So, which came first? The baseball glove or the guitar?
“Definitely the baseball glove. I got my first one when I was three years old. The guitar didn’t come until I was 15.”
Hayden Baker’s love for baseball started early and never waned, taking him through a high school career at Katy High School before landing an offer with the Angelina College Roadrunners and, later, with Houston Baptist University. He experienced a slight setback his freshman season at AC: The dreaded Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm, leaving him watching from the dugout for the first time in his life.
The time away turned out to be a blessing. Not only did his arm heal, but the restrictions on playing baseball allowed him to turn his attention toward his second love: Music.
Baker said he picked up the guitar when he was 15 years old. At the time, it was more about “impressing the girls” than any thought of a career. He kept messing around with it, trying different things – and then came a night he credits with smacking a grand slam of an epiphany.
“Two years into learning guitar, I felt I was getting a little better,” Baker says. “Then I saw Brad Paisley in concert and saw what he was doing, playing lead guitar and singing while running around in the dirt. I thought, ‘That’s the kind of thing I want to do.’ I went home and bought all his albums, and that’s the style I wanted to learn. He can flat play.”
So can Baker, apparently. The Texas Country Music Association has him listed among its Top Five Emerging Artists. In fact, the voting – fueled by fans – is ongoing, and will end on August 5. (Fans can vote by visiting www.texascountrymusicassociation.org and clicking on the “Texas Country Music Awards” link until they find “Emerging Artist.”)
Baker’s first single, “How It Used to Be” was a hit on both iTunes and Spotify. East Texas music fans heard the song frequently on local radio stations. The song even played over the loudspeakers at Roadrunner Field, often leaving teammates pointing at him while Baker shook his head and grinned from his shortstop position.
For a short while in his young life, Baker says he juggled the two activities relatively easily, never considering a point at which he’d have to choose one or the other. Not until last year, when he was scheduled to return from the surgery, was he forced to think about a choice.
“The thought came last baseball season in the fall,” Baker says. “I wasn’t slated as a starter and wasn’t seeing much playing time, so I was actually thinking my baseball career was coming to an end and I’d have to make my decision quicker.
“Then we (the Roadrunners) had a good spring, and I got an offer from HBU,” Baker says. “I was pretty pumped to learn I’d still get to play baseball and graduate from college.”
Baker earned Second-Team All-Conference honors for AC in 2018, batting .323 while knocking three homers and driving in 21 runs. He helped the Roadrunners to a post-season run in his one and only year wearing the orange and blue.
The time away with the injury didn’t squelch his drive. If anything, the surgery helped boost his resolve in both areas of his life.
“I knew I wasn’t going to quit baseball,” Baker says. “I was committed to the rehab. The doc said I had to have the surgery if I wanted to play, and I told him to put me down for the next week. That’s weird for me because I’m not a surgery guy. I went in full-force. The part that helped me pull through was my teammate Sean Bergeron. We went through surgery at the same time, and I’m glad we had each other to pull us through the rehab process. It’s slow and it’s boring.
“But that’s when I also started to improve as a musician. That was when I took the step from playing for fun to trying to do music for a living. I had nothing else to do while I was rehabbing. I’m telling you, I have to thank the Restoration Wine Bar in Lufkin. They welcomed me in and gave me a place to play, and it helped me build a lot of confidence.”
Currently, Baker is still playing live shows in the Houston area. He and his band are in the studio preparing to release a six-song EP, and his hit “How It Used to Be” will get some refining for inclusion on the album. The way the song came about is yet another story for Baker to tell later.
“It really is a funny story,” Baker laughs. “That’s the first song I ever attempted to write in full. I ended up co-writing with a guy I still have yet to meet. He plays baseball for Florida State, and his name is Carter Smith. He found me on YouTube, saw my guitar videos, and he shot me a message saying we should get together some time. In the spring of my freshman year of college, we got together on Face Time and wrote ‘How It Used to Be’ in two hours.
“Now that we’re in the studio, I’m learning not all songs get written as fast as that first one. Some take months, some take weeks. It threw me off since the first one was so easy to write. You write another one and think it’s not good at all, so you keep going back and forth on it. I learned fast that getting that first song together in two hours isn’t the norm.”
Trying to juggle two time-consuming activities – along with keeping up with his college course load (Baker notched a 3.9 GPA while at AC) – presents unique challenges. Baker says it’s a matter of focusing on one thing at a time.
“It all comes down to time management,” Baker says. “I’m the kind of person who wakes up in the morning trying to find a way to make myself better, whether it’s music or baseball. I guess my philosophy is with baseball, especially at this level, there’s stuff you absolutely have to do, and you can’t skip out on any of it. You have to make sure you do those things first. When it’s time for baseball, it’s time for baseball, and you have to forget the music. Then when it’s time to get up on a stage, you have to forget the baseball. I’m still trying to find my way, but I’ll tell you what, it sure is fun.”
Going back and forth also guarantees potential conflicts. The possibility of playing a gig on the same day as a game has already presented itself, according to Baker.
“I got an offer to open for Mark Chesnutt at the Houston Rodeo Cookoff for a decent amount of money on a big stage,” Baker says. “I turned it down because it’s smack-dab in the middle of baseball season and on a Saturday.
“When I told my coach (HBU assistant coach Russell Stockton) about it – he actually came to one of my shows last week – he told me to let him know any time I had something like that come up. It’s really, really cool that I have the same support here that I had at Angelina College. (AC head coach) Jeff Livin came out to see me play in Lufkin a few times, and he’s a good, good man. He was so encouraging about everything.”
Inevitably, Baker is asked to compare his two activities. Which is harder? Trying to come up with a clutch hit, or trying to please an audience?
“Man, that’s hard to say,” Baker muses. “Baseball’s a different animal. You’re naturally going to fail at the plate at least 70 percent of the time. Pleasing an audience is no easy task, but I’ve learned that a little bit of a crazy guitar solo usually catches their attention. I’d say the music part is a little easier. Baseball’s so much of a challenge all the way around.”
The time for choosing can wait. Right now, a hard-working young man is living two dreams at once.
“My philosophy is that I’m going to do both until somebody tells me to stop,” Baker laughs. “Then I’ll probably keep trying with at least one of them.”
The e-mail address for AC’s Sports Information Director is email@example.com.
Sports Information Director Gary Stallard, who also serves as a Liberal Arts Instructor, begins his eleventh season with Angelina College. Following a career as a U.S. Marine, Stallard completed his bachelor’s degree at Stephen F. Austin University, where he majored in English and Journalism. For more than 16 years, he has worked as a sports writer/columnist/photographer for the Lufkin Daily News; he continues to contribute free-lance articles on occasion. Stallard has won several awards for writing, including the Golden Hoops Award for basketball writing in 2003, Regional Sports Writer of the Year in 2004, and the Texas Press Association’s first-place award for column writing in 2007 and in 2014. He has also done basketball, football and baseball radio and live streaming play-by- play and color commentary for an ESPN affiliate. Currently Stallard serves as play-by-play broadcaster for AC basketball, baseball and softball games.
Prior to arriving at Angelina College, Stallard taught English at Lufkin High School for four years. He currently teaches Developmental Writing classes at AC. He and his wife Susan live in Lufkin.
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