NPA Coach: james baker
NPA coach James Baker is the pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at Colby College in Maine. Baker graduated from Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., in 2006. As a captain his senior season, he helped lead Wheaton to the NCAA Division III national championship game. After graduation, James signed with the Nashua Pride, an independent baseball team in the Cam-Am League, before signing with the San Diego Padres. He also played professionally for the North Shore Spirit, the Brockton Rox, the York Revolution, Gary South Shore Railcats, and the Wichita Wingnuts. He was inducted into the Wheaton College Hall of Fame in 2019. Baker is the founder, manager, and the former lead performance training coach of North Shore Performance Training.
How did you get started in baseball?: “I grew up in Boxford, Massachusetts, and loved baseball from the very start. I loved playing any sport as a young guy. It was kind of sandlot style. I was always playing something with my buddies down at the park and we had a little Wiffle ball field at one of my buddy’s houses. Ken Griffey, Jr., was my favorite player growing up. I always tried to emulate his swing and how much joy he brought to the game when he played. I hit lefty and threw righty.
When I was in high school I enjoyed watching Pedro Martinez pitch, He was my favorite pitcher, I was lucky to go to the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park with my dad. I got to watch Pedro mow down the best hitters in baseball at that time. He had an electric fastball, but the best pitch he had that day was his changeup. To do that in front of the home crowd, and then with Ted Williams going around the field waving from his golf cart, was something special. I got to go to quite a few games at Fenway Park and I took it all in and fell in love with the game.”
How was your high school baseball career?: “I went to Masconomet Regional High School. It’s a three-town high school. My sophomore year I was just a runt. I was a good baseball player and had some skill, but we had a pretty loaded varsity roster. I was good, and I knew I was good, but was overlooked. As a sophomore, I didn’t make varsity, but I also didn’t make JV. I was completely devastated. Baseball meant everything to me. I set up a meeting with our varsity coach and told him that I wasn’t going away and that I’d do anything to be around the game, whether it was filling up a water bottle, throwing batting practice, or hitting fungoes. I had to prove myself somehow. I knew that it might take time, but I helped out the JV team that year and I was hitting fly balls and ground balls to guys that I knew that I was better than, but I had to stay humble. It was a turning point in my life. There was an injury on my JV team, and I got an opportunity and ended up being one of the better players on the team. As a junior, I started on varsity and my senior year I was one of the top players in Massachusetts.”
Where did baseball take you after high school?: “I attended a regional tryout camp put on by the Cincinnati Reds and I had an opportunity to go to Wheaton College in Massachusetts. It was an up-and-coming program and one of my buddies was playing there as well. It was a good school and high level DIII baseball. In high school I was really an outfielder who pitched in a secondary role, but I was more of a position player. My college coach, Eric Podbelski, told my high school coach that he liked my arm and he wanted to see me more on the mound too. I pitched sparingly, but did strike out a bunch of guys late in the year and we made a little bit of a run in the high school playoffs. Coach Podbelski is a tremendous mentor, pitching coach, and overall college coach. I really learned a ton from him. He’s one of the greats. I continued to play some in the outfield, but in the end of the day I had more promise as a pitcher.”
When did you begin to have professional aspirations?: “During the summertime I was playing in some local leagues back home. It had a mix of college players and some former pro players. That was really my intro to pitching because I got a lot more experience. I was learning a lot on my own. Coach always said I had promise as a pitcher because of my arm strength, but it needed to be developed. I then came back to school and tried to perfect my craft. We had really good throwing protocols there and some great coaches. My senior year I was one of the captains of the team and we had a tremendous run all the way to the Division III national championship game, where we lost to Marietta. Three out my four years we won our conference tournament. Going to the College World Series my senior year was a tremendous opportunity. It was a great group of guys and teammates who are now friends for life.”
