By Trey Williams
Andy Baxter lived up to expectations for the 2001 ETSU baseball team – and that was no small task.
Baxter, who won a state championship playing for his father Charlie at Unicoi County, transferred from North Carolina State after his junior season to play for Tony Skole’s Buccaneers. He was a first team All-Southern Conference selection after hitting a team-leading .394, which was second in the league.
The 6-foot-4, 210-pound first baseman, who followed the season with a productive year in the Appalachian League, set ETSU’s single-season record for hits (87) and doubles (25) during the 2001 season. He compiled a 15-game hit streak and his home runs (12) and RBIs (49) were each second to Nathan Copeland (17 home runs, 67 RBIs).
It was quite an accomplishment, especially when considering Baxter led the Bucs with 26 walks.
“I think everybody pitched me and Nathan pretty carefully,” Baxter said Sunday. “We were both having really good years. I always had good plate discipline. I think I walked 45 times one season in high school. I’d go up there looking for my pitch, and if I didn’t I’d take my walk and trust my teammates.
“We had some success here and there. We weren’t as consistent as we wanted to be, but I really enjoyed playing for Coach Skole. Growing up with my parents and playing for my dad, I appreciated the discipline and the mental toughness that you had to have. And Coach Skole demanded a lot of those same things. You know, it’s not it’s not for everybody. Not everybody could play for my dad, either.”
Baxter reunited with teammates Ryan Hyder and Jason Brotherton at ETSU, where he enjoyed playing with the likes of Copeland and Sullivan South alum Reid Casey. One of Baxter’s most vivid memories at ETSU was a 3-2 loss at The Citadel in the opening round of the SoCon tournament. Baxter tied the score, 2-2, in the eighth with a two-out triple that plated Kirk Keithley.
“The Citadel had a really good team that year,” Baxter said. “Reid Casey pitched a great game for us. I think that I was 3-for-4 and they had a left-handed pitcher that was pretty tough.”
Baxter had three of the Bucs’ seven hits, including his record-setting hit.
ETSU bounced back from the The Citadel loss to beat Furman. The Paladins included cleanup batter Ryan Presnell, who’d been teammates with Copeland at ETSU. Presnell and Casey coach at Elizabethton now.
Copeland and Baxter each went 2-for-4. Copeland homered and drove in four runs.
Baxter did a good job during an unforgettable 2001 season for the Appalachian League. After pitching for St. Louis the previous year, 21-year-old pitcher Rick Ankiel received an unprecedented demotion to Johnson City because of a lack of control on the mound. His battery mate that summer was fellow future major leaguer Yadier Molina.
The rookie league’s future stars that summer included Joe Mauer (Elizabethton), David Wright (Kingsport) and Jonny Gomes (Princeton). It was Baxter, however, who led the league in RBIs and extra-base hits. He tied for second in triples and was third in doubles and home runs.
“I think Jonny Gomes won the home run title,” Baxter said. “That was something I was proud of, playing against a lot of guys that went on to have big-league careers. There was a lot of talent in the league.”
Baxter never solved Ankiel, a hard-throwing left-hander with an excellent curveball. Ankiel had been pitching for St. Louis in the playoffs the previous year when he became extremely wild, throwing a number of pitches off of the backstop.
Not many solved Ankiel that summer. He struck out 158 in 87 2/3 innings while allowing 42 hits and 18 walks and recording a 1.33 ERA. He also hit 10 home runs in 105 at-bats and regularly drew large crowds, successfully beginning his conversion to outfielder.
“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 ‘em coming over and saying, ‘Why didn’t you tell us you were from here? We wouldn’t have taken you out of the lineup,’” 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 hit a home run in Kingsport that next day.”
Baxter played for Cleveland’s New York-Penn League affiliate the following season. He he hit .252 with 14 doubles, four home runs and 32 RBIs in 64 games.
“We got to play together in the Indians organization,” Casey said, “and I know all of his teammates there respected him greatly as a player. Unfortunately, injuries cut his professional career short or I truly believe he would have been a big leaguer. He was that good of a hitter, in my opinion.”
Baxter tore his labrum in his throwing shoulder during his sophomore year at North Carolina State.
“I played with it about four years before I had surgery,” Baxter said. “I felt like I would’ve had a shot. I felt like I could’ve competed at any level.”
Baxter played basketball at Unicoi County for current Science Hill athletic director Keith Turner. His basketball jersey is one of four that’s been retired at the school.
Of course, playing baseball for his father produced the best memories.
“I remember dumping ice water on him,” Baxter said while chuckling at the soaking-wet image of his serious, tough-loving father. “Me and Aaron Bennett dumped ice water on him after the state championship win. Getting to play for him and represent Unicoi County, mainly because of the type program he had built, that was the highlight for me.