By Trey Williams
Major League Baseball’s financial concerns have made the Appalachian League’s future uncertain, which brings to mind a blast from the past of Unicoi County alumnus Andy Baxter.
Baxter, who was part of a state championship and a state runner-up team while playing for his father Charlie at Unicoi County and an All-Southern Conference player at East Tennessee State as a senior, had a productive season for the Burlington Indians during a memorable 2001 season for the rookie-league circuit.
After pitching for St. Louis the previous season, 21-year-old pitcher Rick Ankiel received an unprecedented demotion to Johnson City due to wildness on the mound. His battery mate that summer was fellow future major leaguer Yadier Molina.
The surreal summer nights’ future stars included Joe Mauer (Elizabethton), David Wright (Kingsport) and Jonny Gomes (Princeton). But Baxter, a 6-foot-4 left-handed hitting first baseman, led the league in RBIs and extra-base hits, tied for second in triples and was third in doubles and home runs.
“I think Jonny Gomes beat me for the home run title, but if I remember right I still led the league in extra-base hits and RBIs,” Baxter said. “That was something I was proud of playing against … a lot of guys that went on to have big careers. There was a lot of talent in the league.”
Baxter, however, didn’t fare well against Ankiel, a hard-throwing left-hander with an excellent curveball. Ankiel was pitching for St. Louis in the playoffs the previous year when he became extremely wild, throwing a number of pitches off the backstop.
He was sent away far from the bright lights, where he would also get extra at-bats as a designated hitter. Ankiel struck out 158 in 87 2/3 innings while allowing 42 hits and 18 walks and recording a 1.33 ERA in 2001. He also hit 10 home runs in 105 at-bats and regularly drew large crowds.
“He was tough,” Baxter said. “I mean he was throwing a mid-90s fastball and a curveball in the 60s that the rotation was so tight you could hear it going by you cutting through the air. And I have to say I remember feeling like he had a bigger strike zone than every other pitcher in the league, too. So I was frustrated against him.
“He had a lot of talent. I faced him in a showcase in high school and then played against him there. And he could hit. He was an athlete.”
Baxter’s first professional game in the Tri-Cities was in Kingsport. It was at the end of the first week of the season and came on his first scheduled day off. His coaches didn’t realize he was from Northeast Tennessee until they saw him talking to a number of people before the game in Kingsport.
“I remember them coming over and saying, ‘Why didn’t you tell us you were from here? We wouldn’t have taken you out of the lineup,’” the soft-spoken Baxter said with a chuckle. “But at that point I didn’t want to say anything, just do what they told me. But I was back in the lineup the next day. I remember hitting a home run in Kingsport that next day.
“I think I hit one everywhere except Johnson City. I hit one in Elizabethton and a couple in Bristol. I hit a walk-off against Kingsport’s closer toward the end of the year in Burlington when we were still in the race for the pennant. … Kingsport had a left-handed closer and we were down 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth. I hit a two-run home run to end it.”
Baxter’s parents attended many of his Appalachian League games.
“I think we started on the road,” Baxter said. “I think we may have been in Princeton, West Virginia. I’m sure my parents came. My parents came as much as they could that summer. Everywhere in that league was within five hours from home.”
Burlington, a Cleveland Indians affiliate at the time, supported Baxter’s team.
“There were a lot of retired people in Burlington that would come to games,” he said. “I remember this one couple taking me and Kevin Tillman out to eat a couple of times just to talk baseball and support the team. We had decent crowds and good fans there. And they were coming off the history of Manny Ramirez and some of those Indians players that’d played there in Burlington.”
The atmosphere was even better when Baxter played his second pro season for Mahoning Valley of the New York-Penn League – before shoulder surgery helped cut short his career.
“We got better crowds (than in the Appalachian League) but we were an hour east of Cleveland,” he said. “The Staten Island Yankees drew good crowds. The Brooklyn Cyclones were the Mets. So they were right there in the backyard of their home teams (parent organizations). Williamsport was the Pirates. …
“The Brooklyn Cyclones’ Single-A field was one of the nicest playing surfaces I ever played on. It was pristine.”
If you weren’t on your game, or perhaps even if you were, you could get heckled mercilessly in Staten Island and Brooklyn. It brings to mind an Appalachian League attribute.
“I think it’s a good place for the Latin players to kind of get acclimated to the United States and things like that,” Baxter said. “It’s a friendly environment for them. There wasn’t a lot of heckling going on on the road games like when we went to Brooklyn and some of those places in Single-A, or even in college.”
Transitioning from college to Appalachian League pitching wasn’t difficult, although the college bats at the time provided much more of an advantage than wood bats as compared to today.
“I would actually say a lot of the college pitchers were a little more polished,” Baxter said. “You saw a lot more offspeed. Most pitchers were at least trying to throw three pitches for strikes.
“You saw probably more velocity in rookie ball, but not as much control or finesse. They were the type pitchers that had gotten drafted based on having really good arms. They could throw hard, but they were still learning to pitch.”
Burlington had a number of hard-throwing pitchers.
“Our starting five was anywhere from first- to seventh-round picks that year,” Baxter said. “But our No. 1 pick (Dan Denham) didn’t win a game. He could throw 98 miles an hour out of high school in California, but he was 0-for-the-summer.
“I used to love hitting off those guys that could throw hard but didn’t have a secondary pitch, because you could take everything else away and just try to get the head of the bat out on a fastball. The velocity wasn’t hard to catch up to when they didn’t have anything else to go with it.”
It’s odd to fathom summers without the romance of the Appalachian League and boys of summer chasing dreams in cities around the Mountain Empire.
“It would be different for this area, for sure,” Baxter said. “A lot of these communities have supported these teams for years and look forward to going out and seeing these guys before anybody really knows who they are and seeing who’s gonna make the major leagues.”
A number of Appy League organizations have invested significant money in recent years, including Boyd Sports (Johnson City, Elizabethton, Greeneville). Baxter also noted Pulaski generating a positive vibe of late.
“When I was in the league we played on a gravel infield in Martinsville,” Baxter said (the infield, at least technically, wasn’t gravel), “and the Astros got moved to Tusculum (Greeneville) and that franchise now has the nicest field in the league. There’s definitely been improvements in recent years (in the league).”
The Appalachian League might expire, but it won’t erase Baxter’s summer of 2001.
“I just remember enjoying getting the opportunity to play,” he said. “Being where I was starting my professional career, it was special to be close to home where a lot of people I knew came out and watched. But really it could’ve been anywhere. I was just happy to be playing ball and enjoyed hitting with a wood bat and competing with those guys. A lot of good memories.”