by Jim Mancari
It took the New York Mets 8,020 games, but on June 1, 2012, lefty ace Johan Santana tossed the first no-hitter in franchise history.
Santana was the star that evening, but it was an incredible defensive gem from Whitestone native Mike Baxter that preserved the no-hit bid.
Baxter, a graduate of Archbishop Molloy H.S., Briarwood, and a former CYO star at St. Luke’s parish, Whitestone, appeared Aug. 9 as a guest at the 17th annual Bishops’ Golf Classic, played at the North Hills Country Club in Manhasset, L.I.
Even after playing a game earlier in the day — in which he recorded two hits in a Mets 6-1 win over the Miami Marlins — Baxter graciously relived the great catch and how it has forever cemented his role in Mets lore.
June 1 started like any other Mets game at Citi Field. Baxter got the start in left field against the reigning World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. Santana was actually a little shaky in the second inning, giving up two walks, but he survived unscathed.
All of a sudden, it was the fifth inning, and Santana had still not given up a hit, which was impressive since the Cardinals boast a strong offensive attack. It’s a sin for any of the players to talk to a pitcher who is working on a no-hitter, but Baxter said the players knew exactly what was going on.
“It’s one of those unspoken things that everybody’s aware of, especially when you get past the fifth inning,” he said. “You start to be aware of the situation of the game and what’s developing. But no one wants to be the one to say something in case something bad happens, so we all keep quiet about it and just let the game play itself out.”
In the top of the sixth inning, Baxter said he looked up to the scoreboard and saw the Cardinals still had no hits. He said Santana certainly had his pitches working that night, which made a no-hitter a definite possibility.
“It kind of takes the game to another dimension,” Baxter said.
Cardinals’ catcher Yadier Molina stepped to the plate with one out in the top of the seventh inning. If any Cardinal was to break up Santana’s no-hitter, Mets fans surely did not want it to be Molina, who hit the go-ahead two-run home run against the Mets in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series, sending the Cardinals — instead of the Mets — to the World Series.
Molina ripped a 3-1 Santana offering deep to left field. With the ball in flight, it looked like Santana’s no-hit bid was in serious jeopardy.
“I got a good read off the bat,” Baxter said. “I felt like it was a ball that was going to stay in the park first of all. Then I tried to gain some ground running back to the fence while taking my eyes off the ball to try to see where I’m at on the field.”
In every no-hitter or perfect game, there’s always a great defensive play that preserves the no-hit performance. Well, the baseball gods didn’t let the Mets down this time, as Baxter was able to secure the ball in his glove for the out.
Unfortunately, Baxter stumbled on the track, so he wasn’t able to hit the wall properly. As soon as he caught the ball, his momentum thrust his whole body directly into the wall.
“When I hit the wall, it knocked the wind out of me,” he said. “It took me a little while to get my breath back and reassess to make sure everything else was working. From there, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stay in the game.”
Baxter suffered fractured rib cartilage under his sternum, a bruised rib and a separated collarbone in making the catch, forcing him to leave the game. With the Citi Field fans going wild, Baxter says he doesn’t even remember being helped back to the dugout since he was so caught up in the moment.
Sure enough, Baxter’s catch propelled Santana to complete the no-hitter. Santana was sure to check on Baxter after the game and thanked his left fielder for aiding in history. Even after making his now famous catch, Baxter gave all the credit to Santana.
“It was such a great night for him (Santana),” Baxter said. “He was able to go into the clubhouse and celebrate and share it with the rest of the team, and that’s where he belonged. On such a historic night like that, it’s something that neither one of us will ever forget.
“It’s an honor just to be part of a no-hitter in general. It’s so rare to be on the field and play in a game like that. It’s an honor to do it for Johan. He’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had. To be part of his special night was great.”
Growing up in Whitestone, Baxter was — and still is — a devout Mets fan. He obviously never witnessed a Mets no-hitter, so he said he would never forget being part of the first one in franchise history. He said it’s incredible that with all the successful pitchers the Mets have had that none until Santana had pitched a no-hitter.
Baxter’s catch landed him on the disabled list for two months. He said his rehab process went well, and he rejoined the big club in early August.
“I’m grateful the Mets are giving me another chance in the Major Leagues with them,” the humble outfielder said. “I’m just going to go out there and help the team win.”
If Baxter continues to show what he can do on the field, the Mets are sure to give him plenty more chances.
Contact Jim Mancari via e-mail at email@example.com.
Pignatano Shares Baseball Memories
Former Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Joe Pignatano and his wife Nancy returned to the Bishops’ Golf Glassic after being unable to attend last year.
At age 83, the Bay Ridge native still mustered the energy to play 18 holes of golf and entertain the crowd with a rousing speech.
“I got my first hit in Ebbets Field,” he said. “I was the last catch in Ebbets Field. And what Brooklynite can say they did that but me?”
He fondly recalls playing for the legendary Casey Stengel while with the original ’62 Mets.
“Casey was great for baseball, but he didn’t know our names,” Pignatano said. “He used to call me ‘Mr. Pignatani.’”
Pignatano remembers serving as the bullpen catcher in charge of answering the phone if Stengel called.
“Sure enough about the fifth inning, the phone rang and I picked it up and said, ‘Yes sir!,’” Pignatano said. “He (Stengel) said, ‘Get up Nelson!’ and hung up. But we had no Nelson. We actually did have a Nelson, but he was in the broadcasting booth (Lindsey Nelson).”
In wanting to respect his manager’s wishes, Pignatano called for Nelson, but reliever Bob Miller got up to start getting loose.
“I said to him (Miller), ‘When did you change your name?’ Pignatano said. “He said, ‘I didn’t, he (Stengel) did.’”