Senior transfer finds success, home at Grand Valley

GVL / Robert Mathews
Senior Cory Baker (20) pitching against Northwood University.

Robert Mathews

GVL / Robert Mathews Senior Cory Baker (20) pitching against Northwood University.

Brady Fredericksen

There’s not a lot to do in Grand Forks, N.D. It’s almost always cold or snowing, and that winter rolls well into March and April. For a baseball player, it’s hardly the most desirable of homes.
Baseball’s a game of opportunity, even if it’s just finding the opportunity to grab your mitt and go out on that freshly cut grass just to toss it around on a summer day. It’s finding the right opportunity that sets the stage, giving you that best-place-in-the-world kind of home on the field.

It took three long and winding years for that to happen for Grand Valley State University pitcher Cory Baker. Three years is nothing though — even for a ball player — when all you’ve wanted is to find that home.

There’s a lot of glitz and glamour that comes with Division I athletics. Constant television coverage, the idea that, because you’re a Division I athlete, you’re inherently more likely to be spotted by those big league scouts. The whole idea has an aura to it — a way of sucking a young person in.

“I got there and realized those aren’t quite the facts,” Baker said.

Being “blinded” by the idea of Division I sports proved to be the asphyxiating fork in the road for Baker. Grand Valley State University head coach Steve Lyon wanted him pitching at GVSU, but the idea of Division I sports and “a few other things” drew Baker to the cold, almost middle-of-nowhere campus at the University
of North Dakota in 2011.

“I kind of feel that it was little bit of a waste of a year, as far as competing and stuff goes,” Baker said.

The weather was one thing, but competing, one of the most elementary aspects of baseball or even sport, was the problem for North Dakota. Their season ended with an abysmal 12-35 record, and because of that consistently teeth-chattering weather, they didn’t actually play a home game until April 27 — 35 games into the season.

“I had a bleak outlook on baseball, and I love baseball,” he said.

When you reach that point, the time when you’re almost dreading something you love, dreading a creeping feeling that you’ll give the game your complete all and still come out of things empty handed. That’s the breaking point — or so you’d think.

Baker was content with how he performed on the mound. Pitchers had to wrap heating pads around their arms between innings to stay warmed up in the cold, but he made the best of it.

The team’s lack of talent and depth in the bullpen forced him into double duty — closing out games on Friday and then starting one on Sunday.

That workload and quick turnaround worked early, but once he herniated a disk in his back midway through the season, things started to finally break. Team doctors said he could play through the injury and that’s all he needed to hear, but his play deteriorated and so did his relationship with the coaching staff.

“It was kind of this thing where the coaching staff wasn’t too concerned about it,” he said. “They kind of wanted to ride an injured horse.”

Baker looks the part of a pitcher. He stands six-foot-six and when you add the foot or so he gets when he’s standing on the mound, his demeanor can become an intimidator. He’s not an intimidator off the mound, he’s just a guy who really loves baseball, and as Lyon will say without hesitation, a guy who is “very serious about the art of pitching.”

But that’s Baker today, and the road to practicing that art at GVSU was one that began just 24 miles away at Byron Center High School.

“College has been one development after another. I kind of came out of high school with this raw, you know, I had talent but I was still pretty raw. It’s been one growth after another,” he said

Development is something everyone can relate to. Whether it be athletically or otherwise, it takes longer for some to than others because it’s an awkward maturation of sorts. Baker just happened to be the case of a guy with the right talent, but not all together the right time.

In 2008, he and Lyon also spoke about him coming to play at GVSU. The feeling was mutual, but “they said it’d probably be better to go to junior college and get a couple years under (my) belt,” Baker said. “I’ll say this too, but I wasn’t developed yet when I came out of high school. The coaches were straight up with me about that.”

Those ensuing years came at Lincoln Trail Community College, located in tiny Robinson, Ill. If there was any sort of foreshadowing for his eventual arrival in North Dakota, it started in Robinson, where the population is about a third of the undergraduate population at GVSU.

Baker finished his tenure at Lincoln Trail a better pitcher, and unsurprisingly, Lyon was right there once again.

“We tried to get him earlier, but he decided to go to North Dakota to see what Division I was like,” Lyon said.

That’s the decision that ever-so-strangely shaped Baker’s career. Whether it was differences with coaches, being so far from home or just the general off-dynamic of everything, it was a coupling that just didn’t mesh — like sticking a square peg into a round hole.

Even with the adversity he faced in his season at North Dakota, there was one constant — one figure possessing the good Baker desired — waiting for him.

“Coach Lyon had that (good feeling) for me, so I was going to see if that bridge was still there and he kind of welcomed me with open arms; he said ‘we’d lost a couple arms and we’d love for you to come.’ … It was a pretty easy decision, at that point, for me.”

And with that, the kid from Byron Center’s long, winding journey appeared to have finally found that home not so far away from home.

Home is where the heart is, and sometimes your heart just never ends up leaving. Baker tried his hand away from home — coaches told him that being close to home brings complacency — but four years after graduating from Byron Center, he’s finally back.

“(Moving) has definitely pushed the growing process, and I’ve been challenged through it,” he said. “You know, it’s hard going from a place where you’ve earned a spot and you’re comfortable in that spot to all of a sudden pack up and move to a completely new program where you’re kind of unsure what’s waiting for you.”

On the field, the transition has been easy, but the real challenge was the transition off the field. Having to meet new friends every year, playing on an entirely new team and finding comfort in completely different environments. It’s enough to make some develop one of those pre-exam knots in their stomach, but it’s been enough to finally give Baker a just-for-the-sake-of-smiling joy for college and baseball again.

“The thing for me is I want to win. I’m a competitor, and I haven’t won anything through college,” he said. “I think this team has a great chance to do something great.” Winning can cure a lot. Lyon notes it, and it’s something Baker has yearned for in college.

That fervor borders on an infatuation with finally being in a winning environment, and it’s made this long and strange journey worthwhile.

The only thing left now is sealing the deal.

“(The College World Series) would be a once in a lifetime experience, because obviously it’s my last year, so it means a lot and I know we’ve got a great shot,” he said. “I’m super excited for it and I can’t wait to get some hardware.”

Looking back, three years and that cold season in North Dakota did end up showing Baker where home, and happiness, were after all.

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