Sept. 24, 2001
By Louis Garmendia
The baseball prowess of junior third baseman Jeff Baker could be described using one of many numbers. There is 23, the number of home runs he hit last season, just shy of a school record. The number one would be his rank in home runs and RBIs in the ACC. And then there’s four, which is the number of different USA Baseball National Teams that he has played on, a first for an American player.
But perhaps the most impressive number is 6,300, which is the number of dollars the power hitter cost bat maker Easton during the 2000 season. Baker dented 21 aluminum bats at $300 a bat, which Easton supplies as a part of an endorsement contract with head coach Jack Leggett. While bats get dented from time to time, the fact that Baker ruined 21 of them and that he only uses them in games is remarkable. It is no wonder he is hitting home runs on a record-breaking pace.
“I definitely enjoy hitting the long ball. It’s not something I try to do but it’s one of the greatest feelings I have when I play,” he said. “To me, there’s no greater feeling than, after the ball goes over the fence, getting to run around the bases by yourself while the pitcher hangs his head.”
The 6-foot-1, 215-pounder from Woodbridge, VA, has been hurting bats and pitchers’ feelings for years now. After being born in Badkissiagen, Germany to an American Army general, he moved from state to state until winding up in Virginia. He was the state’s player of the Year and a High School All-American by Baseball America. He was runner up to tennis star Andre Agassi for USOC Athlete of the month in September 1999 after being named MVP of the 1999 International Baseball Association World Championshp Tournament. After being chosen in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball Draft, Baker was faced with the decision of a lucrative contract or a chance to play college baseball at Clemson.
“Coming out of high school you’re a young kid and you don’t really know too much. I felt like I wanted to come and get an education but also play baseball for Clemson, one of the best programs in the country,” he said. “I just felt like I wasn’t ready to handle pro baseball at the time. I definitely think I made the right decision.” The choice paid off immediately, as Baker started at shortstop his freshman year and led the team with 11 home runs. The 2000 season included a sweep of Mississippi State in the Super Regional and culminated into a trip to the promised land, Omaha and the College World Series.
“The Super Regional here was something else,” said Baker. “So many fans came out to the game and we had great support. That was tremendous being able to celebrate on our home field. The College World Series, you can’t describe it. It’s one thing to watch it on TV and another thing to play in it.”
Baker broke out during his sophomore campaign with a .377 batting average, 23 home runs and 73 RBIs while moving to third base. He established school marks with the most home runs after two seasons (34), most multi-homer games in a season (five) and most multi-homer games in a career (seven).
“I was hoping to progress with my statistics and getting in the weight room with Coach (John) Sisk, that was the main plus for me,” said Baker, who added 15 pounds between his freshman and sophomore seasons. “My freshman year I was really skinny and fragile, but I put on a lot of good weight and that helped me a lot.”
Despite some key personnel losses, the Tigers almost made a repeat trip to Omaha in 2001before falling to eventual national champion Miami (FL) in the Coral Gables Super Regional. After a week off, it was back to the diamond for Baker, who started all but one game for the USA Baseball National Team. The squad went on a 29-game tour that began with a five-game series in Japan against that nation’s national team and ended with an eight-game series against Taiwan. Baker hit .237 with two home runs in the tour that also included games against teams in Alaska, Minnesota, Ohio, New York and New Jersey. But the summer was about more than baseball and statistics for Baker.
“I really wasn’t worried about my numbers because I knew I busted my tail during the season and I was a little tired during summer ball,” he said. “My stats weren’t as high as I would have liked them to be, but the thing I enjoyed more than playing baseball was being an ambassador for USA Baseball. We do camps before the games and get to help little kids learn about baseball. We get to help out underprivileged kids and visit them in the hospital. You get to travel around and meet people, and it’s just a great experience to wear USA across your chest. USA Baseball is an awesome experience.” Baker is going to build on that experience for the upcoming season. After getting an early taste of Omaha, he is ready for seconds.
“This team is a veteran team. We have a bunch of seniors who can lead us back to the Series,” he said. “I think this team has a chance to get back to Omaha and compete for something out there. We’re as talented as we were my freshman year and have a lot more experience.” Although the junior is on a record-shattering home run pace, this may be Baker’s last season to top the career mark of 53 set by Matthew LeCroy from 1995-97. He will once again be eligible for the MLB draft in June and he is a likely first-round pick. But nothing is set in stone quite yet.
“If things work out where there is an opportunity to play professional baseball and I think the timing is right, it would definitely be a good decision for me to start my pro career,” he said. “If not, then I look forward to coming back to Clemson for my senior season.”
Louis Garmendia is a graduate student from Mt. Pleasant, SC and works in the Clemson Sports Information Office.
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