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Breaking into the Major League

Bryan BakerFormer UNF baseball pitcher Bryan Baker grew up with a ball in his hand. Sports defined his childhood, and he couldn’t imagine working a desk job as an adult. Instead, he set his sights on finding a way to continue playing sports for as long as possible.

Baker was drafted to the minors from UNF in 2016 and seemed to be well on the way to keeping his sports dreams alive. Then, on Aug. 31, it happened. He got ‘The Call.’ After a late-night double header on the road, the manager of the Blue Jay’s Triple-A team tapped his relief pitcher on the back and said he wanted to talk with him.

“He’s kind of a jokester, and I didn’t know what the heck he was talking to me about,” Baker said about his manager. “Then out of nowhere he said, ‘You’re going to the big leagues tomorrow.’ I was obviously surprised, a pleasant surprise, and just speechless, honestly. Super emotional. I came out of the office and all my teammates were waiting for me. That was super cool. And then I called my parents and all my buddies that I thought would be up at that hour.”


The Journey to Toronto

Things happen fast in the big leagues. In less than 24 hours, Baker was wearing the No. 43 on the uniform of the Toronto Blue Jays and sitting in the dugout at Rogers Center in Toronto watching his new team at play on the field. His journey to the stadium that day had started at 5 a.m. from Scranton, Pennsylvania, where the team had played the night before, and then across the U.S. – Canada border to Toronto. He made it to the field by about 3 p.m.

Four days later, Baker made his debut pitching the eighth inning. As he stood on the mound, a familiar place for him, he said it suddenly had a totally different feel. Though fans had been limited to 15,000 due to pandemic restrictions, he said the noise sounded like a crowd of about 50,000. “I just had to take a couple of breaths, throw a few warm-up pitches and tell myself that it was still baseball and throw some strikes and hopefully we’ll get out of the inning,” Baker said. And he did. He threw his first major league strikeout that day.

He is now the first Division 1 UNF baseball player to wear a major League uniform and the first UNF player since 2003. Yet he knows that even at this level of achievement, it’s just the beginning. “It kind of feels like it was a ridiculously long journey to the top of the mountain, and then you find out there’s another extremely tall mountain on top of that,” Baker said. “So, yeah, it was the best day of my life … and I’m super thankful that it happened and working hard to make sure it continues to happen.”


Choosing baseball over basketball

Baker tried almost every sport growing up in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. “My grandfather was a retired football coach, a super athletic person himself,” Baker said. “I spent a lot of time with him, so I started playing all sorts of sports from a very young age, so that’s what started my love of sports.”

Basketball was his first choice during his youth, and in high school he played both basketball and baseball. When his baseball pitches picked up speed in his junior year, he talked with his parents about which sport might give him the best opportunity to reach the pros. Still torn, but leaning toward baseball, he talked with several universities including UNF. “I loved the campus, and I loved the feel for the coaching staff, and it’s not too far from home,” he said. “It just felt like the right place, so I made that call in the fall of my senior year in high school, and I’m glad I did.”

Baker pitched for the Ospreys from 2014-16 and was then drafted by the Colorado Rockies. In 2018, he was traded to the Blue Jays for their Double A team, then Triple-A in 2019. Baker attributes his move to the majors in part because the MLB increased the limit of players from 26 to 28. In addition, he said he was pitching well and showing that he could be trusted to “go out there and get the job done.”

His former coach at UNF, Smoke Laval, attributes Baker’s success to talent that he shaped with determination and hard work. “Bryan is a competitor and is No. 1 in work ethic,” Laval said. “It’s why he is there [in the MLB]. He hates to lose and is going to work at it. He’s a great athlete, and not only that, he’s a student of the game … I’m glad that he got there.”

Now that the Blue Jay’s season has ended, Baker was able to spend some time in Florida with his family who have been his greatest supporters over the years. He said his parents traveled to attend their son’s pitching debut. “My parents are very proud and happy for me, and I think that making it to the majors probably made up for all those long car rides taking me to tournaments and made it all a little more worth it,” he said.