Rookie Development Program A Big Hit For Baker

In early January, a group of roughly 90 minor league prospects converged on the Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, Virginia, for the annual Major League Baseball Rookie Career Development Program. recently caught up with A's catching prospect John Baker, who was one of four A's prospects to attend the four-day program.

The MLB Rookie Career Development Program is an annual program designed to prepare a group of major league-ready prospects for life in the Big Show. The players attended breakout sessions and lectures on a variety of topics, including dealing with family pressures, handling personal finances and the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

"It dealt with a lot of issues I had never really thought about before," A's catching prospect John Baker said. "[The program experience] is like a little window into the future. You find out all of the things you are going to have to deal with [as a major leaguer] relationship-wise, things that you'll see on the road, burdens that will be put on your family, pressures of your job, etc. It gave me a chance to figure out how I would handle situations like that if they come up."

There was also a particular focus on player-media relations throughout the program. A number of sports media personalities were on hand to give guidance on how to deal with the media, including ESPN media personality Jayson Stark.

"It really showed the human side of the business," Baker said. "They also gave us a lot of pointers on what not to say [to the press] and ways not to handle yourself. They really stress that the media is your only outlet to your fanbase and to the public, so if you come off like a jerk in your interviews, everyone is going to think that you are a jerk -- even if you are a really nice guy. So they focused on teaching us how to say the right things."

Throughout the program, the prospects were broken down into small groups led by former Major League baseball players, including Bobby Bonilla, Dave Valle, Bob Tewksbury, Jim Poole and Billy Sample. Poole was the leader of Baker's smaller group.

"[Poole] was a great resource. He was really down to earth and really intelligent. Sometimes we didn't know how to react to the session we had just attended and he was really great at facilitating the discussion and drawing out a lot of questions about the topic," Baker said.

Baker was one of three A's prospects chosen by the organization to attend the seminar. Relievers Chris Mabeus and Huston Street were also sent to Virginia. Generally, the teams choose to send prospects they feel are closing in on making their major league debut or are coming off of a September call-up and are expected to be on the 25-man roster in the spring.

"It was exciting [to be chosen to attend the program] and what it might mean [about my future]," Baker said.

"It is still the kind of thing where I am trying to get the most out of the opportunity and I try not to read any implications into my presence there because if I start looking too far into the future, then I can't focus on what it takes to get there. I think baseball is something that I have to take one day at a time to improve and put myself in the right situation so hopefully I can [get to the majors] as quickly as possible. "

The Atlanta Braves sent their former prospect Dan Meyer, whom the A's acquired in the Tim Hudson deal in late December, to the program, as well, upping the A's contingency to four players. While Baker spent most of his time with 2004 teammates Street and Mabeus, he did catch up with the new A's southpaw on the last day of the program. He had a chance to answer some of Meyer's questions about the A's organization and to give him some tips about living in California, a state that Meyer has never been to.

Baker got a glimpse of the big league life from some of the other participants in the Development Program, as well. He caught up with fellow prospects Chris Burke (Houston) and Josh Kroeger and Chris Snyder (Diamondbacks), all three of whom made their major league debuts at the end of the 2004 season. Baker, who has competed against all three during his minor league career, said he enjoyed the opportunity to find out more about the major league experience.

"I was asking them all sorts of questions, like how they overcame their initial nervousness and how they handled themselves in the locker room," Baker said.

Baker was able to learn what it was like to be a semi-regular player from the two Diamondbacks, both of whom got a lot of playing time at the tail-end of Arizona's miserable 2004 campaign.

"They said that you eventually find out that when you go out there, you are just playing baseball. If you can focus on your job and ignore all of the hype around you, you are going to do much better," Baker said.

Burke, who played on the Wild Card Houston Astros, had a different September call-up experience.

"He got to sit in the dugout and watch guys like Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell and see how they handled themselves after tough at-bats and he learned a lot about being a professional and being a major league baseball player from watching them," Baker said.

The program wasn't all seminars and role-playing sessions, however. The players also got a glimpse of the nation's capital and the inner-workings of the federal government. The players went on a tour of the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol (including a trip to the Senate floor), and they had the opportunity to chat with North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad, a life-long baseball fan. Later, the players were treated to a dinner with a number of senators, where Connecticut Senator and former Vice Presidential candidate Joseph Liebermann gave the keynote address.

Baker said he hopes to apply what he learned at the program when he heads to Arizona for Spring Training. Although A's pitchers and catchers are not required to report until February 19, Baker intends to head to Phoenix at least ten days before the report date to join a number of the A's major league players who are already working out at the A's Phoenix complex.

"I want to get over the initial shock of taking batting practice with Eric Chavez or catching a bullpen from Barry Zito. Since I grew up in the Bay Area and am an A's fan, I think I am going to be a bit star-struck initially when I am playing with guys I grew up watching, so I'd like to wear some of that shock off before it counts and we are playing games or scrimmaging," Baker said.

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