am not going to name names or other sports, but from other encounters I had with other athletes, they were solely there to play sports.
14. Bringing it to the present, do you follow Cal baseball and stay in touch with the people?
I work out in the off-season at Berkeley. Dave Esquer opens up the field for me and luckily for me there is a group of catchers that played at Cal that played pro baseball, Dylan Tonneson, Charlie Cutler, and the former catching coach lives in Santa Rosa and he comes down. We sit on the field and do all of our catching and defensive work in Berkeley. Tony Arnerich helps us out as well. I got a chance to meet Chadd Krist and work out with him a couple of times. I know he is having a great year this year.
I definitely stay around and follow the time. I am excited how well they have done this year and how well the conference has done. 8 teams in the post-season is something that is really exciting for the Pac10. It just shows the high level of baseball that is going on now.
"John Baker supporting the troops, abroad" via miamiherald.typepad.com
15. We will probably post this after this weekend, but how do you think Cal is going to do in the regional?
It is so tough. When you get 4 hungry teams, it is tough to predict. I would like to say that it is about time that we had a year where we had some breaks and some balls fell for us in the post-season. I am hoping they get out of the regional. It would be fantastic. It is my prediction and it is how I am going to be rooting.
16. I can't disagree with you on that. More generally, what are your thoughts on the direction of Cal baseball? They seemed to definitely take a step forward this year, although they have had some rough luck at the tail end of the year here. How do you ese it in 2011, 2012? Do you think any changes need to be made?
I know Coach Esquer has been a proponent of this for a long time, but I'd like to see lights at the diamond. We have built a beautiful hitting facility down the right field line. It is such a great ballpark and has such a great feel. Anybody who plays there as an opposing player, walks through the urban sprawl and see some of the stuff on campus and then gets to this gorgeous ballpark and goes this is so strange. In this industrial area, there is this beautiful baseball field. If they put lights there and had some night games, it would help the team. I know they have struggled on Fridays, because it is difficult to play at night if you have never practiced and have never seen baseball under the lights. That is the one improvement.
As far as the coaching staff, I am a huge fan of Tony Arnerich, a guy who is about my age, who came up in the minor leagues, and came up on different teams. He is a great catching coach and has done a great job as a hitting coach. Esquer gave me an opportunity to play college baseball. You will never hear me say a bad word about those guys. They've done a great job recruiting. You'll see all these guys in the big leagues, who these guys have recruited. Brennan Boesch. Tyson Ross. Me and Conor [Jackson]. There are a lot of Cal players playing in MLB and it is a testament to the program and the direction they are headed.
I cannot disagree with that. They have certainly had a lot of talent. I was going to switch gears and look at some of your experiences in the professional world, unless there is anything more you want to say about Cal.
I think we have covered it.
Well, then, let's move on to your thoughts at the professional level.
Many thanks to John Baker for his time and effort with this interview. Look for Part II in a few hours. GO BEARS AND GO MARLINS!!