Guitar-strumming catcher John Baker wins a spot in Cubs band
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter March 26, 2014 10:18PM
Updated: April 28, 2014 10:41AM
MESA, Ariz. — The guitar case lay open on the floor in front of him as the guy who looked as though he just rolled out of bed strummed a chord.
If it weren’t in the middle of the Cubs’ clubhouse on a spring-training morning, a passerby might have been tempted to throw some change or a buck into the case to help the homeless guy. In fact, somebody actually offered.
But John Baker doesn’t need the help. Especially after the journeyman catcher found a home on the Cubs’ Opening Day roster Wednesday.
Baker, who entered camp on a minor-league contract looking like a long shot to beat out George Kottaras for the backup catching job, hit well enough and struck enough of the right chords with pitchers to win the job when Kottaras was released.
Now teammates get to find out if they can handle Baker’s clubhouse jams on his custom-made Taylor guitar once spring training ends.
“He’s good enough, so yes,” said pitcher Jeff Samardzija, who likes the decision for both baseball and musical reasons. “You’ve got to look out for the mediocre guys that think they’re good. Those are the annoying ones, that only know about a minute of every song they play. That’s annoying.
“But he can actually play and sing a little bit, so he can jam out. He plays good music, too.”’
Baker, 33, has played good baseball in his career, too. The lefty hitter has a .258 average and .342 on-base percentage in 291 career games with Florida and San Diego — a career that included regular playing time until an elbow injury in 2010 that eventually required Tommy John surgery.
And when it comes to handling pitchers, it was no coincidence Baker got the call Tuesday to catch top prospect C.J. Edwards’ first appearance against big-league hitters.
“I’ve talked to him a lot,” said Samardzija, who pitched to Baker in one game and several bullpen sessions this spring. “He’s a vocal guy and a smart dude. You definitely enjoy a cerebral catcher, for sure, so it’s nice. Even when he’s not catching, he’s paying attention to the game; he’s locked in. So even after the game [if he didn’t catch], you can bounce things off him.
“And he’s an honest guy, too. That’s the best thing you can want out of a catcher. Hey, if I was garbage that day, tell me I was garbage. If I was good, tell me I was good.”
Insiders suggest there was support among team officials for both Baker and Eli Whiteside, the other backup candidate left in camp, who was told he will open the season at Class AAA Iowa.
Manager Rick Renteria has a history with Baker from San Diego but seemed at a loss for specifics when asked why Baker won the job.
“Bake worked really well this spring, and he just kind of earned a spot,’’ Renteria said.
For him and his prized Taylor.
Baker, whose brother plays trombone in an orchestra and whose father is in a wedding band, began playing guitar about 10 years ago. After a long layoff, he picked up the instrument again about the time he came back from elbow surgery.
When he was traded to the Padres, he discovered a corner of the trainer’s room with several guitars and amps.
“They promote this kind of environment where everybody’s around each other,” he said.
In whatever harmony they can muster.
Along the way, he also discovered the nearby Taylor factory offered discounts to the Padres.
“So I designed my own guitar, had it built, got it for 50 percent off, and now I can’t put the damn thing down,” he said. “I love it.”
The 2014 Tour starts Monday in Pittsburgh.