By Rob Rains
When Corey Baker was pitching for the Double A Springfield Cardinals in 2014, he and three of his teammates took advantage of a day off to make the drive up Interstate 44 to attend a game at Busch Stadium.
Baker, Marco Gonzales, Mitch Harris and Nick Martini watched batting practice on the field and got a tour of the Cardinals’ clubhouse.
“It was really cool,” Baker said.
For the first time since that day, Baker will be back at Busch on Monday, but he no longer has dreams of playing for the Cardinals. Instead of turning right to enter the Cardinals’ clubhouse when he enters the stadium, he will keep walking down a hall until he gets to the visiting clubhouse.
That’s where he will unpack his computer and get ready to go to work in his new job – as the assistant MLB advance scout/replay coordinator for the Minnesota Twins.
Baker, 28, was hired by the Twins in March in part based of a recommendation from Jeremy Hefner, who was briefly Baker’s teammate at Memphis two years ago. Hefner went to work for the Twins last year.
“They were looking to expand and wanted somebody who recently had been playing,” Baker said. “It was something I was really interested in.”
The Cardinals had been the only organization Baker had known since he was a 49th-round pick out of the University of Pittsburgh in 2011. He advanced to Springfield just two years later, but then his career seemed to stall, and eventually he was released last July.
“It was pretty clear that they didn’t see me helping them on the big league level going forward and it was time to let me go,” Baker said. “It caught me by surprise because I was having a pretty good year and had been in the Double A All-Star game just a couple of weeks earlier. But at the same time, when you spend enough time in the game nothing really surprises you.
“I was never a prospect. I always felt I would have to make my opportunities and that nothing was going to be handed to me and I was OK with that.”
After he was released, Baker began to consider his options. Hoping to keep playing, he went to pitch winter ball in Venezuela and was hoping to get an invitation to a spring training camp. As the months went by with no offers, he came to the realization his playing career was likely over.
Then came the call from Hefner, who remembered his friend from their time together in Memphis.
“He was kind of the leader of the pitching staff there, and we were both starters,” Baker said. “He had experience and had pitched in the majors, so I tried to pick his brain. We spent time together and I could tell he was someone I wanted to be around.”
Hefner briefed Baker on the duties of the position, which primarily consists of preparing video reports on the teams the Twins are preparing to play, such as the Cardinals. Baker also is the replay coordinator, the person on the other end of the phone from the dugout who has 30 seconds to decide whether or not to challenge an umpire’s call.
That rush, Baker said – and the overall aspects of the job, and being around the major-league team on a daily basis – has helped ease the transition from no longer playing the game.
“I wasn’t sure when I was done playing if I was going to stay in baseball,” Baker said. “I wasn’t sure the coaching side was something I wanted to get into and I wasn’t sure what other opportunities there were. When this came about I learned pretty quickly it was something I could do and possibly excel at.
“When you are around the game long enough you see guys go and the transition is sometimes difficult for a lot of players, and sometimes scary, to be honest, when you think about the next step. It’s a reality that everyone has to face. This transition has been as smooth as it could be for someone who has played their whole life. It’s been really good.”
The most exciting aspect of Baker’s new job comes when the phone rings and he has to quickly scan all of the replays available and decide whether to recommend the team challenge a call.
“The phone rings and it’s decision time,” he said. “Thirty seconds goes quickly. You don’t notice it at the time but afterward you have some butterflies and the heart rate goes up a little bit. In that 30 seconds it’s kind of like competing. When you are on the field you don’t really notice the butterflies and nerves; you are just out there competing.
“After the 30 seconds, if you decide to challenge, then you have to wait another one to two minutes while the umpires look at it and make their call. You think, ‘What are they looking at? What are they seeing?’”
In Baker’s first few weeks on the job, the Twins were successful on six of their first 10 challenges.
“It’s more a product of what plays come your way,” Baker said. “You want the call on the field to be right, and you understand the process that goes into it, you understand you may not always have the best angle or that there might be something they see on the field that you didn’t see. Sometimes it’s worth taking a chance even if you think the call on the field might be right, it’s still worth the risk.”
Before and after the game, Baker concentrates on preparing scouting packages, and he is enjoying that work as well.
He did not really work much with video during his seven minor-league seasons, when he pitched in 204 games, making 52 starts.
“The video in the minors is a lot of time using somebody you know who has an MILB subscription,” Baker said. “I’d log on and watch my outing. Sometimes you would be in places where the video was less than par, but you tried to find anything you could. Here we have access to all the video you could ever ask for.”
While Baker watches that video of the Twins’ opponents, he is looking for any angles or tips that he can provide to the coaching staff, which might provide the team an edge during the game.
He might have a little extra insight into the scouting reports on the Cardinals, since he played with many of those now on the major-league roster. At the very least, he is looking forward to catching up with his friends, both on the field and in the front office.
All are happy Baker has found a job he seems to love.
“Anytime that someone gets to do anything in the big leagues after spending your whole career in baseball, that’s pretty cool,” said the Cardinals’ Mike Mayers. “It sounds a pretty good gig and an awesome job. He’s probably pretty good at what he does. He’s seen a lot of baseball, he was always real knowledgeable about the game. He’s a real smart dude, so I imagine he is going to have a lot of success in that side of the game.”
It also was not surprising to Mayers that Baker landed the job, even though he never played for the Twins.
“It’s kind of what makes the baseball world cool, it’s such a small family,” Mayers said. “It doesn’t matter where in the country you’re from on where you are, if you stay in the game long enough and go somewhere, most of the time you know somebody. That’s what makes this baseball family so special.”
What also has been special for Baker is to realize that even though he no longer is in uniform, he is still contributing to the success of a major-league team.
“It’s a different role than I’ve had,” he said. “I know people come to see the product on the field. Until you work in it and get up close and personal, you don’t really see how many people behind the scenes are contributing in big and small ways to put people on the field, and put them in the best position to do their job.”
It’s a job Baker can see himself doing for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t think I would have gone into this if I didn’t see it as a possible career,” he said. “Hopefully if I start in a role like this I can go a lot of different directions. That was one of the draws to it, an outlook of ‘Where can I take this? What other careers could it lead to? To be exposed to different things is a positive.”
Baker admits that his first time coming back to Busch, not as a player, might be a little different than going to any other stadium.
“A lot of teammates I came up with are there now and I look forward to seeing them,” Baker said. “I’m getting there in kind of different capacity than I expected throughout my career but it’s exciting nonetheless.”
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