On a pleasant Friday afternoon last April, Mike Baxter misplayed a fly ball. The Mets were on their way to a 4-0 loss to the Phillies, playing the halfhearted and thunderously mediocre baseball that has been their trademark in 2013, when the fly came Baxter’s way. It was a long run, and could have been highlight-reel worthy had he successfully slid to catch it, but Baxter broke late, arriving just in time for the ball to roll towards his shoes. From right field came the shout: “You’re a piece of shit, Baxter!”
The heckler wore a Yankee hat, but even without that, it would have been obvious he wasn’t there to cheer on the Mets. Met fans love Mike Baxter, with the dull, unconditional affection usually reserved for pets, or a favorite, fading t-shirt with stains and a few expanding holes. It’s a love too rare in stadiums. The Yankee fan, after an inning or two cursing the hangdog right fielder, disappeared to watch the Knick game. But the Met fans did not turn away. In the seventh inning, when it was clear the Mets had no interest in winning that night, two young women serenaded Baxter, hollering, “Hey Mike! You’re gorgeous! We love you, Mike!”
As it happens, Mike Baxter is not gorgeous. He’s pale, with jug ears and a smile that makes you want to pat him on the head. He looks like Fievel, or less Disney-ishly a frail young contest winner who got to dress up in a big league uniform for the day and, through some ill-advised condition of said contest, half-misplay balls in the outfield. Mike Baxter does not, when he steps into the batter box, look like a man who can catch up to a big league fastball. This is what makes it so wonderful when he does, but also what makes it sort of wonderful when he doesn’t.
Since 2011, Baxter has distinguished himself, to the extent he has managed to do so, by being ever-so-slightly above average. Over three part-time seasons with the Mets, he has contributed nearly one WAR—one little win spread across parts of three forgettable seasons. On August 4, 2012, he walked five times—setting a franchise record for walks in a nine-inning game, a Baxtery accomplishment if there ever was one. He is a very good pinch-hitter and one of the best outfielders on the team, a distinction as impressive as being the world’s third-fastest turtle. There’s no quantifiable reason that, when fans see his name in the lineup, they should feel moved to say, “Ah, good. Baxter’s in today. We’ve got a shot.” And yet there is that impulse, because Mike Baxter is Mike Baxter.
It’s like he was designed by the gods of baseball narrative to become a fan favorite. A Whitestone native, Baxter was born within walking distance of Shea Stadium, and was raised—we’re imagining, here, although it’s not all that difficult—with posters of the 1995 Mets on his wall. He was already liked by fans on the morning of June 1, 2012, but placed a permanent hold on their affection that night—when he hurled himself into a W.B. Mason sign to catch a Yadier Molina fly ball and preserve Johan Santana’s too-good-to-be-true-but-actually-true-anyway no-hitter, the first in the franchise’s history. Baxter dislocated his shoulder on that play, injuring himself to save a meaningless event that nevertheless meant quite a lot to a beaten-down fan base. He spent two months on the disabled list, recovering—one imagines, again—with posters of the 1995 Mets on his wall.
That’s all beautiful stuff, the kind that keeps me warm on cold winter nights and Mets days-off, but Mike from Whitestone is more than a local kid who made a famous catch, a lot more. Well, maybe not a lot more—but more, inescapably and in multiple ways. For one thing, there’s that vaunted pinch-hitting ability. Earlier this month, Baxter had two walk-off pinch hits in a week, and beat writers got all foamy about his lifetime pinch-hitting average, which is something like double the league’s. That’s a meaningless stat, of course, a small sample size mirage if there ever was one, but man, what a nice looking mirage.
The timing helps, but Baxter’s occasional game-winners are all the more exciting because he does not necessarily look strong enough to swing a bat. Baxter is not a David Eckstein type, inspiring old school meatheads to clamor about his will to win. He will never win a Gold Glove; he will never play in an all star game; he will never make the cover of Sports Illustrated. His appeal is strictly intangible, and even if no one can quite name it, everyone knows it. That’s not a new thing in the sport, and that’s okay.
Is it enough to reduce the guy to some happy tautology, to say we love Mike Baxter because we love Mike Baxter? Fans of bad teams become attached to fringe players, because their supposed stars have either left or turned to coal. But players who spend most of the season on the bench can never be a disappointment, and for a franchise that has been disappointing for a long time, that’s a valuable thing. Though I adore David Wright, I can’t relate to him. Just look at his arms—he’s a goddamned superhero! But Baxter isn’t Superman; he isn’t James Bond. He’s Arthur Dent, and Arthur Dent is the best most Met fans—most humans—can aspire to be. Mike Baxter is an average player who occasionally succeeds despite himself, and if he can do that—we think, we hope, we beg the gods of narrative—maybe this supremely average team can do the same.
In a game against the Reds last week, Ike Davis struck out for the nine millionth time in 2013, and retreated to the dugout to slam his helmet and bemoan his vicious slump. Looking angry, he complained to Baxter, who responded with a bland smile and an uncomprehending blink. He meant well, clearly, but trouble doesn’t touch him. Davis, a onetime first round draft pick, is struggling royalty. Baxter is a happy squire. It’s enough.