By Peter Blucher
Former Aspley speedster Oskar Baker will make a fairytale AFL debut in Perth tonight to deliver on a promise to his late mother.
Baker, eight days short of his 21st birthday and four days off the second anniversary of his mother’s passing, will play for Melbourne against reigning premiers West Coast tonight in front of over 50,000 fans.
In a replay of last year’s preliminary final hammering from the Eagles which ended the Demons’ finals charge, it could hardly get any bigger for the first-gamer, who still carries his Aspley nickname of the ‘Ginger Ninja’.
Sitting 15th on the ladder at 3-5 after last week’s final-second win over Gold Coast, the Demons have to find something special tonight.
Baker, son of former Windsor-Zillmere 200-gamer and Queensland State representative Lee Baker, will become the 180th Queenslander to play in the AFL and the second debutant of 2019 behind North Melbourne’s Bailey Scott.
It is a debut that he will dedicate to his mother Trudie, who passed away on 21 May 2017 after a long battle with cancer.
Baker, drafted by Melbourne in 2017 after an unlikely journey through the football pathway, said at the time his mother was his ‘biggest fan”.
“I actually promised her that I’d get on an AFL list and to actually achieve that it was a pretty significant moment in my life,” Baker told AFL.com.au after he had been drafted.
“With everything that happened, it motivated me to be a better footballer and a better person on and off the field.”
Trudie Baker was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 and underwent chemotherapy. Follow-up scans were showing signs that the cancer may have cleared but at the end of 2015 the disease resurfaced in the form of bone cancer.
After another bout of chemotherapy, she displayed some signs of improvement, but, in subsequent scans it was evident the cancer had never really gone away.
“It was a shattering time for me and the whole family but footy has really been an escape for me and it really helped take my mind off things,” Baker said.
So, if he is true to his word of 18 months ago, he will run out tonight a the black arm band wrapped around his bicep.
“It was a little idea that I came up with so I can just have that reminder that she’ll always be with me,” he said after he had been drafted.
Unlike Scott, who was standout junior all the way to a NAB AFL Rising Star nomination in his Round 1 AFL debut with North this year, Baker has had to scrap and fight for every little progression in his football dream.
The Wilston-Grange junior never represented Queensland as a junior and as a 17-year-old he was cut from the Brisbane Lions’ academy.
Standing just 160cm at the time, he was told his lack of height and strength were a roadblock to higher level football.
But he refused to be put off and worked tirelessly at Wilston Grange and later Aspley.
He grew about 20cm and in a sweet moment of justification, was invited back to join the Lions after he had established himself in the Aspley side under John Blair. He chose to stay with the Hornets to push his draft prospects.
After an outstanding 2017 NEAFL season with Aspley where his trademark speed and long, damaging run down the wing was a feature, he was picked up by the Demons with selection #48 in the National Draft.
Baker was drafted ahead of a number of players who have already played the highest level, including GWS’ Zac Langdon and Essendon’s Matt Guelfi, both with 22 games behind them, and Geelong’s Gryan Miers, who was last week’s nomination for the 2019 NAB AFL Rising Star Award.
A standout with Casey in the VFL last year until a season-ending hamstring injury in August denied him a place in the club’s premiership win, Baker will get his AFL chance after consecutive two-goal games for Casey in the past fortnight.
Baker is in good company at Melbourne, with fellow Queenslanders Brayden Preuss, Corey and Josh Wagner, and will become the 16th Queenslander to wear the famous red and blue of the Demons.
With Preuss and Corey Wagner having already debuted for the club this season, the Demons have surpassed Collingwood for Queenslanders on their all-time playing list.
Baker will follow a path blazed by Ray Smith, Queensland’s first AFL 100-gamer, when he played 27 games for Melbourne in 1975-76 after a mid-season switch from Essendon.
Since then Brad Miller (133 games), Clint Bizzell (88), Rohan Bail (71), Ricky Petterd (54), Joel Macdonald (44), Jake Spencer (38), Josh Wagner (33), Barry Denny (22), David Cockatoo-Collins (9), Donald Cockatoo-Collins (2), Stephen Wearne (3), Trevor Spencer (3), Preuss (2) and Corey Wagner (4) have also played with Melbourne.
Josh Wagner will play alongside Baker tonight, with Corey Wagner among the emergencies. Preuss will continue his comeback from injury in the VFL this weekend.
Baker will make it back-to-back Queenslanders in jumper #33 at Melbourne, following Jake Spencer, who played his last two games in 2017 in #33 after wearing #42 in 36 games from 2009-15.
Ironically, Spencer is now back playing at Aspley, which is not just Baker’s old club but also the former home of the Wagner brothers.
The other Queensland football product looking forward to a big Round 9 is Adelaide’s former Redland big man Elliot Himmelberg, who will play his fifth AFL game and his first at the Gabba against Brisbane on Saturday.
Himmelberg, 19, drafted with selection #51 in 2016, debuted in the last game of last year and has played four games this year, showing good promise to keep big-name rival Josh Jenkins out of the top side.