MLB Draft: Darren Baker Is Ready to Be Known for Something Else

BERKELEY, Calif. — When the coronavirus pandemic shut down sports more than a year ago, Dusty Baker, who had just taken over as manager of the Houston Astros, left spring training and returned home to Granite Bay, Calif., just outside Sacramento. So, too, did his son Darren, when his baseball season — along with his in-person classes at the University of California, Berkeley — came to an abrupt end.

For four months, the Bakers were deprived of the sport and its sensations — the crack of a ball meeting a bat, the smell of freshly cut grass — which had long provided a rhythm and an anchor to their lives.

In its place, they found something unexpected, a gift that a father and a son might treasure even more: time together.

That meant morning fishing jaunts to a friend’s pond. Afternoon hitting tutorials in the batting cage. Dusty tending to his cabbage, zucchini, collard greens, garlic, onions, okra, peas, grapevines and fruit trees while Darren tended to his online classes. And in the evening, after Melissa Baker — Dusty’s wife and Darren’s mom — cooked dinner, that meant watching Westerns on television, Darren doing his best to stay awake through one Clint Eastwood movie after another.

And as the pandemic deepened, they sat in near silence watching the racial justice protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, the unspoken context being Dusty’s experiences playing professional baseball in the South in the 1960s and ’70s, including his ride alongside Henry Aaron as Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record.

“Obviously, everything going on with the virus and the protests were not good,” Darren said. “But I had never spent that much direct time with my dad at home in a long time. There are positives in everything.”

“We tried to make our time as meaningful and productive as possible,” Dusty said in a phone interview. “It was as much fun as I’ve had in a long time.”

That time alone, especially in the batting cage, is what the younger Baker credits for a senior-year season in which he led the Bears with a .327 average, 28 stolen bases and earned All-Pac-12 first team and defensive team honors as a second baseman. Now he is preparing to embark on a professional career, projected by some rankings services as a fifth-round pick in the Major League Baseball draft, which started on Sunday and concludes on Tuesday.

As scouts assessed his game, they surely took notice that Darren Baker is blessed with his father’s incandescent smile — the one that sets strangers at ease and draws in friends and teammates — and that he carries himself on a baseball diamond with a familiar familial élan. There are the lanky limbs and the long fingers, those broad “Baker shoulders,” as his mother described them, and bits of sartorial flair: the yellow cleats and the black sliding gloves flapping from his back pocket that recall the way his father piled up sweatbands on his wrist and dangled a toothpick from his mouth in the dugout.

Melissa was recently sent a photo of Dusty, his legs crossed, leaning on a bat. It was accompanied by another photo — of Darren caught in a similar pose.

“When we see the smile, it’s a beautiful thing,” Melissa said.

If Darren Baker’s journey up the ladder toward the big leagues introduces him to a broader audience, to some it will recall a moment he does not remember: As a 3-year-old bat boy, he dutifully scurried out to home plate to retrieve a bat during Game 5 of the 2002 World Series only to be scooped up by the San Francisco Giants base runner J.T. Snow, who rescued him from a potential calamity — a collision at the plate.

It was a moment, captured on national television, that resonated far beyond baseball: the little tyke, dressed in a pint-size uniform, with a black jacket to keep him warm and a batting helmet to keep him safe, may as well have been a puppy wandering into a busy street.

After the incident, Dusty, then the Giants manager, was castigated for endangering a child (his own mother gave him an earful) and Major League Baseball soon required that all bat boys be at least 14 years old. And ever since, the young Baker has been perpetually reminded of the moment by strangers. (Yuli Gurriel, who now plays for Dusty with the Astros, remembered watching the play unfold as a teenager in Cuba.)

And yet, if not for the clip remaining alive on the internet, Darren Baker would have no way to reconstruct the memory that so many people have of him.

“It’s weird,” Darren said. “If there were no videos or no YouTube, it’s like it would have never happened for me.” He added: “When I was younger, I’d get three or four hits in a game and somebody would say, ‘Hey, are you that kid that got picked up?’ It’s funny now. I wish I remembered it.”

Growing up, Darren’s father would often tell him that he might be a leader, that he would be somebody important. Perhaps it was because Dusty had to wait so long, until 50, to have a son — he has a daughter, Natosha, from a previous marriage.

