NEW YORK — Kids in Queens have dreamt about it for generations.
Late-game situation. No-hitter intact. Friday night home game. Ball headed your way.
Mike Baxter, a Queens Whitestone native and graduate of Archbishop Molloy High School, found himself in that situation on June 1, 2012. Johan Santana was eight outs away from completing the first (and to this day, only) no-hitter a Mets pitcher had ever thrown. On his 102nd pitch of the night, Santana threw a 3-1 fastball to Yadier Molina that caught a little too much plate. The Cardinals catcher sent a missile toward the left-field fence, giving Baxter very little time to think, just react.
“There’s plenty of balls where you know right off the bat that you need to contain the damage and play it off the fence,” Baxter told the New York Daily News. “The height of that ball, the location of it, it was definitely a ball I had to go for. That wasn’t a ball I could just give up on early.”
Baxter sprung into action and made a twisting beeline toward the 358-foot marker. In the blink of an eye, he reached the warning track, stuck his glove out, caught the ball, and slammed into the wall, securing one of the most memorable outs in the club’s history.
Though the catch was a huge win for the Mets, Santana and baseball lore, it had a damaging effect on Baxter. The impact with the wall caused a separation of his sternoclavicular (SC) joint where the collarbone meets the sternum. He also fractured his top three ribs. Baxter was forced to leave the game and watch Santana finish the no-hitter from the training room. With Santana due to hit in the bottom of the inning, Baxter’s trip to the training room also created some accidental drama on the field.
“Johan ran back there after I got hurt to see how I was,” Baxter recalled. “That training room is way down the first-base line and Johan came off the field and went all the way through the clubhouse to be like ‘You good, man?’ That made him a little bit late getting out to the on-deck circle, which wasn’t because Terry (Collins) was trying to think (about pulling him) and needed more time, it was because he was in the training room checking on me. Then he popped out and obviously, everyone went nuts.”
Before it was even clear that Santana could make history, the circumstances of that game drew a lot of attention. The Cardinals were the defending World Series champions, both teams were above .500 entering June, and St. Louis was matching Santana with their own ace, Adam Wainwright. The Mets’ upswing, paired with the progression of the game, made Baxter notice a palpable energy in the ballpark.
“You could really feel it build once everybody sort of recognized what was going on,” he said. “As a Met fan, I knew there had never been a no-hitter. Once you hit that threshold in the fifth inning, you start to get a little more momentum. Then you get to the seventh and you’re like (nervous laughter), ‘OK, here we go. Gotta lock it down.’”
Another member of the Baxter family was on-hand to witness his favorite team set a franchise milestone. Mike’s father, Ray, made the commute from Whitestone to see the game and ended up having to drive his son home afterward. When Mike got injured, father and son boarded very different trains of thought.
“I was banged up pretty good, just trying to figure out what was going on,” Baxter remembered. “I had to go to the hospital in the morning. My dad was more in the frame of mind of recognizing that it was a monumental night in Mets history.”
When the game ended, before hitching a ride with pops, Mike received a chorus of atta boys from his teammates. Ray was, by his son’s account, much more chilled out.
“I wasn’t on the field for the celebration. But I was in the clubhouse when all the guys came in,” Baxter retold. “My dad was very much just hanging. He was up in the family section in the stands.”
Approaching the 10-year anniversary, Baxter plainly understands how wacky and unlikely that night at Citi Field was. Apart from making the unforgettable defensive play that usually comes in a no-hitter, and suffering an unfortunate injury, he also was not a player known for his glove at all. When asked for a self scouting report, Baxter joked that had his lithe frame come with a higher level of defensive capability, he would have been a center fielder.
“I was an average defender, steady, in the sense of, if I was out there I was probably going to make the play,” he assessed. “But I wasn’t someone that you were necessarily going to get great defensive value from.”
The catch is the indelible highlight of Baxter’s baseball life, but it also altered his trajectory in a somewhat negative fashion. The gruesome injury kept him out of the lineup for about two months, and while he got plenty of reps after returning, it would be the last regular playing time of his career. As a 27-year-old during that 2012 season, Baxter made 211 plate appearances. In the next three seasons — spent with the Mets, Dodgers and Cubs before he retired — Baxter only got 229 more.
Now a hitting coach and recruiting coordinator at his alma mater, Vanderbilt University, Baxter says the players mostly perk up when he shares stories about ex-teammates like David Wright, Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez. He’s been at Vanderbilt since the fall of 2017 and seen the Commodores make the finals of the last two College World Series, winning it all in 2019.
Since his days as a Vanderbilt player in the mid-2000s, the school has earned a reputation as the country’s preeminent college baseball factory. In his time as a coach, the school has turned Austin Martin, Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker into Top 10 MLB draft picks, though Rocker famously failed to sign with the Mets when they selected him in 2021. Baxter says the biggest difference he sees in the program now compared to when he played is the “exponential” increase in resources that come with consistent winning.
“If you’re inside these walls, the experience is pretty similar,” he shared. “Times have changed and kids have changed, so if you asked someone who graduated in 2003 vs. a kid who graduated in 2021, it might be different, but the foundational aspects of the program are identical.”
As for his relationship to the catch that both partly derailed his career and turned him into a permanent footnote on the Mets’ historic achievement, Baxter has reached a place of comfortable acceptance.
“Regret is definitely not the word,” he stated. “Injuries are just part of the journey. When you get hurt, how you get hurt, and what happens afterwards, everybody’s got a version of that story. For me, I’ve always had peace of mind when I look back at my career.”