Call it a generational difference, the old pitching machine in the backyard. Darren Baker, the one who stood in front of it throughout the past year, laughs at having to wear an elbow guard, just in case a heater ran high and tight. Dusty Baker, his 72-year-old dad, likes how the unpredictability trained his son to hunt strikes and count on nothing — not from pitchers or life.
So it was fitting that, after all the missed time, they were brought to the batting cage by a universal pause of normalcy. By 2020, in other words. Most of Darren’s junior season at California-Berkeley was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Dusty was around because the Houston Astros, the team he manages, split from mid-March to early July. At home in Sacramento, then, father and son went fishing. They spent hours hitting before flicking on MLB Network. Late nights were reserved for the Western movies they had never watched together.
“Some of the most enjoyable days I had in a while,” Darren, 22, recalled in a recent phone interview. “Even going back to when I was in elementary and kindergarten and stuff, he was always in baseball. So it was years and years of catching up.”
On the other side, once Darren returned to school and Dusty to the dugout, Darren felt more disciplined and aggressive at the plate. He reached base safety in 54 of the Bears’ 55 games. Then came his last shot at the draft and a call from the Washington Nationals, the club Dusty managed for two seasons, winning the division in 2016 and 2017 before losing in the National League Division Series.
It was the 10th round this July. Darren’s adviser had told him he may not be drafted until the next day, but Darren felt he’d waited long enough. Last summer, the draft was shortened to six rounds, leaving Darren to choose to sign as an undrafted player or go back to Cal.
But in Washington, General Manager Mike Rizzo told a room of scouts and front office staffers that if Darren wasn’t taken, he was their guy. No one questioned that. At 6 feet and 180 pounds, Darren is a left-handed contact hitter with speed, a strong glove and no power (yet). His numbers spiked this spring — 73 hits, a .402 on-base percentage, 28 steals — and to explain why, Darren nodded to Dusty’s lesson of swinging at more in-zone fastballs. Dusty felt it was fitting, too, that the Nationals gave Darren a chance.
“What I like is that they’re not just straight sabermetrics,” Dusty Baker said. “ . . . They’re a combination of old school and new school and I think that’s a perfect place to realize his talents. Everybody else is saying he’s not strong, he’s not hitting the ball out of the ballpark. He will. And if he doesn’t, he’s still a leadoff man-type at this point in time, a speed guy.
“That’s the same guy I was when I signed. I batted leadoff all through the minor leagues until I got to the big leagues and got stronger.”
Dusty’s Baseball Reference page lists him at 6-foot-2, 183 pounds, only slightly bigger than Darren is now. But Dusty, who was also a middle infielder, hit 11 or more homers in 11 of his 19 seasons. He even crushed 30 in 1977.
Darren’s immediate plan, though, is not aimed at a spike in power. It is threefold: Grow, perhaps with the help of a late spurt that is common on his father’s side of the family. Stick at second base, knowing his speed could make him a candidate for a move to center. And keep establishing himself as not just Dusty’s son, but Darren Baker, a player and man of his own making.
“Definitely struggled with it when I was younger,” Darren said. “Playing and going to high school in the same area as my dad, there was no one in the stands who didn’t know I was Dusty’s kid. It was a lot of pressure. I feel like I could go 3 for 4 in a game and strike out once, but the one strikeout is what people talk about and things like that. I really think it helped me as I got down the line.”
“He’s a ballplayer, not because he’s my son,” Dusty explained. “But he learned a lot from being around Barry Bonds at a young age, and Joey Votto and Jay Bruce and [Anthony] Rendon and Bryce Harper, watching different guys play. He knows how to play. And he knows what not to do. He’s kind of like an actor’s son who was on set the whole time, like Kiefer Sutherland or one of the Estevezes. . . . They’re not intimidated by this at all.”
On the morning he was drafted, Darren ran into Bruce, an outfielder Dusty managed with the Cincinnati Reds, who told Darren that this is when the real work begins. After he was drafted, he heard from Dee Strange-Gordon, another smaller infielder; Bonds, who he still hits with in the Bay Area; and Noah Jackson, a mentor. Darren Baker says that Jackson, a Cal assistant and Dusty’s godson, helped him slip away from his dad’s long shadow. The next goal is doing so in front of bigger crowds.
Like the rest of Washington’s latest draft class, Baker started his professional career in the Florida Complex League in West Palm Beach. But he was quickly promoted Monday, heading with two other first-year players to the low-Class A Fredericksburg Nationals. And in his debut in Fredericksburg on Wednesday, playing second base, Darren logged a single and made a sliding catch in shallow right.
That left about a month to impress coaches and player development staff before the offseason. Then it will be back to that rickety pitching machine.
“For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a baseball player,” said Darren, now a few long steps from the ultimate dream. “It’s a credit to my dad and my mom. They never pressured me into playing, so I found the love myself.”