BY Scott Johnson 08:00AM 07/10/2013

Part 1: Hole left by baseball ‘cowboys’ still there

Gerik Baxter was a star pitcher for Edmonds-Woodway High School; third baseman Mark Hilde was his best friend. They loved ball, country music and the dream of being pros together.

Gerik Baxter, left, and Mark Hilde on a limo ride to 1999 prom night at Edmonds-Woodway High School, when Hilde escorted Baxter’s sister, Linnzi. / Baxter family collection

Joe Webster knew almost immediately that something was amiss when the phone rang in his living room on a quiet night in late July twelve summers ago. One of his former players on the Edmonds-Woodway High School baseball team was calling. Out of the blue. Late at night. And it was July.

Webster, then the head baseball coach at E-W, held the phone to his ear. He heard the words, but none of them seemed to make sense. He felt frozen in time. Even more than a decade later, Webster would look back at that phone call and shudder.

“There are a few moments in life when you take a picture in your mind and can’t get it out,” he said the past fall.

That photograph won’t go away. It’s why Webster can’t watch Major League Baseball anymore, why he can’t view an Oakland A’s-Seattle Mariners game without seeing Mark Hilde’s face, and why he can’t see the San Diego Padres logo without clenching his jaw and pondering where Gerik Baxter should be right now.

More than 12 years have passed since two of the best baseball players in the history of Edmonds-Woodway High saw their lives cut short on a highway outside of Indio, Calif. Gerik Baxter and Mark Hilde, despite being two years apart in school, spent many of their teenage years together — and they would be together at that final, tragic moment.

The confident, focused pitcher with the golden arm and the major-league path, sitting next to the jokester, the kid whose magnetic wit always seemed to draw strangers close, driving along Interstate 10 in a pickup truck, probably listening to the country music that they loved. One with All-Star dreams and a big-league arm, the other with so much personality that he could have been just about anything he wanted to be.

Just like that, their dreams were shattered, scattered along the desert interstate.

“It’s an event that, no matter how you slice it, you can’t say anything good came out of it,” Webster would say years later.

After all these years, the camera of the mind won’t let go of the image. They all remember where they were, at that moment, when the horrific news began to trickle in.

Marks and scars

At its core, this is a baseball story. But it’s not at all like baseball.

There are no stitches bringing together seams in perfect symmetry. No uninterrupted chalk lines from home plate to first base. No sprawling, open spaces and blue skies.

When two young men die just as they’re reaching the prime of their lives, it reminds how fleeting perfection is — in baseball and life.

It’s tempting to say that this is a baseball story with the worst kind of ending. But that’s not really true. For an entire community, life has gone on. The story didn’t end when the tire blew, sending Gerik Baxter’s pickup truck into a spin, costing Baxter and Mark Hilde, his best friend, their lives.

Baseball went on. Those who knew them had to wake up the next morning and carry on, step by difficult step.

Impact is what may have ended the lives of Gerik Baxter and Mark Hilde. But the impact of their story did not end on that night 12 years ago. Their story left marks, but what makes these different from scars is that the marks of Baxter and Hilde no one wanted to go away.

The arm

Brad Baxter still loves to talk about his son. It’s one of his favorite things to do.

He’ll tell you about Gerik’s observant nature, how he tended to watch and analyze before joining the action. How once Gerik decided to do something, he would become obsessed.

Gerik Baxter was that way with baseball. Brad Baxter doesn’t necessarily offer to strangers that his son was a professional baseball player, that Gerik was a first-round pick who was on the fast track to one day pitch in the San Diego Padres rotation. But the subject often comes up.

The game had Gerik Baxter’s heart at an early age. One might say that he was destined to be a pitcher.

“He’d pick things up and throw them when he was little,” Brad Baxter said recently. “He would hit his grandma in the head with gummy bears. He was always pretty natural at throwing.”

As with most things in his short life, Gerik Baxter attacked the game of baseball with everything he had. His parents invested a lot of time and money getting him the right coaching early  — not because they sensed a financial payoff but because they wanted him to learn the right way to throw so that Gerik wouldn’t get hurt.

