Doug Baker had many things working against him when the time was right to become a Detroit Tiger. First, at 5-feet-9 and 165 pounds, he was small -- even by baseball standards in the mid-1980s. Second, the majors had begun making the transition from the Mark Belanger or Eddie Brinkman-style good-glove, no-hit shortstops of days gone by. Finally, and perhaps most important, is that Baker had a major impediment blocking his path to regular work in the majors -- Alan Trammell, the Tigers’ regular shortstop for the past half-dozen years and destined to play the role for a decade longer.
Douglas Lee Baker was born in Fullerton, California, on April 3, 1961, to an athletic family; the Bakers produced two sons who would eventually reach the pinnacle of their sport. Doug’s older brother, Dave, had the proverbial cup of coffee as a 24-year-old third baseman with the Toronto Blue Jays in September 1982.
Doug graduated from Granada Hills (California) High School in 1978 as a fellow alumnus of football great John Elway. Granada Hills High also produced Ryan Braun and Gary Matthews Jr., baseball stars of a later generation.
After graduating, Baker entered Los Angeles Valley Junior College, attending for three years before transferring to a larger school more suitable for his talents on the diamond, Arizona State University. “You have to remember that I was so good when I was a kid that I red-shirted my first year at Los Angeles Valley. A JC redshirt. How many kids today are going to be happy with that ... hearing the coach say, ‘We’d love for you to come to our school, but by the way, you’re not good enough to play yet.’ I was just happy to be playing baseball,” Baker told writer David Rawnsley of the Web site perfectgame.com. While still attending LA Valley, Baker developed his talent to the extent that he caught the eye of a scout for the Oakland Athletics, who drafted him at the age of 19 in the January phase of the 1981 amateur draft. Doug elected to continue college and play baseball for Jim Brock at Arizona State that fall rather than sign a professional contract.
In the spring of 1982, the pros came calling again and Baker was selected by the Tigers in the ninth round of the amateur draft. This time he chose to sign. Baker was assigned to the Tigers’ Double-A affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama (Southern League), bypassing the rookie league and Class A. But he struggled, hitting just .225 and committing 14 errors in just 70 games at shortstop.
It was apparent that Baker would need some additional seasoning at the Double-A level, so he returned to Birmingham in the spring of 1983. He adjusted enough to the pitching to nudge his average to .241, while showing some plate discipline with only 51 strikeouts and 65 walks -- giving him a respectable .352 on-base percentage in a league-leading 146 contests, split between shortstop and the outfield. His performance that summer earned Baker a spot on the Southern League All-Star squad.
Baker’s improvement at the plate and his fine glove work prompted Tigers management to add him to the list of nonroster invitees to their 1984 major-league camp in Lakeland, Florida. His performance that spring caught the eye of manager Sparky Anderson, but with All-Star Trammell at short and handyman Tom Brookens backing him up, the Tigers had no immediate need for a kid less than two years removed from college. Baker, however, moved another rung up the organizational ladder when he was assigned that spring to the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate in Evansville, Indiana (American Association). He thrived as the Triplets’ shortstop, hitting .259 and showing some pop with eight home runs in only 243 at-bats. He continued to draw walks with his on-base percentage rising to .377. His defense earned him Baseball America’s recognition as the best defender at shortstop in the American Association, with the best arm of any infielder in the league.
On July 2, 1984, barely two years after signing his first professional contract, Doug Baker received the call. With Alan Trammell experiencing arm soreness, Anderson, remembering “the kid with the good glove” from spring training, called Baker up from Evansville. He was immediately inserted into the lineup, batting ninth against the White Sox and lefty Floyd Bannister.
Baker spelled Trammell off and on until July 12, when Trammell’s arm trouble finally put him on the disabled list. On July 13, in his seventh game and 14th at-bat, Baker picked up his first major-league hit -- a sixth-inning single leading off against the Twins’ John Butcher in Minnesota.
A week and a half later, Doug stroked four singles in a 9-5 victory at Cleveland.
After clearing the bases with a triple in the first game of a home doubleheader against the Indians on July 31, Baker, hitting just .157, was sent back to Evansville. “Baker is a good kid who will be a good player, but we need that right-handed hitting because right now, ours stinks,” Anderson wrote in his memoir, Bless You Boys: Diary of the Detroit Tigers’ 1984 Season.
“I’m not jumping up and down about it,” Baker said of his demotion. “Nobody likes to be sent back down, but I expected it sooner or later. The last thing I wanted to do was come up and get in the way of what’s going on up here. If I helped a little, I’m going back pleased.”
