Darren Baker

How Darren Baker went from Giants bat boy to MLB draft prospect at Cal

Rob Edwards/KLC Fotos

How Darren Baker went from Giants bat boy to MLB draft prospect at Cal

BERKELEY -- Not too many people find themselves in the spotlight at just three years old. On baseball's brightest stage, that's exactly what happened to Darren Baker in Game 5 of the 2002 World Series. 

The image forever will be ingrained into Giants fans' minds. J.T. Snow, with David Bell running behind him, swooped up Darren at home plate after scoring on a Kenny Lofton triple to give San Francisco a 10-4 lead over the Anaheim Angels.

Darren, of course, was the team's bat boy and the toddler son of then-Giants manager Dusty Baker.

Soon after the '02 World Series, MLB changed its rules to make a 14-year-old age requirement for bat boys. While the world knew Darren after that famous moment, it was then that he started becoming "Dusty Baker's son." It's a title that he's proud of, while also trying to make a name for himself altogether. 

Darren is incredibly close with his father. When news broke that Dusty would take over as the Houston Astros' manager this season to restore respect to the franchise, Darren tweeted the perfect GIF to show his admiration. 

As he enters his junior year as Cal Berkeley's starting second baseman, Darren is juggling the act of being more than the son of a famous baseball player and manager while also never letting the outside noise put a crack in his unbreakable bond with his dad. Darren credits both his father and mother, Melissa, for making him the man he is today at 21 years old. 

"They never speak about me having to be my dad," Darren recently said to NBC Sports Bay Area before a practice at Evans Diamond. "If I didn’t want to play baseball, I wouldn’t have to. They let me become my own person. My dad focuses on saying my name when questions are asked.

"I just got the best parents in the world." 

From bat boy to MLB draft prospect 

(Darren Baker hit .306 and stole 21 bases as a sophomore for Cal. Photo via Tyler Tate/AP)

While Dusty is back in baseball, a huge summer for Darren has his name climbing up boards for this June's MLB Draft. Baker hit .347 with 12 stolen bases for the Wareham Gateman in the Cape Cod Baseball League -- the most prestigious summer league for college baseball players -- and was named an All-Star.

When asked about his improvements over the summer, Baker didn't hesitate at all.

"I give the credit to Coach (Jerry) Weinstein," Baker said, praising his summer league coach. "He kind of beat it in my head until I didn’t want to hear it anymore about never taking at-bats off, never taking plays off. If you kind of give away one at-bat a game, it really adds up at the end of the year. That’s something that I’ll really keep with me forever."

Mike Neu, Baker's coach at Cal, has noticed plenty of improvements as well. Darren was named to the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team as a sophomore, and Neu calls Baker one of the best defenders in the country. But it's on offense that Neu really has seen his second baseman continue to make strides. 

Baker started 42 games as a freshman and hit .273 with five stolen bases. Last season, he took a major leap by batting .306 and was a perfect 21-for-21 on stolen base attempts. With Baker figuring to bat at the top of Cal's lineup, Neu says the junior is focused on laying off balls outside of the strike zone and seeing more pitches this year.

Growing with the Golden Bears

(Darren Baker was named to the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team as a sophomore. Photo via Rob Edwards/KLC Fotos)

With each challenge so far, Baker has responded with glowing reviews.

"I think he’s just continued to gain confidence each year and then just learn -- just learn how to compete at this level," Neu said. "He’s really competitive, so when he figures out what he needs to do to be successful, he works on it and he’s done that every year."

With growth and two college seasons under his belt, Baker has matured on and off the field. That includes in the weight room, too. Now listed at 175 pounds, Baker says he has gained 30 to 35 pounds since he stepped foot on Cal's campus. 

It took plenty of hard work for the skinny second baseman to add weight, and it's clear he has gone from scrawny to strong while working on his body all year round. 

"I feel like finally all the years of staying extra time and eating meals until I’m not even hungry anymore is starting to pay off," Baker said. 

"I think he’s just gotten stronger," Neu added. "He’s matured. He’s always had a good swing, but now he’s a little bit more physical. I think he’s just a more well-rounded offensive guy where he drives the ball to the gaps a little more."

Despite his added strength, Baker doesn't feel he needs to change his game when Cal's season starts Friday at Long Beach State. He'll continue to be a contact-first hitter, spray the gaps and even use his speed on drag bunts. The power eventually will come, just like it did for his father. Dusty was built very similar to Darren growing up and wound up hitting 242 homers over his 19-year MLB career. 

Unlimited baseball knowledge

(Darren Baker uses lessons on and off the field from his father and baseball mentors. Photo via Jeff Chiu/AP)

One aspect of Baker's game that continues to evolve at Cal is his leadership. He doesn't need to be the loudest voice in the room, but Neu knows exactly what he's getting from Darren every single day. The Golden Bears follow his lead. 