A former minor league player named Randy Whisler, who was coaching at Edmonds Community College, came into the Baxter family’s life when Gerik was 11. Whisler mostly worked with the youngster’s hitting stroke and fielding, but he also helped Baxter refine his fastball and taught him to throw a circle change-up.

“You could tell,” Whisler said recently, “he was going to be a pretty special player.”

When Gerik was about to begin his sophomore year at Edmonds-Woodway High School, an Everett AquaSox pitcher named Joe Mays came to live with the Baxter family and had a huge influence on the up-and-coming pitcher.

By the time Baxter reached high school, he was about 6 feet tall and was throwing a 95-mph fastball that attracted baseball scouts to E-W.

Quiet, reserved and analytical off the field, Gerik Baxter found a different personality when a baseball was in his hand. The game brought out something in him that gave the impression he simply couldn’t be stopped. Gerik Baxter was unhittable — in his own mind, and on many afternoons in the minds of opposing hitters.

“Baseball was always easy for him — in T-ball, and in Little League, all the way up,” Brad Baxter said. “He always seemed to carry himself as a baseball player.

“It wasn’t anything I instructed him in. I played, and I was horrible. Gerik always had ability. He wasn’t the biggest kid on the team, but it always kind of fit him.”

Joe Webster, who taught Gerik in eighth-grade history and would later become his baseball coach at E-W, said the sport showed a different side of Baxter.

“Baseball was his love,” Webster said. “When he was on the baseball field, definitely, you saw a personality and a passion for his team. He was all baseball, all the time. Away from the baseball field, all Gerik was thinking was: How can I get out on the baseball field?”

On his journey from baseball dreamer to major-league prospect, Gerik Baxter became one of the most recognized kids in high school. He had a quiet charisma and made a lot of friends along the way.

None of them would grow as close to him as Mark Hilde, two years younger than Baxter but just as passionate about baseball. Their friendship began when they played on Little League teams, and it blossomed sometime around the spring of 1998, when Baxter was a junior and Hilde was a freshman on the Edmonds-Woodway junior varsity.

Baxter initially took Hilde under his wing, but their friendship would soon become a joint venture that transcended the age difference.

They loved country music, pickup trucks and baseball — most of all, they loved life. The reserved, thoughtful Baxter and the witty, gregarious Hilde were different on the surface but cut from the same cloth.

“Gerik and Mark just hit it off,” said Darrel Hilde, Mark’s father. “  . . . The closer they got, they were actually like brothers. They both loved people. All they wanted to do was play baseball.”

The charm

Nicole Bordeaux turned 30 in November. It’s a momentous birthday for a young woman, one remembered as benchmark since the teenage years.

The head volleyball coach at Edmonds-Woodway, Bordeaux distinctly remembers discussing her 30th birthday with her best friend way back in high school. Where would they be? What would they be doing? Where would life have taken them?

Now, the subject only makes Bordeaux feel morose. Her best friend, Mark Hilde, was supposed to have turned 30 on New Year’s Eve 2012.

Bordeaux can’t remember the first time she met Hilde; it felt like they’d always been a part of each other’s lives.

He had that effect on a lot of people.  Hilde could float between social cliques. When he saw someone eating alone in the school lunchroom, he would invite that student over to his table. He hung out with jocks, artsy types and studious bookworms. He could break the tension with his quick wit and contagious laugh. Teachers were helpless to his charms.

“Mark was that guy that everybody always wanted to be around,” Bordeaux said. “He always had a smile on his face.”

Angie McGuire, who taught Hilde and Baxter at Edmonds-Woodway and now serves as athletic director there, remembers Hilde as a jokester who wasn’t necessarily a class clown.

“He always liked to have fun in class,” McGuire said. “He always had a smile on his face. Anywhere in life he was going to be, he was going to have fun.”

Hilde seemed to know everyone, no matter their year in school. He made it OK for a star athlete two years his elder to call him a close friend.

“He had the kind of personality that just drew people to him,” said Webster,  the E-W baseball coach. “He was kind of a goofball, but he could keep things loose.”

Hilde was the life of the party, although his father said the eldest of his two sons was not always that way.

