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Love of hitting paying off for Baxter

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It was evident from the time he was a kid — Mike Baxter loved baseball. For hours he would stand alone in front of his Whitestone house, whiffle ball bat in hand, hitting the ball from one end of the lawn to the other.

While baseball was his love, hitting became his passion.

“I’d prop him up, teach him how to move his hands, his hips, but he was just a very good student of the game,” said his father Ray Baxter, who played high school ball at Mater Christi, now St. John’s Prep. “He’s intelligent, asks a lot of questions. Some of his coaches have said he is a very coachable kid.”

As Baxter grew, so did his prowess at the plate. From St. Luke’s grammar school through the Bayside Little League and three years at Archbishop Molloy and two summers with the Bayside Yankees, Baxter continued to improve.

But it wasn’t until 2000 when he made the Molloy varsity team as a sophomore — a rarity for legendary coach Jack Curran — that he began to believe he could be a Division I college ballplayer.

“I was surprised,” he said. “At that time they had Gary Kaible [now at Fordham] at first — it was his senior year. They had a lot of infielders and Curran called me up and said we could use you. I played shortstop at the beginning of the year and designated hitter the rest. I was shocked. I wasn’t expecting that.”

“If a boy’s good enough [I’ll let him play on the varsity],” Curran said. “He was a very good hitter. He hit very well as a sophomore.”

He didn’t disappoint. Despite batting out of the seven slot, Baxter hit .350 that year. He moved up the order to bat second last year and his batting average also improved as he hit close to .400 as one of the only junior starters on the senior-laden Stanners squad that fell short of its expectations.

“When you hit .250 as a team in the playoffs, that’s what happens,” Baxter said. “We didn’t do what we had to do. It will be a lot tougher next year without all those studs.”

While playing for Molloy, which is steeped in tradition and saw two of its former players, Jason Fardella and Jesse Roman, chosen in the 13th round of last month’s Major League Draft, gives Baxter plenty of exposure locally, he wanted the chance to be seen by college coaches from across the country.

Enter the Bayside Yankees, whose alumni list include current major leaguers Billy Koch, Pete Munro and Steve Karsay.

“That’s the whole purpose of the Bayside Yankees,” said Yankees Junior American head coach Joe Kessler, who has coached close to 50 Division I baseball players. “To give them at least two to three years of exposure by getting them to the showcases. There are more scouts there than some teams see in a year.”

After a strong season last year, Baxter has continued his upward climb with the club this summer, batting .450 as the team’s No. 3 hitter. He was only one of 90 players invited to the Area Codes Games last month in Delaware and is looking forward to some of the exposure camps Yankees players are invited to in the fall.

“I’ll play with Bayside as long as they’ll have me,” he said. “Its a bit tough because every weekend in the fall you’re out of town, but you get to go to Clemson, Duke, North Carolina. You go down to the schools and play in front of them.”

Kessler said Baxter’s best attributes at the plate are his quick hands and his ability to adjust to the pitcher, comparing him to former Cardozo and St. John’s standout Mike Dzurilla, who was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the seventh round of the 1999 Major League Draft.

“He’ll definitely be a good Division I player,” he said. “He has the work ethic and hitting-wise he’ll be able to deal with it because he already faces 85- to 90-mph pitching. Defensively, he has very good speed. He should be a middle infielder of a first baseman. It will be up to the college people to decide.”

Ray Baxter still plays ball with his son. But the location of the soft tosses and defensive practice has switched from the yard to Stanner Field. And while Ray Baxter is as proud as any father would be of his son’s accomplishments on the field, it is Michael’s down-to-earth attitude off the field that has Ray beaming.

“Usually when a boy goes through their teenage years they drift away from their parents, but it’s nice that we could still talk,” Ray Baxter said. “About baseball, about anything.”

Reach Associate Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 143.

Posted 7:16 pm, October 10, 2011
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