Ex-VU baseball standouts finally crack big leagues after years of toiling in the minors

Sunday, October 2, 2011 at 10:05pm

The paths Mike Baxter and Antoan Richardson traveled to the big leagues weren’t ideal. They also were not swift.

Their respective arrivals there were no less rewarding, though, especially when the former Vanderbilt roommates were able to enjoy it together. 

Last month, they were in the same stadium —  twice — competing on opposite teams, with Baxter in the outfield for the New York Mets and Richardson pinch-hitting for the Atlanta Braves. 

“It took a long time for both of us, but thankfully it happened,” Baxter, who played with Richardson at Vanderbilt from 2004-05, said. “I think when you get the call it justifies everything you’ve done. ... It was the best feeling in my life.”

Baxter, 26, made his major league debut in 2010 as a September call-up for the San Diego Padres, who drafted him in the fourth round in 2005. 

This season was more gratifying. After injuries to his thumb and hamstring caused him to miss half the season, he was released by the Padres in July. The Mets signed quickly him, a noteworthy turn of events given that he grew up in Queens and lived just five minutes from Shea Stadium.

Over the past two months, he was called up twice and finished with a .226 batting average in 21 games.

“It was incredible when I found out I got picked up by the Mets,” Baxter said. “I was just so excited for the opportunity to go home and play in front of family there, play for the team I grew up rooting for my whole life.”

Richardson, who turns 28 next week, is just 5-foot-8, but possesses “world-class” speed, as Baxter put it. 

The San Francisco Giants drafted the outfielder in the 35th round in 2005, and he spent the next four years in that team’s system before he was released in 2009. He endured two separate stints of independent ball, which were sandwiched around an offseason signing and subsequent release by the Braves.

That same year, 2010, the Braves picked him back up and last month they promoted him. That made him the first player from the Bahamas to reach the majors since 1983. He did it with another former Commodore, Braves starting pitcher Mike Minor, looking on.

In Richardson’s first career at-bat, on Sept. 4 against Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, he lined a single into right field.

“He is a kid who is willing to grind his way through anything,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “He grinded his way through getting an education here [to get an engineering degree] and he grinded his way through minor league baseball. Because of his disposition, his attitude and everyday energy it enabled him to gain a spot. The coaches and the evaluators looked at him as if he was a bright light, a power source. He was.”

Baxter and Richardson were a part of a 2004 Vanderbilt team that reached new heights, getting to the school’s first NCAA Super Regional. Also on that team were pitchers Jensen Lewis and Jeremy Sowers, who both played for the Cleveland Indians.

Infielder Ryan Klosterman also appeared to be destined for the big leagues. But the Toronto Blue Jays’ fifth-round pick in 2004 never got the call. He bounced around for eight years in the minors. 

Still, Baxter says Klosterman’s experience in professional baseball wasn’t a waste, pointing out it helped him get a coaching job at the University of Central Florida. 

“Whether or not you make it, I think it is justified no matter how long you play,” Baxter said. “I think it can open up doors down the road.”