"He’s a big-time leader," Neu said. "Obviously his playing experience here, his background with who he’s learned from -- not just his dad but the big leaguers he’s been around, I mean it just automatically gives him so much of a foundation for him and for our whole team. He’s a leader and he’s been great in that role. He comes to work every day, he knows what he needs to work on.

"His understanding of the game is way ahead of most guys at this level, just because of what he’s seen and what he’s been around. When he gets on the bases or when he plays defense, he’s just thinking steps ahead that most guys wouldn’t at this level."

That natural baseball knowledge comes from years of being a fly on the wall, or better put, a fly on dugout walls. Baker still frequently talks with Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, who Dusty coached on the Cincinnati Reds, and even flew out to Atlanta to work out with former Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips for two weeks. Darren calls these relationships "bigger than baseball," as he talks about way more than the game with his mentors. 

The man who has played the biggest role in his baseball career, however, will be watching from afar. This isn't anything new for Darren and Dusty, though. These past two seasons at Cal were the first in 16 years where Dusty was able to consistently watch Darren’s games. While they nearly are 50 years apart, father and son often find themselves on the same page after games. 

“A lot of the times, honestly, we find that we call each other at the same time,” Darren said. “The phone will be ringing as I call and I’ll see a notification pop up. … It won’t be anything new, but I’m definitely going to miss him for sure.” 

Before he dials Dusty’s number, though Darren feels he’s going into his junior season on the “most prepared team” he has played on. Led by Andrew Vaughn, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft, Cal made its first Regional since 2015 last year. But Baker has even bigger goals on what likely will be his last ride with the Golden Bears before he hears his own name is called early in this year’s draft. 

At Dusty’s introductory press conference for the Astros, he referenced a Too Short lyric and said, “This is my last album.” For Darren, his album is just beginning.

Dusty Baker shares how he became Giants manager, relives 2002 World Series loss

Dusty Baker shares how he became Giants manager, relives 2002 World Series loss

Editor’s note: “As Told To Amy G,” presented by Toyota, will feature exclusive conversations with Giants staff, players and alums, as well as interesting figures around Major League Baseball, throughout the 2019 season. This time, we head into the dugout with Dusty Baker, the former Giants manager, in the first installment of a two-part interview.

You know “The Most Interesting Man in the World” commercial campaign? Yeah, yeah, it’s to sell beer, but if it was an ad to sell baseball, Dusty Baker likely would get the role.

Back with San Francisco after a difficult departure as manager in 2002 and a 16-year hiatus from the Giants, Baker’s official title is special assistant to the CEO, but he explains he’s more of an evaluator. He visits minor league affiliates to keep tabs on who might be able to help the big club and keeps his eyes peeled around the league for potential trades or acquisitions.

In this era of sabermetrics, Baker, who will be 70 in June, claims he’s not a computer guy, but his eyes, ears and memory serve him well. His 52 years in the game speak volumes about the value he brings to the Giants, but it’s his life experience that left me in awe. Behind the iconic image of Dusty at the helm of multiple big league teams -- toothpick in mouth, tucked into the railing -- is a man who played the game during one of the most tumultuous times in our country’s history. His story educates, inspires and brings perspective to many Giants fans’ perceived mistake of giving Russ Ortiz the ball too soon ... and yes, we talked about that, too.

We covered so much ground that we’re splitting this “As Told To Amy G,” in two parts. In Part 1, we covered his life after playing baseball, his transition into managing and how his mom wasn’t too happy about that whole thing with his son Darren at home plate.

Dusty Baker managed the Cubs, Reds and Nationals after leaving San Francisco in 2003, but now he's back as the Giants' special assistant to the CEO (Photo by USA TODAY Sports Images)

Dusty’s playing time in the Bay Area seems to get lost in the shuffle. He was a Giant in ’84 and with the A’s in his final two seasons, in ’85 and ’86. His sights set on a complete career change, Baker headed for Wall Street in 1987, but an extremely controversial statement made by a baseball big wig pulled Baker back into the mix. And he had something to prove.

“I was a stock broker in '87, and then Al Campanis said his words that we [African-Americans] weren't qualified. it was horrible, but sometimes good comes out of a horrible situation. I got a call from Hank [Aaron], Joe Morgan, Frank Robinson for us to all go to Dallas to get minorities jobs when they get through with baseball because baseball at the time, you didn't get any PR jobs. You didn't get any kind of jobs. When your playing days were done, you were done. ...

“We met in Dallas ... next thing I know, Bob Kennedy came to me and said, '[Giants general manager] Al Rosen would like to talk to you.' I said, 'About what?' He said, 'About a job.' I said, 'I’m not here to get a job. I’m here to help other people get a job,’ and he goes, 'Just listen to him.' So I listened to him — didn’t even know him. Out of that, Don Baylor got a job. ... Like I said, out of that bad situation came some good.