Baker’s return to Evansville was short-lived as Trammell’s arm troubles lingered. He returned to the Tigers and started at short on August 11. Three days later, Anderson inserted him into the lineup for both ends of the Tigers’ sixth doubleheader in 19 days. Then, on August 20, he contributed three hits as part of a 20-hit attack as the Tigers overwhelmed Oakland 14-1. This was during a stretch when Baker was filling in at second base for Lou Whitaker, himself ailing with a sore back, with five games in five days, the last four of them starts. Despite his spurts of offensive prowess, Baker ended the season hitting just .185 for the American League East champion Tigers.
Anderson named Baker as a reserve infielder for the American League Championship Series against Kansas City. Baker came in for Trammell at shortstop in the ninth inning of the Tigers’ 8-1 victory in Game One. That was his only postseason appearance as he was left off the World Series roster. Baker, however, stayed with the team throughout its postseason trek to a world championship.
“It’s exactly what you think it would be. There’s nothing better. You’re on top of the world,” Baker told writer Rawnsley about his experience as a role player on a World Series winner, just 28 months after signing his first professional contract.
After arthroscopic surgery on his left knee performed immediately after the World Series, Baker came to spring training physically renewed in 1985 and with the confidence that he had a role as a backup infielder. But in one of the more head-shaking moments in Tigers history, Anderson had the airport-bound bus stop at Tigertown and made Baker get off. Baker found himself optioned to the Nashville Sounds, the Tigers’ new American Association affiliate.
Serving as the primary shortstop for the Sounds for the balance of the summer of 1985, Baker hit just .218 in 107 games. Called up with rosters expanding in September, Doug appeared in 12 games, going 5-for-25 in the waning weeks for the Tigers, spelling Trammell in the late innings and in occasional starts. Coupled with his 0-for-2 performance in three games for Detroit earlier in the season, Baker matched his .185 batting average of 1984.
Baker began 1986 with the Tigers, again used sparingly -- appearing in just three games in two weeks -- before being optioned to Nashville, where he again served as the Sounds’ regular shortstop and improved his batting average to .274. He was pulled from the bushes with roster expansion in September. He got to start five straight games at shortstop, September 25-30. But he hit just.125 with one of his three hits a double.
A veteran of 71 games with the Tigers in three seasons of secondary duty, Baker came to spring training in 1987 assuming again that as in the prior two seasons, he would accompany the team as it headed north. Manager Sparky Anderson instead elected to save the roster spot, filling the backup shortstop role with Brookens, who had been the primary third baseman before the arrival of Darnell Coles in 1986.
Again the Tigers’ Triple-A shortstop, but this time in Toledo, Baker batted .247 in 117 games for the Mud Hens. Baker was summoned to Detroit in September and appeared defensively in eight games, going hitless in one at-bat.
Doug Baker’s opportunities as a backup to Alan Trammell had diminished a great deal after he logged 43 games in 1984, with just 15 games in 1985, then 13 in 1986, and only eight in September 1987. The reduced role for Baker as a backup infielder for the Tigers ended abruptly. Around the time the full squad was scheduled to join the pitchers and catchers at spring training camp in Lakeland in February 1988, Baker found himself wearing new colors as he was dealt by Detroit to the Minnesota Twins for minor leaguer Julius McDougal.
Joining a new organization carried with it hope of greater opportunity for Baker. Yet incumbent Twins shortstop Greg Gagne proved to be as immovable as Trammell had been. When camp broke, Baker was assigned to Triple-A Portland of the Pacific Coast League, where he hit .245 for the 1988 season with a career-high 17 steals. As in each of the prior four seasons, Baker returned to the American League as a September call-up, appearing in 11 games for Minnesota and going 0-for-7 at the plate.
The following spring, he was again dispatched to Triple-A, but this time he was at Portland for just a month before the Twins called him east to back up Gagne. Returned to Portland just two weeks later, Baker resumed his shortstop duties for the Beavers. Early in July, he found himself back in Minnesota, but this time he contributed offensively, smacking four hits in his first six official at-bats, bunching in a walk, a sacrifice, and a sacrifice fly. He now stood at 6-for-11 for the season, combined with the 2-for-5 performance earlier in the season, and was poised to finally break into the lineup -- which he did, starting nine games in next 12 days. He cooled off to a .310 average by the end of July, and by the middle of August, after a few more starts, was returned to Portland still sporting a healthy .293 batting average. Baker remained stellar in the field for Portland though hitting just .237. He appeared in 13 more games for the Twins in September, coming just a hit shy of .300, finishing the year at .295 (23-for-78) -- easily his best stint hitting at the big-league level.
