WHITING, Ind. (June 26, 2023) – Chris Baker knows the day will come when he has neither the desire nor the skills to play baseball at a high level.
But that day is somewhere in the future. That’s why Baker, a 2014 Marian Catholic graduate, is back with the Northern League’s Northwest Indiana Oilmen this summer.
Earlier this year, Baker was in training camp for the Frontier League’s Windy City Thunderbolts. It was his second spring training for a Frontier League team after a similar audition last year with the Joliet Slammers.
What the speedy, left-handed hitting center fielder learned from those stints was that the fire was still there as well as the tools.
“I was there (at Windy City) all the way until the last day of spring training,” Baker said last week. “And they decided to go with a few other guys as opposed to myself. Sometimes that’s how it shakes out.
“But during my time there I definitely showed myself and the others that I was definitely capable of being there. And that’s about the main reason — and the only reason — I’m still actually pursuing it.”
He’s back with the Oilmen, who play at Oil City Stadium in Whiting, for a fifth season. Now 27, he played for Northwest Indiana from 2016-18 during a college career that included stops at UIC, South Suburban, and Trinity Christian. He didn’t play anywhere in 2020 because of the pandemic, and returned for a brief 2021 stint in the Blue Island Men’s Baseball League.
Then came his pro debut, a short spell in the California Winter League in January and February of 2022. After going to the Slammers camp, he returned to the Oilmen after a three-year hiatus.
He’s able to extend his career in Whiting because Oilmen owner and Northern League commissioner Don Popravak tweaked the league’s eligibility rules. What used to be called the Midwest Collegiate League was, as its name implied, for current and incoming college players.
But Popravak saw an opportunity and a need when minor-league baseball underwent drastic changes in the wake of the pandemic. The 2020 affiliated minor-league season was canceled entirely, along with most of the independent league schedules.
When affiliated baseball returned in 2021, it was with far fewer teams. Though there were and are still independent leagues, many younger players with limited or no pro experience needed a place to play while waiting for another shot at the minors.
One of those places is the Northern League, which now has a higher caliber of competition thanks to the addition of older players like Baker.
Opportunity to continue improving
He’s glad to have the opportunity.
“It’s a place to stay sharp,” Baker said. “It’s either here or go somewhere further away and have to live with a host family. … Whereas this is here, this is closer to a lot of the teams that I would hopefully be trying to get to. So it’d be a lot more chances for me to be seen.”
Baker had a big season for the Oilmen last summer, hitting .317 with a .431 on-base percentage and .504 slugging percentage to go along with 32 runs scored and 24 RBI.
He’s continued to work on his game over the offseason and into this year as he chases that opportunity with a pro team.
“I would say (my) game has definitely changed,” Baker said. “Hitting balls harder on a consistent basis. … This year alone, I’ve had more lineouts than I’ve ever had in my life. Hitting in bad luck is the name of this year, I’d say.”
Through 11 games, Baker was batting .220. But he’s still getting on base (.418) and slugging (.439) well, and he has scored 12 runs while driving in nine. His luck may be changing though, as he slugged an inside-the-park homer in the Oilmen’s 4-0 win over the league-leading Lake County Corn Dogs last Thursday.
Oilmen manager Adam Enright appreciates what Baker brings to the table every night.
“It’s always great to have Chris around because he is a really good example of what these guys need to do as far as work ethic and process,” Enright said. “No matter if he’s getting calls from (pro) teams or not, you get the same Chris. You get the same routine, effort, energy out of him.”
That’s useful as some of Baker’s current teammates take a big step up in competition.
“These guys are quickly learning that the jump from high school to college, or junior college to (four-year school), it’s a challenge,” Enright said. “And it can mess with you a little bit if you don’t keep the same routines in place.”
So Baker continues to show the way for his younger teammates as he continues to chase his own pro dreams.
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