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The Season a Journeyman Measured Up : Young Tiger Infielder Had a Magic Year in ’84

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Doug Baker’s meteoric rise from the minor leagues to a backslapping, celebratory clubhouse in Detroit in October, 1984, took only a matter of months. Along the way, Baker earned a champagne shower, a World Series ring and his keep as a utility infielder in the American League.

All of which made Baker feel 10 feet tall as the Detroit Tigers reveled in victory after defeating the San Diego Padres in five games to win the ’84 World Series at Tiger Stadium.

He had indeed come a long way in a hurry. Amid the celebration, Baker, a 5-foot-9, 170-pound slick-fielding shortstop who played in 43 games--39 in place of injured veteran Alan Trammell--knew he had made a significant contribution on a world championship team in his first season in the majors.

“He is quite a success story,” said Dave Snow, baseball coach at Cal State Long Beach and Baker’s coach at Valley College from 1979-81.

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“Whenever I have a chance to talk to groups or whenever I’m addressing high school players, I very rarely give the talk without telling Doug Baker’s story.”

The tale is enough to create goose bumps.

At Granada Hills High, Baker played on one of the best teams in City Section history, helping the Highlanders win the first of two consecutive City titles his senior year in 1978.

That team included outfielder John Elway, now quarterback of the Denver Broncos, and a host of talented ballplayers--including first baseman Paul Kiess (Philadelphia Phillies), shortstop Ken Scanlon (Atlanta Braves) and pitcher Jack Mutz (San Diego Padres)--who went on to play professionally.

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Baker, the team’s second baseman and No. 9 hitter who batted .195 his senior year, was the only one of the bunch to wear a major league uniform.

And, of course, a World Series ring.

“Ted Williams doesn’t even have a World Series ring,” said Baker, 33, who lives with his wife Karen in Cardiff near San Diego and works as a scout for the Atlanta Braves. “It was just explosive winning the World Series. It was so exciting for me and for the Tigers’ fans. That was a dream come true.”

And a repeat performance of sorts. Baker, who did not join the Tigers until June of the championship season, had grown up in a hurry before.

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Growth spurts, you might say, were Baker’s thing growing up.

As a junior at Granada Hills, Baker, who wrestled at 103 pounds, was so self-conscious about being 4-feet-11 he claimed he was an inch taller when asked. “That’s pretty bad when you gotta lie about being 5 feet tall,” he said.

Yet over the course of a summer, after a doctor prescribed medication to correct what was diagnosed as a hormonal imbalance, Baker grew like a stalk of corn, sprouting seven inches by September.

By spring, he was 5-9. Meat and potatoes helped fill him out. Meanwhile, his skills as a ballplayer continued to grow.

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“He was quick, he had great instinct for the game and he had the best hands,” said Darryl Stroh, Granada Hills coach since 1970. “He was an excellent ballplayer, he just didn’t have the size and stature. He grew as a senior. I used to mark his height on the doorway to the gym office.”

Said Baker: “I didn’t play like I had something to prove. I didn’t have any revenge or little man’s disease. I just played because I loved the game, not because someone told me I couldn’t.”

Baker appeared to be on his way to bigger and better things. After redshirting his first season at Valley, he played two seasons before moving on to Arizona State on a scholarship.

At ASU in 1982, Baker played on a team that reached the Western regional before losing to Cal State Fullerton.

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Baker was drafted by the Tigers in the ninth round of 1982. In June of 1984, the 24-year-old Baker was promoted to the big club for the first game of a weekend series against the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park in Chicago.

Baker went hitless in three at-bats, but he played well defensively.

“I was obviously very nervous,” Baker said. “We were only three games ahead in first place. The fans were unbelievably loud. That’s the biggest thing I noticed. I could yell and I couldn’t hear myself on the field.”

Baker’s role was to relieve Trammell, who was hampered by elbow and shoulder problems throughout the season. He didn’t get a hit until his 18th big-league at-bat and finished the season with a .185 average in 108 at-bats.

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But he was solid in the field. “I could play shortstop as well as anyone and second base was even easier,” he said.

When the champagne corks popped in October, Baker, who appeared in one game in the league championship series against Kansas City but did not play in the World Series, was voted a half-share of the Tigers’ championship earnings.

“It felt good to have helped them get there,” he said.

Snow visited Baker in San Diego during the first two games of the Series and remembers Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson lauding Baker’s contribution.

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“I had a chance to say hello to Sparky at the hotel and he really praised Doug and the job he had done and how valuable a player he was to have on his ballclub,” Snow said. “Even though Doug didn’t play, it was a big thrill for me to go down to San Diego and see the Series.”

From there, however, things never looked so rosy again for Baker.

Coincidentally, the same circumstance that allowed him to join the Tigers--an injury to Trammel--served to stunt his professional growth throughout the prime of his career.

Baker remained in the Tigers’ organization for the next three years as the unofficial designated replacement whenever Trammell was injured. “Every spring training, he was full of Band-Aids,” Baker said. However, Baker subsequently played in only 36 games with the big club, floating back and forth between the major and minor leagues.

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Each spring, Baker heard his name mentioned in trade rumors. He hoped for a trade to a team in the National League, where pitching changes often are accompanied by the insertion of utility players like himself.

However, when a trade finally came after the 1987 season, it was to the Minnesota Twins. “That’s when it started hurting,” Baker said. “They already had two utility guys.”

Baker played in the Twins’ organization for three seasons, mostly in the minors. However, he batted a career-high .295 in 43 games with the Twins in 1989.

He spent a year with the Houston Astros’ organization before joining the Braves as a free agent in 1992. But he did not return to the majors with either National League club.

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After the ’92 season, Baker, 32 and tired of packing up his pickup truck and heading for minor league cities, retired.

He accepted a job offer from the Braves to become a scout, and now spends much of his time on the road heading for small towns to observe high school, college and minor league players.

But he has no complaints.

“I’ve been able to dodge the 9-to-5 bullet,” he said.

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Baker recalls his major league career with fondness but with a twinge of discontent.

Things could have turned out better. But then, his former teammates at Granada Hills can say the same thing.

“I didn’t get to the big leagues by not being a good player,” Baker said. “Shoot, pro ball has offered me everything. Now, I’m still working in baseball and it’s still paying off.”


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