SPECIAL TO THE SUN
Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.
Beyond The Sun
As Eric Baldwin's college baseball career at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater wound down four years ago, he began thinking seriously about becoming a professional poker player.
UW-Whitewater baseball coach John Vondelich couldn't help but notice all the poker books Baldwin was reading and realized his intentions of turning pro. Vondelich felt like he had to warn to his right fielder against it.
"I told him it was a tough life and kind of a pipe dream and that maybe he should use his degree for something more stable," Vondenlich said. "He told me, 'Coach, don't worry about me. It's not all about luck.'"
Four years later, Baldwin has proven as much. The 26-year old Baldwin, who recently relocated to Las Vegas, has almost $3 million in career earnings.
Baldwin won four major tournaments, made $1.5 million and was named CardPlayer Magazine's Player of the Year in 2009.
"At the start of last year, the first major tournament was at the Bahamas," Baldwin said. "My friends and I were sitting on the beach and talking about how fun it would be to go after winning Player of the Year. But obviously I didn't expect to win and knew I was a huge long shot."
But Baldwin went from relative unknown in the poker world to one of the game's quickest growing stars in 2009 by making a staggering 17 final tables in major tournaments.
He also won his first World Series of Poker bracelet in a $1,500 No Limit Hold'em tournament and came in third in the $10,000 World Championship of Pot Limit Hold'em.
"Eric Baldwin had an outstanding year in 2009, and, by making 17 final tables proved to be the most consistent poker player of 2009," said Justin Marchand, associate publisher of CardPlayer. "He joins a 'Who's Who' list of the games top players who can call themselves the Player of the Year."
Other players who have taken the award in its 12-year existence include Daniel Negreanu, T.J. Cloutier and Men "The Master" Nguyen. But none of them had a background quite like Baldwin's.
Baldwin was born a baseball player. He played his whole life growing up in Wisconsin before joining Division-III UW-Whitewater for his college years.
It wasn't long before Vondelich realized Baldwin wasn't an ordinary collegiate athlete. According to Vondelich, something about Baldwin's demeanor made him special.
"No matter how he was doing, as the game got later and the situation became more critical, you always saw Eric stepping up," Vondelich said. "There are a lot of individuals that you wonder how they're doing mentally. But with Eric, that was never the case."
Vondelich cited an example from Baldwin's senior year as the best illustration.
The 2005 Warhawks, which eventually went on to win the national championship, trailed late in the final inning of a game when their opponents brought in their best pitcher to face Baldwin.
To pump up Baldwin for the at-bat, Vondelich made his best stab at a poker parallel.
"As they were warming up the pitcher, we got together down the third base line," Vondelich said. "I told him, 'They're all in.' He just smiled. He ended up hitting a grand slam to win the game."
Baldwin says he misses baseball, but knows he took lessons from it that he can apply to poker.
As a hitter, he capitalized on knowing pitchers' weaknesses — much as he does against poker opponents now. He also figured out the value of keeping a cool, patient attitude no matter the circumstance.
"I owe a tremendous amount to my college coaches and teammates," Baldwin said. "I learned so much about how preparation leads you to success. I really learned to value hard work and where it can lead you."
After the national championship, Baldwin's baseball eligibility was up but he still had a year left to complete his psychology degree.
Something about that plan didn't sound right to Baldwin, though.
"I wasn't really that interested in my major," Baldwin said. "I decided to take that last year and really focus to see if I could make a living playing poker."
Baldwin started playing 40-to-60 hours per week online. He won a satellite to play at his first major live tournament in the Bahamas during that span.
At the $5,000 hold'em event, Baldwin came in third and received a large payday.
"That was my first decent score," Baldwin said. "That made my bankroll enough that I could really take a shot at it."
The rest is history. Baldwin kept winning. He said his goals for 2010 were to make a televised final table at either the World Series of Poker or a World Poker Tour event.
That might be the only thing Baldwin hasn't accomplished in the last four years. Vondelich happily says he was wrong about trying to dissuade Baldwin from poker.
"I tell people all the time I'm glad he didn't take my advice," Vondelich said.