JUPITER, Fla. -- Mike Baxter had called the night before. Home visiting his parents in Queens, N.Y., over the winter and needing a place to work out, Baxter placed a call to Keith Hahn, his closest friend from Archbishop Molloy High School and the school's current junior varsity coach. Hahn instructed Baxter to show up to Molloy around 8 a.m., then arrived himself at 6:30 for early work with a few members of his team.
"The next thing we hear is banging on the gym door," Hahn said. "It was Mike, coming without even being asked for."
For the next hour and a half, Baxter hit in the cage with members of Molloy's junior varsity team, doling out advice and baseball equipment "and just making their day," as his friend put it. Then the players shuffled off to class, Hahn went to his day job as a teacher's assistant and Baxter stayed behind to log his own hours in the weight room.
"The kid just puts others in front of himself all the time when it comes to friends, family, all that stuff," Hahn said. "He's an even better person than a player."
Now, Baxter must prove that he is also a better option than his teammates in the Mets' increasingly crowded backup outfield competition. When Scott Hairston strained his left oblique early in camp, Baxter began working in center field in an attempt to keep pace with Adam Loewen, his primary competition for an Opening Day bench spot. But Hairston's slow progress and an injury to starting center fielder Andres Torres have the Mets making contingency plans, going as far as to try both infield prospect Jordany Valdespin and regular left fielder Jason Bay in center.
The muddier that picture becomes, the more opportunity seems to exist for Baxter, who grew up less than five miles from Shea Stadium in the Whitestone neighborhood of Queens. It is there that Baxter met Hahn, developed into a star at Molloy, went on to play at Columbia University and transferred to Vanderbilt, ultimately developing into a legitimate Major League prospect.
Last summer, after kicking around San Diego's system for parts of seven seasons, Baxter fell to the Mets in a midseason waiver claim. Another brief stint in the Minors led to the classic backyard dream come true, with Baxter debuting in front of scores of family and friends at Citi Field in August. The Mets non-tendered Baxter in December before re-signing him days later, and now here he is: the fifth Queens native to play for the Mets in their half-century history, doing all he can to keep that trivia nugget tethered to the present tense.
"It's just a unique opportunity in baseball," Baxter said. "It just doesn't present itself very often in anybody's career, because there are only 30 markets to begin with. So when one of them is your hometown and you have a chance to reconnect with people you haven't seen in a while and give them a chance to watch you play in your backyard, that's a great experience."
That's not to say it comes without its share of frustrations. Baxter regularly texts and calls Hahn, his closest confidant, to discuss whatever obstacles his career might place before him. He tries not to harp on the competition with Loewen and others because he knows he can only control his portion of the battle.
More than halfway through the Grapefruit League schedule, Baxter is at least holding his own in that regard, batting .303 with a team-high three stolen bases (though just one extra-base hit). Yet more important has been his play in the outfield, particularly in center. A high school shortstop who rejected an offer to play at St. John's in part because he wanted to remain an infielder, Baxter converted to right field after the Padres drafted him in the fourth round in 2005. He has remained there ever since, largely on the strength of an above-average throwing arm.
Now, due to circumstances that did not exist a month ago, Baxter is attempting to learn a new position. He seemed comfortable in center against the Cardinals on Wednesday, ranging at a difficult angle to snare a David Freese fly ball in the second inning. But he will need to continue improving to win an Opening Day roster spot.
"He works at it," said Jack Curran, Molloy's 81-year-old longtime baseball coach. "If you work at it, you get the results. And then when you get in the pros, you still have to outwork people."
"If he outworks guys in the pros," Curran continued, "he's going to get there."
That is why Baxter has been logging hours with Mets coach Tom Goodwin, attempting to improve his center-field stock. Though Baxter fits the profile of a center fielder better than the 6-foot-6, 235-pound Loewen, the latter has accrued more experience at the position. Baxter is a more polished player than the younger Valdespin, who homered Wednesday, but the latter boasts more sheer athleticism. And then there is the matter of Bay, who could render the entire discussion moot if he displays an aptitude for subbing in center in a pinch.
So it goes for Baxter, who simply wants to stick in the Majors with his hometown team -- no matter how he does it.
"When you're comfortable somewhere and you like the staff and you like the guys on the team, you put yourself in that situation and then try to make the best of it with whatever opportunity you're given," Baxter said. "Because if you go out and you play hopefully as well as you can, things will fall into place."