Bill Ballew 2015-11-16 03:48:38
TAKES HIS GAME TO COLLEGE Ranking among the top amateur players in the country at two positions in the days leading up to the Major League Baseball draft would be considered by most observers as the ideal situation for any teenager on the verge of graduating from high school. A handful of young men, however, realize alternatives offer similar advantages, even if the potential financial return requires some delayed gratification. Earlier this year in May, Luken Baker understood his opportunity to play professional baseball was imminent. A variety of media outlets ranked the Texan from Oak Ridge High School among the top 60 or so players available in the 2015 draft. MLB.com, for example, tabbed Baker 54th overall, which would have landed him in the middle of the second round, where signing bonuses reside in the $1 million range. That selection also would have put him in a major league team’s farm system so he could begin the process of trying to work his way to the top over the next several seasons. As much as the situation appeared to be a dream come true for Baker, he appreciated the fact that the grass can be at least as green on the other side of the fence. Considered to be one of the premier two-way players available in the 2015 draft class, Baker thought long and hard about his decision in between discussing the situation with his parents, Will and Belinda. When he made up his mind, the hard-throwing pitcher and hard-hitting first baseman sent an email to the scouting directors of all 30 major league teams informing them that he had decided to follow through on his commitment to attend Texas Christian University. “Once you get drafted in high school, you obviously don’t get to go straight to the big leagues,” Baker said. “You go into the lowest level of minor league ball and it’s a grind. I know a few people in the minors right now who have gone through the process. It’s baseball every day and that’s fun, but it’s definitely tough. A lot of guys don’t get good coaching, and everyone there is good. If you don’t perform or do things right, it’s oh well, there’s another draft next year. “There are a lot of reasons why I came to college but a big one was how Coach Schloss (TCU head coach Jim Schlossnagle) develops players, not just to win college baseball games, but to be the most successful major league baseball player they can be. He truly has our best interests in mind. Being able to get an education is huge because you can’t play baseball forever. Even a great player like Derek Jeter still has half his life to live and no baseball to play. That was another big thing. And all of the life lessons that you learn in college with the structure around it as well as many more were the reasons why I chose to come to school.” Baker’s parents supported their son’s decision wholeheartedly. Baseball has been a significant part of the close-knit family’s life since Luken was in elementary school. After evaluating all of the options while observing what other older former teammates had experienced, the Bakers were confident that Luken was making the correct choice. “Luken has truly been blessed with coaches and teammates who care about his success and enjoyment of the game,” said his dad, Will Baker. “Long-term commitments to coaches and organizations have made the difference in Luken’s journey so far. The decision to play for Coach Schlossnagle and his staffat TCU was not a decision to pass on pro ball and big money, but rather a decision to develop as a man and to have the best chance at success at the next level and to serve as a foundation for all future endeavors.” Every year a handful of players decide to attend college instead of signing, but those who reveal their plans to major league teams represent a much smaller group. The primary reason centers on money; most players prefer to receive an actual offer that includes a specific signing bonus prior to making their final decision to attend school. Baker, conversely, felt going through that process was unnecessary and believed that letting the scouts and teams know he had made up his mind was simply the right thing to do. “The scouts come out to the games and do their jobs for the upcoming draft,” Baker said. “It was about two or three weeks before the draft and I had finally made my decision that I was going to school no matter what. I didn’t want them to waste their time and money coming out and watching me when I knew I wasn’t going to sign for anything. There’s a big group email that goes out to all of the team’s scouting directors and I sent an email saying that I appreciated the opportunity but that I was going to school.” Those who know Baker were not surprised by his decision. After all, the pitcher/first baseman is as well known for his high character and outstanding makeup as he is for his ability on the field. He maintained a 3.75 GPA in high school and was a member of the youth group at Christ Church United Methodist, where among other things he took part in The Woodlands Children’s Festival. He also volunteered with the Special Olympics and served as a peer mentor on behalf of Oak Ridge High’s Safe School Ambassadors Club. On the field, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Baker garnered a reputation as a dominant pitcher and stellar power hitter while growing up in Spring, Texas. He began playing baseball shortly after he learned to walk and loved the sport from the start. Baker also competed in swimming as well as football through his freshman year of high school and basketball through his sophomore year. Baseball, however, was always his first love. “Baseball was the first sport I picked up and I’ve loved it ever since I started playing,” Baker said. “I was never really the best player on any team I was on while growing up. There were always other guys who were better. But my dad was always working with me and making the game enjoyable. He’s really the reason that I stuck with it and enjoyed playing. “There were a lot of special moments in baseball, especially on the Rattlers, the team I grew up playing on, from when I was eight until my freshman year of high school. We won a lot of tournaments and championships, including the 12-year-old tournament in Cooperstown. Of course, everyone has aspirations of playing in the major leagues or the next level, but I never thought it could be a reality until probably the end of my freshman year.” Baker solidified his spot on the radars of scouts from all 30 teams in 2014, which included his junior year at Oak Ridge High. He hit .500 with three home runs and 15 RBIs as a member of USA Baseball’s 18u National Team at the Pan American Championship in Mexico to help guide Team USA to a perfect 12-0 record and a third consecutive gold medal in the event. In addition to batting 19- for-38 and recording an on-base percentage of .565, Baker also tossed 2 1/3 hitless innings with four strikeouts. The summer of 2014 brought with it an appearance in the MLB Junior Select Home Run Derby during all-star weekend at Target Field. Baker not only took first place in that event, he