Or perhaps it was because any son who grew up in the shadow of a man who served as a Marine reservist, smoked weed with Jimi Hendrix on a San Francisco street corner, was on deck when Aaron broke Ruth’s record, received (from Glenn Burke) what is considered the first high-five, writes books and makes wine, in addition to his distinguished playing and managerial careers, was bound to do … something.

“It’s something I struggled with growing up — separating myself from baseball,” Darren said. “That was my life, that was all I knew since I was born and went to spring training. But my dad is a huge help. He’s in the garden — he thinks he’s a farmer. He’s exploring different things, different avenues.”

In his son, Dusty, 72, said he sees a better version of himself. Darren once urged him to give money to a homeless person who Darren thought might be an angel, and when they were home together, Darren would remind Dusty to say their prayers before they went to bed. He took a gun safety class to go hunting with his father, but then told him he couldn’t bring himself to shoot a bird.

At the start of the pandemic, Darren donated 1,000 meals to a hunger relief organization and started an online campaign to raise money for downtown Sacramento businesses damaged during rioting — gestures Dusty found out about only after the fact. Dusty is also immensely proud that Darren, unlike him, has a college degree, which he finished in May in American Studies.

“I’m not bad — and he’s not perfect. But I was wilder than he was,” Dusty said with a laugh that, even through the phone, seems to rise up from his belly. “My generation meant itself to be wilder.”

Baseball’s current generation is littered with the progeny of past players: Fernando Tatis Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Ke’Bryan Hayes, Cody Bellinger, Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette among them. Jack Leiter, a pitcher from Vanderbilt whose father, Al Leiter, was a two-time All-Star pitcher, went to the Texas Rangers with the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft.

Beginning when Dusty managed the Giants, and then the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Washington Nationals and now the Astros, he had Darren around whenever he could. It was clear at an early age that he was observant: As a 4-year-old in T-ball, he stepped into the batter’s box with his left hand raised to make sure he wasn’t going to be quick pitched. He was scolded for spitting in the house when he was 5. When Darren was 9, he came up limping after sliding into second base and told his father he might have to go on the disabled list. (Dusty informed his son that Bakers don’t go on the D.L.)

As Darren grew older, he sat quietly in the dugout and watched games intently. He gravitated toward the better players on his dad’s teams — Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips in Cincinnati, Bryce Harper in Washington and George Springer last year in Houston. What Votto told him as an 11-year-old — to focus on hitting the ball up the middle or the opposite way — is advice he still leans on. And as he got older, he would ask them more direct questions, like what they were thinking in a particular at-bat. And he would listen carefully to what Barry Bonds was telling him when they would hit in the cage together.

If some children don’t always want to hear what their parents have to say — “yeah, well that still applies sometimes,” Dusty said — it helped to have pros co-signing a father’s advice.

“He’d come back from hitting with Barry and tell me, ‘Barry, he sounds just like you,” Dusty added. “As a parent, you have to be really careful not to push your 50 years of experience and knowledge onto a 20-year-old. Craig Biggio would tell me about his son and tell me to not have an autopsy after every game about his at-bats, to wait until the next day, which sometimes I have trouble doing, or let him come to you.”

Through the grace of the schedule, Dusty was able to see Darren play twice this season when the Astros were in Oakland. Otherwise, they speak regularly on the phone, often when Dusty is at the ballpark — the initial 10 seconds of their call usually involve Darren telling his father to turn down the music in his office, which is often bathed in soothing lights, scented candles and incense.

What is striking about watching Darren play baseball is that in many ways he is a throwback to the era when his father thrived as a Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder. His speed, aggressiveness, defense, situational hitting and ability to make contact with little power would have fit seamlessly on the 1980s Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals. But in today’s game of launch angles, 100 mile-an-hour heaters and three true outcome baseball (walk, strikeout and home run), there are questions about whether his lack of power — six extra-base hits (all doubles) in 223 at-bats this season — will eventually thwart his progress.

Dusty believes his son will fill out those Baker shoulders, grow into his size 13 shoes and start driving the ball in the manner of one of his own players, Michael Brantley. Growing up with wooden bats — Springer donated a dozen ax-handled bats to him last year — and being accustomed to the bright lights will also serve Darren well, he added.

“He has to be in the right organization that appreciates a ballplayer and not just a slugger because he can do a lot of things that help you win,” said Dusty Baker, who in his fourth decade as a manager has staunchly backed his players, a habit that won’t be broken for his favorite one.