Published 12:00 am Friday, November 1, 2013
When Alex Rodriguez heard Chip Baker was at Yankee Stadium, he went looking for him to say hello.
“Well, security didn’t like it much,” Baker said with a chuckle. “But that was pretty cool to have A-Rod looking me up. When he was a kid, he was at our camps.”
As director of Florida State baseball camps, Baker’s campers have included talents such as A-Rod, J.D. Drew, Chipper Jones and the Upton brothers.
Baker was a Florida State assistant coach for 18 years. For the last 11 years, he’s been director of baseball operations for head coach Mike Martin.
Baseball has taken Baker a lot of places, including 14 trips to Omaha for the College World Series. Twice, he coached in games that decided the national championship.
It all started for Baker at North Rowan. His late father, Walt, was North Rowan’s athletics director and basketball coach. Chip’s big brother, Jim, now coach of the Catawba Indians, was a good basketball player. Chip was only 5-foot-7 or so and only 175 pounds or so, but he stood out as a guard in football and as a catcher in baseball.
“My parents opened the doors at North, so even though I’ve been in Tallahassee for 30 years, when I talk about ‘home,’ I’m talking about Spencer, Salisbury, Rowan County and barbecue,” Baker said. “My ties to Rowan County and North Carolina go deep. When the Florida State baseball team travels to play ACC games in North Carolina, we go back to Florida with cases of Cheerwine.”
Baker, whose given name is Charles, jokes that he can’t recall what he had for breakfast, but he can remember vividly the games from his high school days in the mid-1970s.
One baseball game, in particular, stands out — and not in a good way. He made an errant throw that basically ended the 1975 Rowan County American Legion season.
“We’re playing Asheboro, deep in the playoffs, and I tried to pick a guy off and threw the ball away and the winning run scored,” Baker said. “I was completely devastated.”
He didn’t have long to dwell on it. Along with other Cavaliers, he reported for coach Larry Thomason’s football two-a-days the following morning at 7:30.
“We’d kind of wanted to keep playing baseball a while, so we could miss those early football practices,” Baker said.
The football landscape in 1975 locally was as competitive as it’s ever been. South Rowan, North Rowan and Salisbury were powerful, and East Rowan, which had Shrine Bowlers Rick Vanhoy and Randy Fowler in the backfield, wasn’t far behind.
Competing in the South Piedmont Conference, Salisbury went 8-1-1 and still didn’t make the playoffs. Competing in a 10-team North Piedmont Conference that had been split into two divisions, a very stout North team, which featured ball-carrying marvel Mark Sturgis found itself locked a three-way struggle in “Division One” with Mooresville and North Davidson. South Rowan, enjoying the best season in its history, had beaten East to take command in “Division Two.”
A loss early in October to North Davidson put the Cavaliers behind the 8-ball and facing must-win situations every Friday for the remainder of the season. Only the division winners would qualify for the Western North Carolina High School Activities Association playoffs.
North stayed alive for the postseason with a dramatic 15-14 win against East. One of Baker’s best friends, Marty Thompson, the first baseman on the baseball team, kicked a game-winning field goal in the final seconds.
“You have to remember this was a time when they really didn’t kick many field goals,” Baker said.
North got rained out the next Friday, which meant the Cavaliers faced two games in five days. They would have to play Bill Peeler’s tough Davie team on Monday and South Rowan, which was still undefeated in the NPC, four days later.
Sturgis went 67 yards the first time he touched the ball, and North handled Davie 25-15.
“Sturgis was good and so was Leonard (Alexander),” Baker said. “You don’t forge guys like that. As a lineman, you just had to get in someone’s way for a little bit.”
Next came a massive struggle with South’s fierce defense. North had first-and-goal at the South 3, and the Raider stopped Sturgis four straight times. On another drive, Sturgis fumbled at the South 1, and Tim Corriher recovered for the Raiders.
It was 7-7 at halftime and was still 7-all entering the final minute of play. North drove again, but the Cavaliers were stopped, and now it was fourth down, with the clock ticking.
Ordinarily, North would’ve called on Thompson for a field goal, but he was out with a leg injury.
“I was hoping we were going to score a touchdown, but then we got stopped short of the first down,” Baker said. “Then I saw the coaches talking.”
What they were talking about was having Baker, who was a sidewinder, kick a 28-yard field goal. And that was Thomason’s call.
Baker didn’t see his kick slice through the uprights to hand South its first league loss. His whole focus was on following through, and quarterback Gil Hobson made a perfect hold for the substitute kicker. Needless to say, the Post’s headline called the clutch kick a “Chip Shot.”
“I just kept my head down,” Baker told the Post’s Ed Dupree, who covered the action. “The guys told me it cleared the crossbar by 3 or 4 feet.”
The kid who had been devastated at the end of the American Legion season had a reason to smile again.
“This is the best thing that ever happened to me in sports,” he told Dupree. “That play that ended our Legion season was tough, but this time I got the ball over somebody’s head and it worked out all right.”
That kick may have changed the course of Baker’s life. It may have been that kick that gave him the confidence to become the icon he became at Florida State, where he’s known to many as “Big Shooter.”
“The things that happen in high school — they do stay with you,” Baker said.
North Rowan beat North Stanly and whipped Mooresville to end the 1975 season with a six-game winning streak and an 8-2 record, but it wasn’t enough to make the playoffs. North Rowan and North Davidson tied for first, and the Black Knights advanced because of their head-to-head win against the Cavaliers.
North Davidson, which had future NFL player Perry Tuttle, would beat South Rowan and Concord in the playoffs and would tie Shelby in the WNCHSAA title game.
There was one more pleasant surprise for Baker from that season.
When the county’s football coaches and the Post’s sportswriters gathered to select the 1975 all-county team, there were many fine players to discuss, including All-Staters Vanhoy and (Salisbury tackle) Chuck Valley, NPC Player of the Year Sturgis and SPC Player of Year Leonard Atkins, the great Salisbury running back.
But there was only one unanimous selection for that all-county team — guard Chip Baker.