“As a (young) kid, he was very quiet, very shy,” Darrel Hilde said.

When Darrel Hilde signed up Mark for baseball as a kindergartner, the child was reticent.

“I had to coax him because he didn’t want to go,” Darrel Hilde said. “After the first practice, I couldn’t keep him away from the game. That’s all he talked about in elementary school was playing baseball. All he wanted to do was play pro ball.”

Hilde was not a natural, like Gerik Baxter, but he was serious about becoming the best baseball player he could be. He went to clinics at Edmonds Community College and immediately took to the coaching. His parents could see the improvement on an almost daily basis.

“He had to work his butt off,” Darrel Hilde said. “He didn’t have any natural (baseball) talent or ability. He had to work really hard at it.”

Hilde played soccer and basketball for awhile but never much cared for either sport. By the time he reached high school, a few football players came over to his house asking Mark to come out for the team. His father talked him out of it; baseball had become too precious in Mark’s life to risk injury.

A third baseman, Hilde rose from youth traveling teams to junior varsity as a high school freshman to a sophomore starter on the varsity in the spring of 1999.

That was where Hilde and Baxter, a senior, became close. Eventually, they would be inseparable.

“Those guys were crazy,” said Brad Baxter, Gerik’s father. “Mark was a great kid. So full of life; just a great kid.”

Cowboys and ball

Before she became athletic director at E-W, Angie McGuire was a basketball coach and English teacher whose 1998-99 class included a fun-loving motor-mouth and a reserved jock with laid-back confidence.

They were an odd pair to those who didn’t know them, but Hilde and Baxter were a perfect complement to each other.

“They were great friends in high school,” McGuire said. “Best friends.”

“They shared a passion for life and shooting big and expecting big dreams, for accomplishments and excellence,” said Sean McCormick, a longtime friend and 2001 E-W graduate. “They shared that in common. Their personalities balanced each other out.”

The two most obvious things they shared were baseball and country music. Garth Brooks or Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson or Shania Twain, music always seemed to be playing when Baxter and Hilde were together.

Both of them chewed tobacco and loved big trucks. Sometimes they would put on cowboy hats before Edmonds-Woodway football games, turn on the country music, pull a grill from the back of a pickup truck and cook burgers for classmates.

“They were,” noted Bordeaux, who was friends with both, “cowboys at heart.”

What pulled together the two cowboys from the Seattle suburb was undoubtedly baseball. Each spent most of his short life playing, loving and dreaming the sport, and it was on the diamond where they really seemed to be of one mind.

In the spring of 1999, the sophomore third baseman and the senior pitcher led Edmonds-Woodway to a fast start. It didn’t take long for the stands to begin filling up.

“If you wanted to go see baseball, that’s when Edmonds-Woodway had an outstanding baseball team,” said Carolyn Nacke, who worked security at the school. “I’d say, ‘What’s with all those TV cameras?’ And they’d say: ‘Didn’t you know? Gerik’s pitching tonight. He has a fastball that’s unbelievable.’”

Baxter’s senior year did not disappoint. He went 6-1 with a 0.73 earned-run average and was quite proficient as a hitter. Scouts followed his every move. It was apparent that Baxter wouldn’t need college to make big money in the real world.

Webster called Baxter “the most physically talented player that I ever coached in 15 years of high school baseball.”

Hilde wasn’t nearly the prospect, but he was a solid hitter and loved the game enough to chase his own big-league dreams.

The fun-loving cowboys were thriving on the diamond. They were inseparable off of it.

“You never seemed to see one without the other,” Bordeaux said, “and nothing seemed to ever come between their bond.”

Not even a million-dollar salary and a move south, where one would begin his journey up the ladder of professional baseball. Along the way,  Baxter would never forget his best friend from high school.

Who needs a curve?

No one seems to know how the rumor started, but it was out there. In scouting circles, word was during Gerik Baxter’s senior year that the flame-throwing right-hander was hiding an injury.

It was the only explanation. Why else would a legitimate major-league prospect stop throwing his breaking ball?

Upon hearing the buzz, sports agent Barry Axelrod called Baxter’s father and asked why.