“So, I went to Lake Arrowhead with my daughter and my brother to ask God what to do because I didn't want to go into it. and I asked my dad, 'What do I do?' He said, 'Go to the hills and just pray on it.' So, I went to the hills. ...

“I’m standing in line, [Giants owner] Bob Lurie tapped me on the shoulder. I looked around, and he said, ‘You need to come join us.' I said, 'How many times have you been here?' He said, ‘This is my first time.' I said, ‘This is my first time, too.' So, I went to the phone — I have to call my dad. I said, ‘Dad, is that a sign?' He said, 'Son, you just don't want to see it, you go up there asking for a sign, and you don't want to adhere to what you're praying to and you haven't even prayed yet.'

“So, I flew to San Francisco — I was getting divorced, ready to get out of LA — and I interviewed with Rosen. He said, ‘We’d like to make you first base coach and ... what would you like to do?' and I said, 'I’d like to be your assistant general manager. I think I’m GM material.' He goes, ‘I think you'd be better suited for the field.' So, I kind of took exception to that. The field? What does that mean? And he said, ‘I think you'd be a better field manager.’ i didn't know if he was talking grounds crew or what, so I said OK. I said, ‘Someday I gotta get out of this position, not just be a coach. I’m the oldest of 5, was in the Marines. I’m used to giving orders more than taking them.' He said it would take five years to get the player out of me, and then five years almost to the day when I was hired, that's when I was chosen as a manager [1993].”

Despite Dusty’s efforts to keep African Americans in the game after their playing careers, the number of African Americans currently playing baseball has dramatically dropped. Agent Leigh Steinberg wrote for Forbes last year that, in 1981, 18.7 percent of the league’s players were African American. On opening day in 2018, African American players comprised 8.4 percent of all major league players.

Here’s Dusty’s take on that decline ...

“I think part of it is economics, part of it is a lot of the fathers aren't into baseball. See, my dad was my Little League coach, and he was Bobby [Bonds’] Little a League coach. A lot of us fell in love with baseball because of our fathers. And some of it has to do with some of the broken homes, I think. Some due to the economics of playing baseball — it's expensive. ... Costing $3,000 to $5,000 to play on a travel ball team, and if you're not on a travel ball team, you're not getting the best competition.

“Then they're using college baseball as a minor league for the big leagues because they can get there quicker. But, for college baseball, it's only 11.7 scholarships [for a 25-man roster], where football and basketball are full scholarships. And if you're a person who doesn't have the means and you get a half scholarship, someone else is going to have to come up with the other $15,000 or $20,000, whatever it costs to go. I think, No. 1, if they can up the scholarships in college, that would help a lot.”

Dusty Baker managed Barry Bonds all 10 seasons with the Giants and had a familial connection with the slugger (Photo by The Associated Press)

Dusty is only one of four black managers to manage in a World Series game ... in baseball history. With the numbers of African American players rapidly declining and the loss of iconic black figures such as Robinson and Willie McCovey this year, I was curious if Baker felt pressure to be the voice and to solve this problem.

“No, I don't feel any more pressure than I always felt. Stevie Wonder had a song a long time ago called “Can't Cash In Your Face,” and that’s true. When I walk into a room, you know what you are, or within a few minutes, most people will let you know by their facial expressions.

“Pressure is something I've been dealing with my entire life, and it makes me stronger and gives me strength, if anything, but somebody else has to pick it up, I think, because these guys are passing. I'll be 70 years old in June, so I think there are some great candidates to pass it on, but the system has to listen to them. if you're not listening to them, it doesn't do any good, or you sweep it under the rug until next year for the next Black History Month, and then you don't talk about it for the rest of the year. I think people are genuinely trying to come up with a solution, but I don’t think anybody knows what the solution is yet.”

We shifted gears back to Dusty’s managing days. After all, he managed one of the most controversial players in the history of the game. It helped that Dusty was very close with Bobby Bonds, but managing his son, Barry, was a topic I had to get into this interview.

What was it like? What side of Barry did he see? Turns out there were several sides to Bonds, and Baker was a master at connecting with all of them.

“I held Barry the day he was born. Most of the time, we wanted to hug him, sometimes you wanted to spank him, but he was too big to spank, and sometimes his dad would tell me he needs a spanking. I said, ‘Well, you give it to him. You're the father.’

“Barry is one of the greatest players -- he and Hank Aaron were the two greatest players I’ve been around. Their concentration, their motivation came from within. You didn’t have to give it to them, but like a prized thoroughbred race horse, they don't like to be ridden too much. Sometimes you have to let the race horse run, and sometimes that made it a little difficult to have certain disciplinary things done on your team.

