Multiple reports to the contrary, Mike Baxter isn’t going anywhere. He remains a New York Met in the hearts and minds of Mets fans everywhere. He’s simply moving off the 40-man roster and out of the organization while he continues to pursue his baseball-playing career. Surely, it’s a temporary arrangement.
All teams are compelled to straighten out the edges of their personnel charts this time of year. It’s what we used to call agate-type stuff, real small print in a box on the pages with the playoff line scores, the football point spreads and the nascent hockey standings. In October 2005, for instance, the Mets shed themselves of Brian Daubach, Eric Valent and Manny Aybar, all of whom had played for the team that year, none of whom figured to be missed. In the weeks following the 1996 season, the Mets bid official adieu to the likes of Kevin Roberson, Chris Jones and Bob MacDonald. It’s nature’s way — the thinning of the herd. It happens every fall.
In October 2013, the Mets lopped off their 40-man roster Sean Henn, who won a walk-on role in September through some kind of MLB contest, I believe. They removed Greg Burke, the submarining equivalent of a piece of celery (think of those Budweiser commercials that suggested how many Buds could be exchanged for good deeds; giving your pal the last Buffalo wing on the plate was worth one Budweiser, while saving him the piece of celery was worth nothing). They waived Robert Carson, possessor of youth, a live left arm and a ledger indicating 19.2 innings pitched and 9 gopher balls delivered. The Angels claimed him. Carson was a likable kid who produced more runs per at-bat than any Met; too bad he produced them from the mound. May the Angels smile on Robert Carson.
And within this blizzard of necessary clerical work, the Mets waived Mike Baxter. Maybe someone would take him. Maybe someone wouldn’t. Guys get through these waivers all the time and wind up back in Spring Training with the team that waived them in the first place. But Mike Baxter didn’t. The Los Angeles Dodgers, busy competing for the National League pennant, scooped him up. Though they can’t do anything with him until 2014, perhaps they thought the news would unnerve the St. Louis Cardinals, who experienced first-hand the best Mike Baxter had to offer. Or perhaps they’re just good at multitasking and envision having room for the proverbial veteran lefthanded bat off the bench next year.
Good teams have that kind of flexibility. When Mike Baxter was an infant in Whitestone, Rusty Staub filled exactly that role for a Mets club that won 98 games. The Mets for whom Mike Baxter rooted as he matriculated through Archbishop Molloy High School kept Matt Franco around mostly to pinch-hit. He contributed to two consecutive playoff berths. The Mets Mike Baxter grew up to join could brook no such luxury, not for a guy who would maybe get a big hit (but hadn’t lately), not for a guy who couldn’t do a whole lot else (though once he did something enormous).
The Mets had no room for .189-0-4 or .189/.303/.250, depending on how you like your stats expressed. There were no numbers that made Mike Baxter look good in 2013. And he’d already made his once-in-a-lifetime catch.
Too often as the Mets’ 2013 faded like Marty McFly’s siblings in that family picture he carried around in Back To The Future, the present-day Mike Baxter disappeared in our midst even as he became something akin to ubiquitous. Out of nowhere he was the starting right fielder in five of the Mets’ final six games. This was the time of the season when we are conditioned to want to see our perennial noncontender play The Kids, whoever a given year’s version of The Kids happen to be. Mike Baxter wasn’t one of them in 2013, not at age 28, not lingering below .200 in batting average and nowhere near .300 in slugging percentage. The man who once drew five walks in a single game wasn’t even getting on base incidentally in 2013, and it was impossible to not notice that after the May homestand during which he drove in two giddy walkoff runs, he hadn’t accumulated a single RBI…not one.
So you’d see Baxter in the lineup five times in the final six games and you weren’t heartened. You wanted to know why den Dekker wasn’t in right. Or why den Dekker wasn’t in center and Lagares wasn’t in right. Or where the next Darryl Strawberry was coming from and when was he gonna get here? We were sure we had seen enough of Mike Baxter to last a lifetime.
Which wasn’t quite accurate, because there’s a moment of Mike Baxter we could spool up daily from here to eternity and never get tired of looking at.
The Mike Baxter of the present couldn’t compete with the players — real or conceptual — who we conceived of as having a future. And it wasn’t fair to have that Mike Baxter obscure the Mike Baxter of the recent yet undeniably distancing-itself past. For the best interests off all concerned, today’s Mike Baxter had to become a former Met. The more we watched ordinary, limited-tool Mike Baxter struggle at the plate, the more we were forced to rue that the Mets were forced to rely on this Mike Baxter. This Mike Baxter should have never been allowed to interfere with the Mike Baxter we cherish.
Mike Baxter, age 12, probably thrilled to Dave Mlicki’s shutout at Yankee Stadium in the first Subway Series showdown. Mike Baxter, age 13, probably cringed when Dave Mlicki reverted to the Dave Mlicki whose pre-June 16, 1997, track record made June 16, 1997, so unexpected. Fourteen-year-old Mike Baxter likely screamed himself hoarse when Matt Franco came through in the bottom of the ninth off Mariano Rivera on July 10, 1999. How attached he remained to the same Matt Franco as Matt Franco grew less productive pinch-hitting is a matter of conjecture, but given that he was a Mets fan, he was probably less concerned about maintaining a shrine to one great day versus trying to win the game at hand.
Mike Baxter, Mets fan from Whitestone, would probably understand that the Mets fans from all over who never got to be Mets ultimately veer to the transactional in their thinking. We’d love to have a team deep enough to reserve a spot for a lefty-swinging specialist who could hone his craft down in the cage for seven or eight innings, be called on late and deliver the big hit again and again and, oh by the way, made June 1, 2012, possible. But we know we don’t have that kind of team and that if Mike Baxter stuck around and made the Mets in 2014, it would be more an indictment of the Mets’ lack of depth than an affirmation of Mike Baxter’s skills.
I can’t speak for Mike Baxter from when his association with the Mets was solely that of fan, but I never liked having to view Dave Mlicki or Matt Franco as just players — and not particularly good ones — once they gave me memories I’d be savoring for the rest of my days. I wasn’t all that sorry to see Dave Mlicki traded to the Dodgers in 1998 or Matt Franco granted free agency in 2001. But their departures hastened the chaff tumbling away from the wheat of their singular moments. They’re not the guys who were regularly getting rocked by the Astros and Brewers or popping up with runners on. They are now and forever the guys who beat the Yankees in dramatic fashion. That’s all they have to be.
Mike Baxter? He tracked a deep drive off the bat of Yadier Molina, he followed its tricky trajectory, he reached out, he grabbed it and he hurled himself into a wall at great risk to his physical well-being to hold onto it, all to preserve what soon became the First No-Hitter in the history of the team that was his long before he donned its uniform.
That’s our Mike Baxter. No further embellishment is necessary.