The weekend-long Cubs Convention wouldn't start until Friday, but Chicago Cubs fans were already on high alert at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Chicago on Tuesday night.
The former fan favorite was bundled up in an attempt to counter the freezing Chicago winter, but that didn't stop more than a few fans from recognizing and approaching him.
Ryne Sandberg? Billy Williams? Fergie Jenkins? Nope. It was the Cubs' newest baseball operations assistant.
"I don’t feel like I’m a recognizable person, you know. I mean, I was the backup catcher who hit .190 two years ago here," John Baker said. "But people were coming up to me with blown-up photographs and offering me beers. I understand that they’re extra excited right now, but at the same time, I was just blown away by how nice people have been to me."
Ask any Cubs fan to rattle off some of the team's recent backup catchers, and he or she may have trouble coming up with names such as Henry Blanco, Koyie Hill, Steve Clevenger and Dioner Navarro.
You'd be hard-pressed to find one who doesn't remember Baker.
Understanding why he is so well-liked involves digging a bit deeper than the .192/.273/.231 line he posted over 208 plate appearances in 2014, his lone season on the North Side.
It was his reaction to this walk against Aroldis Chapman in the ninth inning of a tie game:
It was his playing the guitar for teammates in the dugout during a rain delay:
The one highlight that sticks out in the minds of many Cubs fans, though, was his extra-inning performance against the Colorado Rockies on July 29.
Baker entered that game in the top of the 16th inning not to catch, but to pitch for a Cubs team that had exhausted its bullpen.
A foul pop-up by Charlie Culberson, a walk to Drew Stubbs and a double-play ball off the bat of Cristhian Adames—just like that, Baker had thrown a scoreless inning.
He wasn't finished.
He led off the bottom of the 16th by drawing a walk, made his way around to third base and then raced home to score on a sacrifice fly off the bat of Starlin Castro.
With one epic slide, he had scored the winning run and made himself the winning pitcher, giving the smattering of fans who'd stuck around for the entirety of the six-hour, 27-minute marathon a reason to cheer.
Moments such as that left an indelible impression on the fanbase, and Baker was just as effective at making one on his teammates.
Current Cubs reliever Clayton Richard just missed playing with Baker in Chicago, but the two were teammates in San Diego during the 2012 season, when Richard saw firsthand the kind of impact Baker can make in a short period of time.
Baker was part of a catching trio that also included 23-year-old Yasmani Grandal, who was in his rookie season, and 28-year-old Nick Hundley, who was just starting to establish himself as an everyday backstop.
The 31-year-old Baker may not have been the primary catcher, but he found himself in the important role of mentor.
"He was a really good sounding board for Nick and Yasmani whenever they had questions or issues," said Richard. "He was really another coach, and he was able to help those guys out quite a bit."
The 2012 season was the first time Richard and Baker played together, but Richard said the two had an immediate connection, and the statistics back that up.
|Clayton Richard 2012 Pitching Stats by Catcher|
"I think that there was a connection there at all times. There was an immediate line of communication that wasn't difficult at all to establish, and it didn't seem like there was a huge learning curve for each other," said Richard.
"A lot of times with a new catcher, it takes a few starts or a few outings to get to know what each other likes and to make those adjustments. With him, it was very fluid and seemed very natural, and I think that’s a testament to how intelligent he is and how well he adapts to new situations."
That adaptability will now be put to the test, as Baker's new role in the front office is one new situation after another.
The week of the Cubs Convention was a perfect example.
Prior to arriving in Chicago, Baker headed to the sunny Dominican Republic on a quick scouting trip to watch some of the team's prospects in the winter league there.
That was followed by in-depth player development meetings with some of the brightest minds in the game, and then he went on to the convention, with the autograph and photo requests and offers of free beer.
Not a bad gig for Baker—or anyone, for that matter. The process of getting that gig began back in December 2014, when the Cubs let him go but gave him a glimpse into where his future may have been headed.
"When they non-tendered me in 2014, they told me on the phone, 'Hey listen, when you feel like you’re done playing, we would like you to call us because there’s a home for you here. We’ll figure out where you fit best in our organization, but we want you around,'" Baker said.
The veteran catcher wound up landing in Seattle on a minor league deal that January, but he didn't break camp with the big league club and instead began the year in Triple-A Tacoma.
By the end of May, Seattle had released him, and this time, the move would officially mark the end to a playing career that began back in 2002 when the Oakland Athletics selected him in the fourth round as part of the infamous Moneyball draft.
"There's a list of hitters I want to talk about," assistant general manager Paul DePodesta said to a group of grizzled Oakland scouts prior to the 2002 draft, as depicted in the pages of the Michael Lewis bestseller. "All of these guys share certain qualities. They are the eight guys we definitely want. And we want all eight of these guys."
Baker was one of those eight guys, and that shared quality was on-base ability. He had hit .383 with an impressive .516 on-base percentage during his junior season at the University of California.
However, it was as a member of the Florida Marlins that he made his big league debut on July 9, 2008, having been traded by Oakland prior to the 2007 season for prospect Jason Stokes.
He spent four seasons with the Marlins, two with the Padres and one with the Cubs before capping off his career with that brief pit stop in the Seattle organization.
It was only after his release from the Mariners that Baker finally began to think about what his next career move would be.
"When I was playing, I didn’t think about anything else," he said. "I don’t believe in living any way other than moment to moment if you’re trying to be competitive in a sport. It was nice that I had five or six months at home with my family to talk to as many people as possible and go through what my future is going to look like."
So what kind of job opportunities await a recently retired baseball player who didn't bank tens of millions of dollars over the course of his career and can't simply retire altogether?
"I got offers to work for some tech-sales companies. I had offers in the medical supplies industry—a lot of athletes I think tend to go into that," Baker said. "But I’m somebody that can’t sit on my hands; I have to be doing something.
"Everybody wants to be more financially successful, but that wasn’t at the top of the reasons why I was looking for another job. It was to find the best fit for me, and everybody I talked to outside of baseball and inside of baseball both said the longer you stay away, the harder it is to get back in."
And that led him back to that standing offer from the Cubs. The organization hired him in December.
Officially, Baker holds the title of baseball operations assistant, but he'll be exposed to a number of different aspects within the front office in his first year on the job.
"I get to do everything, and it’s exciting," Baker said.
"I’ll be doing amateur scouting in the Bay Area and going on an international trip to Japan, Korea and Taiwan," he said. "I’ll also be doing some targeted roving with some of the catching and working pretty closely with our mental skills department about coming up with strategies to communicate better with players."
Baker provides a unique perspective for the front office as someone who has only recently stepped away from the game, and his ability to connect with the millennial generation should serve him well.
"I've always gotten along well with people much younger than me, and I have an ability to communicate that I think is similar to—and I don’t want to compare myself to this person—but I think that’s one of the greatest strengths of Joe Maddon is that he can relate to everybody on his team and guys still think that he’s cool," Baker said.
"It’s important to have people like that that can communicate to both groups. To communicate to the field staff, the front office staff and have open lines of communication with your players."
One of Baker's 15,000 Twitter followers asked him how it felt to be back with the Cubs organization.
His response was simple:
For a professional athlete, no longer playing the game you love is never easy.
For John Baker, it simply means the start of an exciting new chapter in his career and a chance to rejoin an organization that feels like home.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.