“’He doesn’t because he doesn’t have to,’” Axelrod remembers Brad Baxter telling him. “’He’s blowing people away with his fastball.’

“He was in the Pacific Northwest, the weather was cold. Why waste your arm?” Axelrod concluded. “That’s how good a pitcher he was. He was so dominant that he didn’t have to throw his breaking ball — and he had a really, really good one.”

Despite Baxter’s dominance and Hilde’s emergence as a hitter, the 1999 season didn’t end the way the team wanted. The Warriors struggled down the stretch and were upset by Monroe in the 3A North District playoffs, finishing the season with an unremarkable 15-8 record.

Yet Baxter’s stock was never higher. Despite the injury rumors and a pre-senior-year projection as a third- or fourth-round pick, Baxter had a University of Texas scholarship waiting for him. Then life changed with one phone call.

http://www.baseball-almanac.com/draft/baseball-draft.php?yr=1999

On June 8, two days before Baxter graduated from Edmonds-Woodway, the San Diego Padres made him the 28th overall pick in the 1999 amateur draft. Baxter went in the same first round as top overall picks Josh Hamilton and Josh Beckett and was taken ahead of future major league stars John Lackey (second round), Justin Morneau (third round), Albert Pujols (13th round) and –most notable of all — a kid from Mobile, Ala., named Jake Peavy.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jake_Peavy

http://chicago.whitesox.mlb.com/team/player.jsp?player_id=408241

Peavy was also a high school pitcher coming off a huge senior year. The product of St. Paul’s Episcopal High School in Semmes, AL., was the 472nd overall pick, going in the 15th round. The Padres paid a $100,000 signing bonus just to convince Peavy not to play at Auburn. He would eventually become the greatest rival Baxter would have.

About a week after the Padres made him a first-round pick, Baxter signed a contract that turned him into a millionaire. The $1.1 million signing bonus put more money in the 19-year-old’s pocket than most see in a lifetime. One of his first purchases was a black Hummer, modeled after the vehicle owned by his favorite Seattle Mariner, Ken Griffey Jr.

Gerik Baxter signs his pro contract at 13 Coins restaurant. / Baxter family collection

He would later purchase a Ford S-350 pickup truck. Baxter could be so care-free with his money that he once bought a pair of four-wheelers for two minor-league teammates who were visiting him in Edmonds, just so they would have something to do on a free Saturday.

Perhaps the most meaningful thing Baxter purchased was a plot of land in Shelton in Mason County, next to the cabin where his family spent vacations. He put into action a plan to build a house next to his parents’ summer home, with designs on eventually retiring there.

Within days of signing, Baxter was at the Padres’ minor-league camp in Peoria, AZ. He would begin his pro career being managed by Randy Whisler, the family friend who coached at Edmonds CC.

Baxter was also introduced to a confident, 18-year-old rookie teammate named Jake Peavy.

Baxter didn’t have much trouble making the transition to pro, thanks in large part to a fastball that was hitting 97-98 miles mph.

“I remember saying to him: ‘I don’t see how you can throw the ball that fast,’” Brad Baxter recalled. “Typical Gerik response, he said: ‘I don’t see why you can’t.’ He was just a regular guy who thought everyone else was just like him.”

Former minor-league teammate Travis Devine remembers Baxter for his unique wind-up.

“Gerik had a weird way of pitching,” he said. “He wasn’t the tallest guy, so he kind of jumped. But he threw the ever-living (stuff) out of the ball.”

http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/player.cgi?id=baxter001ger

Baxter had so much early success that his rookie league experience was brief. He started  seven games, going 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 36 innings, before the Padres promoted him to Class A Idaho Falls of the Pioneer League. He started five more games there, going 2-0 with a 4.81 ERA, while Peavy stayed behind and led the Arizona League Padres with a 9-1 record and 1.17 ERA in 15 games.

After one short season, Baxter not only proved that he belonged, he had created a rivalry.

The following summer, Baxter and Peavy would be assigned to the Padres’ Class A affiliate in Fort Wayne, IN. To say they eyed each other as a couple of prize fighters might in the first round would be a bit strong, but it was quickly apparent that the pair of flame-throwing pitchers were well aware of the other’s ability.

