The 2007 season marks former Clemson baseball standout Jeff Baker's fifth in the professional ranks, but it could also be one that showcases the talented infielder/outfielder's versatility, as the Colorado Rockies look for him to be the ultimate utility player in the Mile High City this year.
Last year, which was his first season as an outfielder, Baker spent the bulk of his time in Triple-A Colorado Springs, where he hit .305 with 30 2B, 20 HR, 108 RBI. He also performed well in an 18-game stint with the Rockies late in the year, when he hit .368 with 5 HR, 21 RBI in only 57 at-bats. CUTigers.com caught up with Jeff during spring training for a chat recently and here is part of that exchange:
How do you look back on your time at Clemson?
Baker: For me, it was definitely a worthwhile trip down there for three years. We had some really great teams. In 1999, we were ranked No. 1 in the country and again in my junior year. We were one game away from going to Omaha. I made some great friends there. The coaches were great and helped us build that attitude to always play hard until the last out. I look back on some fun times and definitely enjoyed my time at Clemson.
How do you feel playing the ACC helped prepare you better for pro ball compared to other players who didn't face such high-quality competition?
Baker: It definitely did. That was one of the things about the ACC is that you're in one of the best, if not the best, along with the SEC, baseball conferences there is. You're going out there every weekend in conference, whether it's against some of the top schools in the conference like Florida State, Georgia State or Miami. Even the other schools that don't have the tradition of those schools still have quality arms. Facing that type of competition day in and day out definitely helps prepare you for pro ball. Up here, everyone throws a good breaking ball and things like that. The better competition you face, the better off you're going to be for it.
Is the Clemson/South Carolina rivalry, in your opinion, every bit as intense on the diamond as it is on the gridiron?
Baker: From sitting in the stands and watching the football rivalry, I think the baseball rivalry is just as intense. We don't have the 80,000-seat stadium that football has, but as far as program versus program and the competition between the two teams, that might be the best rivalry there is between the schools. I know football gets the most attention and garners a lot of the TV and media. I remember going out there and playing against South Carolina in the (College) World Series when we were No. 1 and they were third or fourth. When they come up here, both teams are always ranked. In my opinion, it's the best rivalry there is.
When Colorado took you in the fourth round of the 2002 June draft, is that about where you thought you would go?
Baker: It went well. There were a few things that we were looking for in my contract and a dollar amount we wanted, but we got all of those things. Some of the teams passed early on but we were still able to get what we were after. We were very happy with the financial bonus that I got. It was comparable to what a first-round pick got and that's what I wanted. It worked out well. They took Jeff Francis also in the draft in 2002.
Your big-league debut came in 2005. What do you remember about that day?
Baker: I was excited. I got a chance to play against the Padres. The way we won that game with Clint Barnes hitting a walk off home run is something that I will never forget. Being able to get my first big-league home run off Woody Williams (in that game) and helping to keep a rally going in the ninth inning off the best closer of all time in Trevor Hoffman is also something I will never forget. We were also able to go out there and beat (fellow ex-Tiger) KG's (Khalil Greene's) team and the Padres. So, it was good.
What is your role going to be on the Rockies this season?
Baker: I will bounce around numerous positions-left field, right field, third base and first base. I will try to get my at-bats when I can, make sure I'm ready when I get my opportunity and be prepared. I played outfield last year in Triple-A. So, I am pretty comfortable out there. I'm getting better and learning more each day. It's going well and the versatility is a plus for me. Being able to play in different spots gives our manager a lot of options. I feel like I can contribute no matter where I play. I'm in a good spot right now.
Last year, the Texas Rangers had a utility guy who had a great year in Mark DeRosa. He cashed in with a free agent deal in the offseason with the Cubs. Could something similar happen for you?
Baker: No one goes into baseball wanting to be a utility player, role player or someone who backs up guys or is part of a platoon,but you look around the league and (Chicago's Mark) DeRosa is a great example of a guy who is versatile. He played different positions last year. But when he went out there, he played well. He started to get extended at-bats because of guys getting hurt and also because he played well. He got an opportunity with another team (the Cubs) and is going to be their everyday second baseman. A guy like that is definitely an inspiration to me. It's not like if you're a backup, then you will be one forever. It's one of those things where you can go out there and be valuable to your team in a utility type role. You never know what could happen. You never hope that anyone on your team gets hurt, but there is always that possibility. When that does happen, you just have to be prepared. I won't be doing the Jose Oquendo thing and playing all nine positions in one game. If I have to go behind the plate and put on the catcher's gear, I won't be a happy critter. I remember catching one time in high school and it was a joke. The first time a foul ball went off my wrist or forearm, I knew that was enough for me.
Checking in with Jeff Baker
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