How did your professional opportunities come about?: “I didn’t end up getting drafted. There were a few teams that showed interest, but I was a six-foot, 185-pound pitcher. I was throwing 88 to 92 miles per hour. I talked to some teams, but nothing came through with the draft. Coach Podbelski new the general manager for the Nashua Pride and I was able to start playing with them right away. (Former Boston Red Sox player) Butch Hobson was the manager and there were some former big leaguers on that team. It was good baseball and a really good experience right out of college. I developed a really good relationship with Butch Hobson and continued that on throughout my professional years. He’s a great guy. I pitched in a set-up role, got a good number of innings, and put up some good numbers. The Padres were interested, and I went to several different workouts with them. One of the workouts was at their spring training complex and I signed with them.”
How was your health during your playing days?: “Going into that spring training, there was definitely some stuff I was working through. I got released by the Padres, but it again furthered my journey because it was something that was taken away from me, but I still wanted to prove people wrong. At that point, I was trying to get to the root of the problem. I was focusing on mechanics and strength. I was fine-tuning nutrition and trying to give my body the best chance I could to be successful. I had some successful seasons in independent ball, but did ultimately need shoulder surgery later in my professional career. I was lucky enough to get on the other side of that labrum surgery and I threw really well and harder than I ever had. I was able to close my professional career on my own terms. My last season was with the Wichita Wingnuts. I was a set-up guy for them, and we went to the championship series in the American Association, which was good baseball. I had some time in the Atlantic League as well with a lot of former major league guys. It was a lot of fun, and I had some great experiences. I learned from a lot of different coaches who taught different techniques and that was very helpful. I was a guy who was very routine-based and very structured with things that worked for me, but I was always very open to learn.”
When did you decided that you wanted to coach: “When I was done playing and retired, I knew that working with athletes was going to be the next chapter for me. I’m a certified personal trainer and functional training coach. I was certified at that point, so I started a business at a training facility near my home in Massachusetts. I had to get creative and make it in the space that I had, but I made it work. We knocked down walls and laid floors to create this performance training center. We really had to do it from scratch. It was a nice next career. I was close to home where I grew up and I had a lot of good connections. I had a good foundation to get started. I worked with athletes on strength, conditioning, nutrition, and mobility. We worked on a lot of mental game preparation. It was an all-encompassing athlete performance center, but I had a little baseball niche as well. I started giving private baseball lessons and doing some of those things.”
When did you get exposed to Tom House and the National Pitching Association?: “Gardy (O’Flynn) was the big connection. I’d heard about NPA and obviously Tom House. Being a student of the game in baseball I knew who Tom House was and was aware of the many things he had done in and around the game. I knew about Gardy because he was in the area. There was a certification course that was going on with Gardy and Tom. It was an all-weekend event in 2013. That’s when Gardy and I got to know one another and when I met Tom.
I got to learn a lot of the principles and protocols of the NPA program. It was very practical hands-on learning. I learned all of the warm-up protocols. As time went on I really build a relationship with Gardy because we were both pretty well known performance and pitching guys in the area. Gardy has been one of my best friends and a tremendous mentor. He’s someone I look up to very much. We combined forces and to this day we do a lot of clinics together. I’ve learned so much from Gardy and the other NPA coaches.
What have you found to be unique about NPA?: “Working with athletes in a variety of capacities, I was always searching for the program that was all-encompassing. I’m very routine-based and structured and that’s always stood out with me about NPA’s program. It’s also science-based and backed by the medical community. It also doesn’t go unnoticed the number and quality of people that Tom House works with, as well as those that support what Tom House is doing. I’m all in.”
How did you have the opportunity to coach at Colby College?: “Coach Woods is a good friend of mine. We played for two years together at Wheaton. He stayed on the coaching staff at Wheaton as a graduate assistant, so he coached me for several years. Coach Woods went from Wheaton to Boston College as an assistant for several years and then went on to Notre Dame. We always stayed in touch, and he got the job at Colby, which is an excellent academic school that plays high-level Division III baseball in New England. He helped reboot the program and started a slow rebuild. A pitching coach job became available, and it went from there. It’s been a tremendous opportunity for me. Last year we took a tremendous jump forward as a program. Much of that has come about because we’re finding really high-scholar student-athletes who can really play baseball. We have a national footprint recruiting-wise. Recruiting is so important. We’re bringing in kids with a high floor, but we’re making them even better. We were first in just about every pitching category in our conference last year. Know that the NPA protocols are alive and well in our program.”