I traveled to Fayetteville a couple weeks ago and sat down with Hogs pitcher D.J. Baxendale on the same afternoon the news broke that Petrino hadn’t been alone, and Razorback football changed forever … the baseball team isn’t as hot as it was a month ago, but fortunes can change in the crack of a bat. That could happen as soon as this weekend against Ole Miss on the road…
Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Granted: if D.J. Baxendale had to choose a place to call home, it makes sense central Arkansas would be it. The preseason All-American pitcher graduated from a Sherwood high school and has lived in Vilonia, Conway and Jacksonville. He still visits plenty of friends in the area, and helps kids on his dad’s traveling teams based there.
That Baxendale considers any one area a home is a bit of surprise, though, considering this admission: “I probably lived in 50 or 60 houses throughout my life.” Mostly, his parents’ work caused the moving. D.J.’s father Greg Baxendale has been a Cleveland Indians scout, a recruiting assistant for Rollins College in Florida and the head baseball coach of Hendrix College in Conway. D.J. Baxendale says the moving – which included two stints in Arkadelphia and a stint in Massachusetts – didn’t faze him. He learned to easily make friends, to constantly adapt.
Few baseball players have adapted so well in an Arkansas prep career. At semester of his 10th grade year, Baxendale moved from Arkadelphia to a Jacksonville area just north of Sherwood, where he attended Abundant Life School, an affiliate of the Sylvan Hills First Baptist Church. He immediately helped the school make the 2A state championship game. “Even at a young age, he was not easily distracted,” says Wes Johnson, former coach at Abundant Life.
After Johnson left to coach elsewhere, Baxendale and two other players transferred to Sylvan Hills High School across John F. Kennedy Blvd. By the time the dust cleared on two seasons there, Baxendale had finished one of the state’s best careers in recent history with a 6A state title and 4.12 grade point average. The accomplishments stoked great expectations for the college level.
For the most part, Baxendale’s career at the University of Arkansas has stuck to script. As a freshman, he became an effective closer while learning from talented upperclassmen like Drew Smyly. Baxendale says he remains friends with the Little Rock Central High grad. “Now to see him as a starter for the [Detroit] Tigers, it’s a pretty cool deal.”
Baxendale broke out as a sophomore last year, racking up ten wins and a 1.58 ERA that was the fifth-lowest single-season ERA in program history. He spent last summer with the USA Collegiate National Team, one of four current Hogs to do so.
Arkansas’ talented squad started this season with a 22-3 record and spent the first six weeks ranked among the nation’s top four teams. The team then hit a rough patch, losing five of its next seven games. Baxendale struggled for a few weeks; part of the reason was that his arm slot was too low, his coaches said. Baxendale is confident he’ll sort out this issue in daily practices with pitching coach Dave Jorn and other pitchers. “Me and Dave talk about what I can do to get better … everyday I try to find something I can work on – solidifying mechanics, changing up a grip for this pitch or that pitch.” He adds that the curveball has been his best pitch recently, while he’s especially focused on improving the location and velocity of his fastball.
Baseball isn’t the only craft Baxendale studies. He wants to be a sports broadcaster one day, and says he’s one of only two baseball Hogs (along with Bo Bigham) majoring in journalism. “I enjoy journalism. Just being able to go out and meet people and be social,” says Baxendale, adding he especially enjoys helping put together a weekly student newscast. He likes learning new skills, whether producing the show or going outside to shoot film. And when reporters interview him about baseball, “I just try to pick up little things they’ve learned by already being in the field.”
Another bonus of the profession: “It’s really hands on. I’m not stuck in an office all day, just sitting at a computer typing away.”
Baxendale doesn’t like confinement, and he certainly doesn’t want to be confined to his apartment on June 15, when the College World Series of Omaha begin. He knows for the Hogs to return to the CWS for the first time since 2009 (and seventh time overall) the team will have to stick together, no matter what regular season rough patches lie ahead. That’s why Baxendale makes it a point to gather teammates every Thursday night before a three-game weekend series begins.
Usual conscripts include other pitchers like roommate Ty Wright and Jeff Harvill, who hangs out at their apartment enough to achieve unofficial roommate status. Baxendale is usually able to summon 15-20 players altogether, and they vote among restaurants like Olive Garden, Red Robin, Logan’s Steakhouse and CiCi’s Pizza Buffet. No matter the destination (and Baxendale isn’t digging on the idea of a return trip to CiCi’s), the intent is the same: “Let’s come together as a family before we go to war.”
Ten minutes after discussing these dinner outings with a visitor, Baxendale must get around to getting one organized. And so, on a recent Thursday evening he leaves the press room of the Razorbacks’ Baum Stadium, on the move once more.
The above was originally published in Sync magazine.