“I’ve never seen a rivalry on the same team like that in my whole life,” said Devine, a former minor-league teammate of both. “But they had to have it.”

The genesis of the rivalry was a mutual respect, Peavy would say more than a decade later. Devine noted that the fact that they were selected 14 rounds apart in the June draft seemed like a factor in the way they looked at each other.

“Jacob (Peavy) was very expressive; he walked around and knew he was good,” Devine said. “Gerik walked around in a Hawaiian shirt like: ‘Whatever, I’m from Seattle.’

“… It’s like Gerik needed somebody better. Jacob was same way; he thought he was the best. They fed off each other.”

There may have been differing opinions about who was the better pitcher. What was clearly evident to those around them were that Baxter and Peavy were headed in the same direction. No one doubted they would be in the majors.

“He’d be playing right now, for sure,” Devine said of Baxter. “As long as Jake Peavy is in the big leagues, he’d have made it somehow, some way.”

Peavy had bragging rights after 2000, when he won 13 games with a 2.90 ERA at Class A Fort Wayne. Baxter made 19 starts, going 5-6 with a respectable 3.40 ERA while missing a few games along the way because of a line drive he took off the head. Baxter struggled with arm problems late in the season but looked destined for a call-up to Double-A. The major leagues only appeared to be a year or two away.

32nd round

Gerik Baxter had a strong first year in the Padres organization. / Fort Wayne (IN.) Journal Gazette

While Baxter was rising through the minors, his old high school buddy quietly moved on to his junior year of high school and quickly became one of the leaders of the E-W team. Hilde was not only dedicated to putting the Warriors in position to win a lot of games over his final two years, but was also determined to follow Baxter into pro ball.

The odds were against him. Hilde worked to get every bit out of his ability, and he wasn’t blessed with a big-league frame.

“Kind of lanky and long,” Webster said of the 6-foot-2, 185-pound third baseman, “but he was bigger than you thought.”

One thing stuck out about Hilde on the baseball diamond: “Mark could flat-out hit the ball,” Webster said.

Hilde earned all-conference honors as a junior and senior at Edmonds-Woodway, and a few colleges began taking notice. Junior college seemed like the best option for Hilde, who was neither a model student nor striving for a four-year degree.

“He really wasn’t interested in school,” said Darrel Hilde, Mark’s father. “He just wanted to play baseball.”

Without Baxter around, Hilde continued to thrive socially at E-W.

A popular kid whose family was well-known in the Edmonds community — his grandfather, Garfield, put together a high-profile Christmas light show on his property every year — Hilde had a mischievous side but never really was in serious trouble.

The cowboy side of Hilde may well have come from his childhood days spent on his family’s property, a large plot of land owned by his parents, grandparents and uncles. Hilde and his friends would help maintain his grandfather’s immaculate lawn, often through the use of a slingshot. Childhood friend Sean McCormick said Hilde’s grandfather would pay them $1 per squirrel and $5 per crow to keep animals out of the family chicken coop.

Most of all, Hilde liked to connect with others.

“He loved to find common ground in people,” McCormick said, “even in childhood.”

Hilde was loyal, too — sometimes to a fault. His father tells the story of the time a baseball scout was coming to the house to meet his son before a varsity game. Thirty minutes before the scout arrived, one of Mark’s friends called with news that his four-wheeler was stuck. Hilde headed out to his truck to help his friend.

Hilde remembers telling his son: “This is the biggest day of your life, and you’re willing to just drop what you’re doing and pull some kid out of the mud?”

That was Mark Hilde.

“People were drawn to him,” McCormick said in November. “… He had a genuine warmth to him, an inclusive warmth that, regardless of who you were, he would strike up a conversation with you. He would strike up conversations with the most random people and have them giggling in a minute.”

Around the time of graduation in 2001, Hilde had impacted many lives. On June 6, he finally achieved one of his athletic goals.

