However, he was only a Tiger for 26 days when Detroit turned around and traded him to Atlanta, where he would finish out last season. In the off-season, Baker wanted to again play for a contender, something he did earlier in his career in Colorado, where he was part of the Rockies’ improbable run to the 2007 World Series. So, he returned to the AL and signed with the Texas Rangers, where true to form, this ex-Tiger is doing anything and everything to help a team that has been to the playoffs three straight years continue its winning ways.
Thus far, he has played first base, third base, right field, left field and even been a pinch hitter, only furthering his well-deserved reputation as one of the top utility men currently in the great game.
Overall, he's hitting .351 with four home runs and 7 RBIs.
Of course, Baker was also part of several ultra-succesful teams during his playing days at Clemson, and set the school record for career home runs with 59, a feat he accomplished in three years.
Recently, CUTigers sat down with the former Clemson standout to get caught up on his career in the Big Leagues.
You, Tyler Colvin (Rockies) and Tony Sipp (Diamondbacks) are three former Tigers currently in the Major Leagues, what was it like being a part of that group?
Baker: I think so. Khalil [Greene] was out a couple years ago and I think that’s it. That program has so much history and tradition. You kind of take pride in that, the fact that you’re still going, you’re still grinding and playing in the big leagues. I know those guys down there follow what we do a lot. It’s great. Coach Leggett, I speak with him and touch base with him to see how the guys are doing, see how the team’s doing. I enjoy following those guys. Obviously, my three years there, we had some good teams. I had a lot of fun and it kind of set the fundamentals and the foundation for me to have success going forward in the minor leagues and then in the big leagues.
So, you still maintain a close relationship with the program at Clemson, as long as your schedule permits, right?
Baker: Yeah, as much as our schedule permits [I do]. A couple years ago, we opened up in Atlanta and then we had an off day. So, me and [Tyler] Colvin went down and saw them play at UGA and that was really cool, to see those guys back in action, see Coach Leggett and all his staff and what not. But yeah, I enjoy it. Whenever I get a chance, I try and go down there and touch base with those guys.
You and Colvin were teammates in Chicago a few years back. What was that like?
Jeff Baker set the Clemson school record for career home runs with 59, a feat he accomplished in three years. (Getty Images)
Baker: Yeah, that was fun. It’s fun because I give Colvin a lot of crap because our team when we were there could really hit and we always gave him a lot of junk saying if he played on our teams ’99 through 2002, he would have been on the bench, messing around with him and he always kind of laughs. But he had a heck of career there and he had some big hits for them. I remember a home run, I was watching the Super Regional, I think it was a walk-off homer to win it and send them [to Omaha]. Colvin’s awesome. He’s a heck of a player. He’s kind of cutting his teeth now in the big leagues. I enjoyed watching him grow up in Chicago, kind of taking him under my wing and helping him learn how to be a big leaguer.
What do you think of college baseball now that they’re using the new bats?
Baker: Yeah, I think those guys are better off using wood to be honest. You can get a bat that’s balanced the way you want it, that feels the way you want it, that handles the way you want it and the production with those things, I go back and I work out with George Mason in the winter and just hearing those things, I understand what they’re trying to do but at the same point, to what extent? I think part of the fun of college baseball is you can go there and see a home run anytime. Now, the home runs are down and it’s pitching and defense. But I’m not sure that’s exactly how college baseball can try to get kids to come play college baseball, it’s the way to keep people in college baseball. So, if I’m a high school guy now and you’re looking at it, you see those bats and you know what you’re hitting in high school, I’ve got a chance to be drafted, I might look at it a little differently now to be honest.
Being a former player for Coach Leggett, do you feel the program continues to be headed in the right direction?
