For a few days in May 2013, former New York Mets outfielder Mike Baxter, “The Pride of Whitestone,” lived out a Hollywood story.
It was May 7, 2013. Against the Chicago White Sox, Matt Harvey pitched nine scoreless innings, struck out twelve, and allowed only an infield single to Alex Rios. But the New York Mets couldn’t score either, and the game went to the tenth.
Bobby Parnell pitched a scoreless inning. In the bottom of the frame, Ike Davis led off with a walk. Juan Lagares bunted him to second. And then Mike Baxter, a Queens kid with a shot at glory, pinch-hit for Parnell.
They called him “The Pride of Whitestone” ever since he’d caught Yadier Molina’s fly ball and crashed into the wall to preserve Johan Santana’s 2012 no-hitter. He played in Bayside Little League as a child and then portrayed his talents for Archbishop Molloy High School, near the intersection of Main Street and Queens Boulevard.
The Pride of Whitestone took a ball and a strike. With the count even, Nate Jones threw a fastball at 96 miles per hour. Baxter drove it into the right field corner, giving New York the win.
Then, it was May 9 of that same year, and the Hollywood story hadn’t ended yet.
The Mets were leading against the Pirates in the eighth inning, but LaTroy Hawkins gave up a solo home run to tie the game at two. Marlon Byrd led off the bottom of the ninth with a single before Andrew Brown bunted him to second. Lagares was due up, but Terry Collins wanted a lefty to face Jason Grilli. The Pride of Whitestone came to bat.
The first pitch was a strike. On the second, Baxter swung. He lined it up the middle. Byrd came home. The Mets won.
Another Whitestone walk-off.
Baxter took a careful turn around first, ever the responsible, fundamental player. The kind of turn that comes from a lifetime of doing everything right on the field. A sort of Herb Brooks turn, the kind you take when you don’t possess enough talent to win on talent alone. He made sure that Byrd had scored before celebrating.
Baxter wasn’t usually the best player in the room. During his pre-teen years, he was cut from a local travel team. But he kept working. By his freshman year at Columbia, he was a star, batting .368/.405/.474. But he was unhappy with the program, so he transferred to Vanderbilt, where he kept hitting.
During his junior campaign, Baxter hit .374/.468/.607 with nine home runs and 26 stolen bases. The Padres selected him in the fourth round of the 2005 amateur entry draft.
Slowly but surely, he worked his way upwards through the minors. In 2010, at 25 years of age, he batted .301/.382/.517 for the Portland Beavers, the Padres’ Triple-A affiliate. San Diego called him up in September of that year. In a 12-2 loss to the Reds later that month, Baxter earned his first MLB hit.
Baxter started 2011 on the 60-day disabled list. But while he rehabbed in the minors, the Mets claimed him off waivers on July 22. Baxter, not yet The Pride of Whitestone, was heading home.
Baxter’s first at-bat in a Mets uniform started a rally. It was Aug. 8, 2011 and the Mets were losing 8-4 to the Padres, his former team. With two men on and one out in the eighth, Baxter doubled to left-center to drive home Lucas Duda. Up next, Ronny Paulino hit a sacrifice fly, and the Mets were within two. In the ninth inning, David Wright drove in Jason Pridie. Duda then hit a two-run single to give the Mets a 9-8 victory.
From there, the story of Baxter as a Met was a good one. Never quite legendary, but a good one nonetheless. In 2011 and 2012, Baxter posted a combined .780 OPS; he was a serviceable fill-in leadoff hitter and additionally solid on defense.
Mets fans will remember Baxter’s role in preserving Santana’s no-hitter. Some will probably even recall his brief walk-off frenzy in May 2013.
Nonetheless, Baxter quickly faded from New York legendary status. He went up and down between Triple-A and the majors in 2013. In October of that year, the Dodgers claimed him off waivers. From 2013-15, Baxter’s .199 batting average hovered just below the Mendoza line.
But for just a moment in May 2013, it didn’t matter. Mike Baxter, the Queens kid, was riding high and taking the Mets with him. The Mets were mediocre and Baxter would never be a superstar, but for the shortest of stretches, they all played like legends.
That’s the story of baseball: every day, a new hero can emerge. And ever so briefly, the 2013 Mets were a Hollywood story. On the wild, barren plains of the National League East, The Pride of Whitestone roamed vigilantly, doing his duty to the home he’d never truly left.