The Oakland Athletics used their 32nd-round pick on the Edmonds-Woodway third baseman with the wiry frame and the surprisingly powerful bat. Hilde was chosen 971st overall in the 2001 draft, 970 picks after a high school catcher from St. Paul, MN., named  Joe Mauer.

http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/events/draft/mlb_draft.jsp

The wait was of little importance. All Hilde knew was that he was headed to pro ball. He would follow in the footsteps of his best friend. That’s all that mattered.

Setback

Nicole Bordeaux vividly remembers the day she said goodbye to Gerik Baxter, her friend from their days at E-W. He was leaving for Arizona in 2001, off to Peoria for spring training with hopes of putting arm trouble in the past and earning another promotion in the Padres’ minor league system.

Baxter, notorious in his peer group for giving warm bear hugs, was wearing a flannel shirt that day. He’d grown some facial hair on his chin and started sporting a seashell necklace on his long, thin neck. Baxter said goodbye to a group of high school friends, wrapping Bordeaux in his arms with a comforting squeeze before heading out the door.

“When he left,” she recalled the past summer, “I just sobbed uncontrollably. I didn’t want to think about not seeing him for a few months.”

By all accounts, Baxter spent the fall and winter of that off-season in typical fashion, hanging out with Hilde and showing off his big truck. He’d pull up to restaurant drive-through windows and rev the engine. He’d turn up the country music and step on the gas. He loved to get his pickup truck revving down the freeway.

By the time Baxter turned 21 in March 2001, he was in the Padres camp, but the elbow problems weren’t getting any better. For the first time in his baseball career, the game was beginning to humble him.

When players headed off to their respective assignments at the end of spring training, Baxter stayed behind to continue rehabilitating the injury. He eventually underwent elbow surgery in May before getting assigned to the organization’s Class A affiliate in Lake Elsinore, Calif. He was a part-time member of the team, watching some games from the dugout while rehabbing and recovering from the surgery. The most memorable thing about his stay in Lake Elsinore was that Baxter and teammate Vince Faison were the only players who could afford an apartment while others lived with host families.

When contacted last summer, Axelrod, Baxter’s agent, didn’t recall the specifics of the injury but did remember that it wasn’t considered career-threatening.

Baxter’s season sidelined by injury, he could only watch from the dugout while future major leaguers such as  Xavier Nady, Eric Cyr and Jake Peavy helped the Lake Elsinore Storm to a hot start on the way to what would be a 92-win season.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/team.cgi?id=3eadfb81

Baxter wouldn’t be around to see its conclusion.

The run to San Diego

After discussing his future with members of the Oakland A’s scouting department, Mark Hilde decided in early July 2001 to put off his pro career in favor of a year at Edmonds CC. Hilde was encouraged to play some college baseball to prepare him for the following summer, Darrel Hilde said. The A’s were open with him about needing to evaluate a couple of older corner infielders who were embarking on a make-or-break summer in the organization.

Having decided to play juco over the minors, Hilde flew to Arizona in late July to play in a Connie Mack tournament at the spring training complex shared by the Mariners and Padres. His parents went along, as they so often did, to watch their eldest son do what he most loved.

Someone else was there, too. Gerik Baxter, two months after surgery on his pitching arm, made the 330-mile drive from Lake Elsinore to Peoria to watch Hilde play. Hilde’s team lost two consecutive games, and the longtime friends headed over to the Phoenix-area home of one of Hilde’s uncles. They enjoyed the swimming pool and hung out with members of the Hilde family before Baxter talked Hilde into accompanying him on a trip to San Diego. According to Darrel Hilde, Baxter was hoping to introduce his friend to some members of the Padres’ front office; maybe it would even lead to Hilde finding his way into the San Diego system.

Late afternoon Sunday, July 29, 2001. The friends – an 18-year-old two months removed from high school graduation and about to begin classes at Edmonds CC, and a 21-year-old minor-league pitcher sidelined by surgery in his third season of pro ball — headed west on Interstate 10, through mostly desert toward the Southern California coast.

They climbed into Baxter’s Ford F-350 pickup truck. A hot sun bore down. The world spread out around, ripe with possibility.

Part 2 Thursday: The shockwave from Phoenix to San Diego to Seattle.

For information on the Hilde/Baxter Scholarship Fund, go here.


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