Baker: They’re always going to be in good hands down there. Coach Leggett, he’s one of the best recruiters. He’s one of the best motivators that I’ve been around. He gets the most out of his players and I think just the whole landscape of college baseball is getting different with scholarships the way they work, obviously the number’s smaller, the amount of guys you can have on the team is smaller. So I think that’s changing things that they’re having to adjust to a little bit. Also, the emergence of South Carolina really coming up, we always battled them tough and they’re a good team but now they’re becoming a top-five program in the entire country, so that’s obviously a challenge for those guys down there. But they’re in good hands. They’re in really good hands. The overall parity I think in college baseball has changed, I think if you’ve got a kid now and he’s got a chance to go to a smaller school and get a bigger scholarship, I think that’s weighing on a lot of people more where before, when I was getting recruited I didn’t really care about the scholarship. I just wanted to play in a program. I wanted to win and I wanted to have a chance to play against the best. Clemson offered all that.
Even though you aren’t from South Carolina, how would you characterize the rivalry between the Tigers and Gamecocks from an outsider’s point of view?
|"Down there, it’s Clemson or South Carolina and you’re not on the fence. It’s one way or the other. But it was pretty heated. We had some intense battles."|
Baker: I’d say it borderlines on both [being a heated rivalry and having a healthy respect for one another]. I didn’t really understand what it was about, not being from South Carolina. But a lot of the guys on the team were from South Carolina and in Virginia, you have Virginia Tech and Virginia, [James] Madison and then you have William and Mary. So there’s kind of four. It’s split. You have a lot of different ties throughout the state. Down there, it’s Clemson or South Carolina and you’re not on the fence. It’s one way or the other. But it was pretty heated. We had some intense battles. They beat us in the World Series and we swept them in the regular season. I remember how bad that stung. You kind of grow into the rivalry, being I’d say a foreigner, not coming from South Carolina, but I’d say it’s more heated. I know how passionate the fans are about it and it’s obviously healthy because both programs are obviously really good and it definitely is a battle every time you go out there and play them. I know those guys down there look forward to it.
How much pride do you take in being a true utility player?
Baker: Yeah, absolutely. I take pride in what I do. When I was younger, I really wasn’t 100 percent sold on being the utility guy type deal. I still wanted to play every day. Once I kind of understood, hey you can be a utility guy and have a role and a function on a team, you can contribute and help a team win, I saw that in 2007 with Colorado when they went to the World Series and I saw how gratifying that was and how much fun that was in the postseason. It’s something I’ve kind of embraced. I know it’s difficult. I know it’s not always the most fun. I’ve kind of relished it and enjoyed it and kind of taken the challenge head on.
Since you’ve now played in both leagues, what is the biggest difference between the American and National Leagues?
Baker: Yeah, the game’s longer [in the NL]. You don’t have the pitcher up there bunting [in the AL], but it’s pretty much the same game. For me last year, when I went over to Detroit it wasn’t so much the league that got me, it was kind of the first time in my career I was trying to prove who I was, a new team, a new league. I kind of got outside of who I was and wasn’t doing what I do that makes me be successful. That was kind of the biggest adjustment there. But going through a spring training here and obviously a month of being in the AL with the same group of guys, my comfort level is where it needs to be.
You were traded not once but twice in 2012. What was that like for you?
Baker: When I got traded in 2009 from Colorado to Chicago, I could kind of see that one coming. I knew it was going to happen with the way the roster was set up there in Chicago and Colorado, so I could kind of see that one coming. Last year, kind of caught me by surprise a little bit, just because we were obviously going through a rebuild in Chicago and we were expecting some guys to get traded and they did. Then, I figured when I lot of the veteran guys left, I’d kind of still be around there and help mentor those young guys. They had a lot of guys cutting their teeth in the big leagues. It’s an experience, especially in season because you’ve got so much stuff going on. I don’t think people truly understand it. For me, I was in LA, so next thing I know I got traded. It was boom, I’ve got to get to Detroit. I had to fly to Chicago, pack up my whole apartment, turn the next day and drive. Then, you’ve got to find a place to live. There’s a lot of stuff behind the scenes that goes on that kind of takes away from just playing baseball, being comfortable and going out there and playing. But it’s definitely always a surprise, especially in season. Even if you can see it coming, it’s still an adjustment period and a transition but the good thing about it was last year getting traded twice, you kind of learn how to go into a clubhouse and just seamlessly jump in there, get to know the guys, get to know the staff and it was definitely an experience to build on.