His reward for the success of the 1989 season was a trip north with the Twins in the spring of 1990. However, this round-trip lasted just three games and one at-bat – his final swing in the big leagues – resulting in a fly out to left field off Dennis Eckersley in the top of the eighth inning of a 5-3 Twins loss in Oakland on April 10, 1990. Back at Portland, the 29-year-old Baker took on a utility role – playing several games at second, third, and the outfield, and even twice at first base – while patrolling the familiar shortstop post in 43 contests with only four errors. However, a .216 average kept him off the September big-league squad for the first time in seven seasons.
The Twins granted Baker free agency in October 1990. He signed a minor-league contract with the Houston Astros and joined the Triple-A Tucson Toros for the 1991 season. Again playing in mostly a utility role, Baker slumped to .183 in 73 games for the eventual Pacific Coast League champion Toros, his worst mark ever as a regular. With the prospects of returning to the major leagues becoming increasingly dim for an aging minor-league infielder whose skills -- at least with the bat – were apparently diminishing, Baker retired after the 1990 season.
Reminiscing to David Rawnsley about his career, Baker talked about playing for Sparky Anderson and the Twins’ Tom Kelly: “For a player like me, Kelly was by far the best manager I could have. You’ve often heard about how a manager ‘gets the most out of his players,’ well, that was Kelly. He cared about the 25th player on the team (usually me) as much as the stars and made sure that you felt you were contributing. If you got some at-bats one day and had a hit or two, he’d make sure that you were out there again the next day just to get your confidence up.
“Sparky, on the other hand, knew who his studs were and with guys like Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Lance Parrish, Kirk Gibson, and Jack Morris, the Tigers obviously had some good ones. He took care of them and the bench guys knew our role was to take care of them, too. Whitaker (a left-handed hitter) tended to have a sore back or flu-like symptoms only when we were facing some nasty left-handed pitcher, so I’d be out there not having seen a live pitch in two weeks and trying to hit off Ron Guidry or Mark Langston or Frank Viola. So hitting .185 (his batting average in 1984) doesn’t seem so bad in retrospect.”
Baker also described the famous double-play combination he occasionally subbed for: “Playing behind Trammell and Whitaker was a treat because they were such talented players, and very different personalities. Trammell is from Southern California and was one of the best teammates I ever had. Super guy who was nice to a fault with everyone.
“Whitaker was an immensely talented player who could do just about anything he wanted on the field. He’d go on these streaks with no explanation where he’d say, ‘I’m going to pull the ball in the air for a few days,’ or ‘I’m going to hit line drives over the shortstop for a few days’ and just do it. Heck, I couldn’t do that in BP. But he was a very different personality, that’s for sure.”
After retiring as a player, Baker served as a minor-league coach for a season before moving on to serve as a scout for the Atlanta Braves for three years and then for the Cleveland Indians organization for eight years.
Doug returned to his roots in Southern California, joining Perfect Game USA, touted on its web site as the “World’s Largest Scouting Report Service” in 2003, assuming the duties of West Coast scouting supervisor shortly thereafter.
In 2009 Baker was assisting in other player development programs either as a guest instructor or on paid staff, in either capacity with such organizations as MVP Baseball, the ABD Academy, and the Katy Sting Academy.
Working at developing young talent in the game he loves, Baker encourages them to “play like it’s fun to play. I know it’s trite but they still call this a ‘game’ and that’s what it should be. I know I grew up like every kid with a glove and cleats thinking that I wanted to be a big leaguer. I was very lucky. But when I went on the field I was just thinking how great it was that I was playing baseball with my friends.”
Emily Newhouse, Harrison Newhouse, David Rawnsley, Jeff Samoray
Anderson, Sparky. Bless You Boys: Diary of the Detroit Tigers’ 1984 Season. Chicago: Contemporary Books, Inc. 1984.
Paladino, Larry. 1985 Detroit Tigers Official Yearbook. Detroit: Detroit Tigers. 1985.
Paladino, Larry. 1987 Detroit Tigers Official Yearbook. Detroit: Detroit Tigers. 1987.
Gage, Tom. “Tigers Alter Roster During Twin Bill.” The Sporting News, August 13, 1984.
Rawnsley, David. “PG Supervisor and former Big Leaguer Doug Baker.” www.perfectgame.org. 2005.