also won the home run derby at the Under Armour All-American Classic at Wrigley Field. For a player who was known first and foremost by scouts for his low-to-mid 90s fastball and a hard slider with above-average potential, Baker says he was not that surprised to do so well in the hitting competitions. “Once I was old enough to start being scouted, I was always considered to be a pitcher because of my size and what I could do on the mound at that time,” Baker said. “Nobody really paid attention to my hitting because I didn’t hit home runs all of the time or absolutely mash baseballs. When the time came for those two events, my dad and I went out and practiced home run derby so I’d be able to go out and perform. It really wasn’t that much of a surprise, but just being able to compete in those events was awesome in itself and winning them just made it that much sweeter.” Even though the possibility of playing under the bright lights of the big leagues was becoming greater with every passing day, Baker remained focused on the task at hand, which included helping the Oak Ridge High War Eagles advance as far as possible in the state’s highest classification (6A) and one of the country’s most competitive baseball regions. Despite having teams pitch around him whenever possible, Baker batted .468 with eight home runs and 33 walks during his senior year. On the mound he posted a 12-1 record with a 1.02 ERA and 131 strikeouts in 82 innings. His performance earned Baker co-Player of the Year honors on the Texas Sports Writers Association’s Class 6A state baseball team as well as Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year accolades. In winning the Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year award, Baker became the fourth Texan to receive the honor, with the last being current Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw in 2005-06. Former all-star pitcher Roy Oswalt came to Oak Ridge and presented Baker with the award. “That was one of the coolest things that has ever happened to me,” Baker said. “It’s an incredible honor because I know a lot of guys who won the (state) award and I know how good they are. I’d never really thought about having a chance to win it, especially on the national level.” The Gatorade award recognizes academic achievement and exemplary character in addition to athletic excellence. Those traits dovetail perfectly for Baker at TCU. Schlossnagle has not only built the Horned Frogs into one of the premier teams in the country on an annual basis, he also has created an atmosphere that includes accountability in the classroom and in the community. Having the opportunity to develop in that type of culture made Baker’s decision to attend college that much easier in the days leading up to the draft. “That was definitely a part,” Baker said. “I grew up playing baseball most of my life for a coach who stresses a lot of the same things that Coach Schloss stresses. This is simply a more intensified level. Coach Schloss takes the game seriously while still having fun and makes sure that we’re disciplined and doing the right things, both on and offthe field. The culture created through the baseball program is unmatched and I’m glad to be a part of it.” That’s not to say playing at TCU or with any college program is a walk in the park. Fall practice, particularly for freshmen who are in the process of discovering their surroundings and forming relationships with their new teammates, can be tedious and at times stressful. Players learn quickly that if they are not organized and capable of managing their time in a productive manner, their chances for success at the college level will be compromised. This fall, Baker woke up daily at 6:15 a.m. in order to be at workouts 45 minutes later. Once workouts ended at 8:30, he attended class until 11 a.m. or noon, depending on the day and his schedule. After grabbing a quick bite for lunch, he was at Lupton Stadium by 1:30 p.m. Stretching began at 2:30 p.m., followed by practice, which took place until 5 or 6 p.m., based on whether or not the team had an intrasquad game. After eating dinner, on most nights Baker attended study hall in order to meet the team’s weekly requirements of 10 hours. He did most of his homework over those few hours every evening before hitting the sack and repeating the process the following day. “That’s really what we do every day,” said Baker, who adds that one of TCU’s mantras for the upcoming season is to “Be Uncommon.” “On off-days we can do our own stuffif we’re up to it. We can also get treatment or do other things that we need to do to recover or get the schoolwork done that we can’t finish on days we have practice. It’s a lot tougher than what I was used to in high school. But I’m loving every minute of it, being able to go out on the field and do what I love every day while getting great coaching and being around my teammates and some of my best friends.” Baker’s work is made even more challenging based on the fact that he is continuing to be a two-way player at the college level. That means he must go through all of the practice and work that pitchers need to complete as well as everything that position players are required to do. Finding the proper balance has not been easy, but once again it is exactly what Baker wants to do. “Playing both ways is the plan right now and that’s what I’m working on,” Baker said. “Pitching and first base is where I’ve been doing my work. It’s a lot different playing both ways in college compared to high school because you have to do everything that both sides do. That’s the plan right now and it’s going well. I love playing baseball and part of playing the game the way I prefer to is being able to do both. I’m going to work hard enough to do both until they tell me I’m not good enough to do one or the other.” Baker has friends who decided to take the professional route. Most of them played for two months or so in a small town this past summer before attending instructional league at the major league team’s spring training complex in Arizona or Florida for half of September and much of October. Once November rolled around, they were free to do what they pleased for the next three or so months while adhering to the team’s prescribed workout plan before reporting back to the team in late February or early March. Baker, meanwhile, will continue to perform a juggling act as he tries to keep his schoolwork, workouts and other baseball requirements under control before the intensity cranks up in January, just prior to the start of the regular season. He realizes the two worlds of college and professional baseball have similarities as well as differences, but the pitcher/ first baseman is thrilled with his decision and looking forward to seeing what unfolds. “Being at TCU is exactly the right place for me,” Baker said. “Deciding to come to TCU and play baseball at this point in my life was the right decision. I can honestly say that I’m happier than I ever expected I would be.”
Published by Baseball Magazine. View All Articles.
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