"Sometimes you would have to trick Barry. Sometimes you'd say, like, ‘Hey man, show up at 4 o'clock,’ and he'd show up at 4:10, and then the next day, I said, ‘OK, don't show up at all,’ then he'd show up 10 minutes to 4. So, I said, ‘OK, I see how this is.’ ”

J.T. Snow tugging Giants bat boy Darren Baker out of harm's way at home plate is one of the lasting images from a 2002 World Series that San Francisco lost (Photo by The Associated Press)

You can’t think of Dusty Baker without envisioning his baby boy, Darren, being scooped up by J.T. Snow at home plate in Game 5 of the 2002 World Series, avoiding a scary collision. All of us watching stopped breathing for a minute, and Dusty, well, he hasn’t stopped hearing about it …

“People ask me why [Darren was a Giants bat boy]. It’s simply because I had discovered I had prostate cancer that December, December 2001, and then I had an operation, and I barely got back in time for spring training because then they didn't do it robotically. They cut you open. And so the most traumatic times of the year was every three months for a check-up. You had to go back to see the doctor, and you go in and they tell you if your cancer is back or not every three months, so that was tough. ...

"I wanted to give Darren everything that I could just in case my cancer came back, and leave my son to the world at 3 and a half, 4 years old. Even though he might not remember, I'm trying to show him the world, and that’s why I had him out there, and I like kids -- you saw all those kids out there -- and some of them have gone on to play pro ball. They get motivated.

“Well, before the game, my mom told me, ‘I have a bad feeling. Don't let him on the field today. Don't let him be bat boy.’ I was like, ‘Mom, I'm grown. You don't tell me what to do.’ So, I went back to my office in the clubhouse [after the near-collision at home plate] and the phone rang. It's my mom, so I wasn't going to answer. I said, ‘I better answer,’ and there's a cool-down period of 15 minutes, so I said hello, and she said, ‘Dusty,’ so I said, ‘Hey Mom, what’s going on?’ -- I was hoping she didn't see the game – [but she said] ‘I told you not to let that boy go out there,’ so I said, ‘Mom, I have to go. The press is here.’ She said, ‘Oh no, you tell them to wait. You don't ever listen to me.'

"You know, you get that “you never listen to me” speech -- you ever given that to your boys? Yeah, well I got it, and I was like 50 years old when I got the speech.”

A lot of hearts broke during that World Series after the Angels won it in seven games, and again in the offseason when Dusty and the Giants couldn’t come to a contract agreement. Baker departed the City by the Bay for the Windy City. It turns out it was one of the most difficult decisions in his baseball career, and he leaned on another Bay Area coaching icon for advice about taking the Cubs job.

“Well, it was tough. I could still see me standing on the field holding Darren with my wife next me and the fans up there, and I knew it was time to go. And I didn't want to go because it was inconvenient on me because I went to Chicago, but then I couldn't stay in my house in San Bruno. My kids couldn't go to school here -- I had to be without my family, but sometimes you have to make a decision, and I had talked to Bill Walsh, one of my mentors, one of my big-time mentors. Bill told me, ‘At some point in time, it's always trying to go.’

"I felt that was my time to go because he believed that our guys changed teams every seven years or so, five to seven years, because during that point of time, there are certain things about you the organization may not like, and there's certain things about the organization that you might not like, and all I can do is fester and make it worse. You don't want to ruin a great 10 years here and ruin it in a matter of seconds, because that’s all it takes.

We close Part 1 with our Toyota Fan Question, and it's about pulling Russ Ortiz from that World Series Game 6. The Giants led 5-0 in the seventh inning but lost the game and eventually the series on a six-run Angels rally.

So one fan had to ask: "Game 6 ... why? Why'd you do it, man? Why?" Here's Dusty's response:

“No. 1, you have to get over it -- that’s No. 1. And they won like three [World Series championships] in the meantime. And No. 2, Russ had been scalded in the start before that, and as a manager, you go on how they are hitting the ball or are they hitting up or down or whatever, and they had just hit two bullets off of Russ -- I think Tim Salmon hit one of them, and I don’t recall who hit the other one, and it was cause for concern. So, as a manager, you're responsible for what they do, but they're responsible for their performance. …

“I was reading a story one day, and this football coach was getting a haircut, and he had started this freshman on Saturday, and this freshman played terribly. And then on Monday, he went to go get a haircut, and the guy said, ‘If I were you, Coach, I wouldn't have put that kid in to start as a freshman,’ and he goes, ‘Well, if I had until Monday to see the outcome, I wouldn't have put him in either.’ So, if I had until the next day, like you do on most occasions, I might not have done it, either, but I did what I thought was right.”

Come back Monday, May 20, for the second part of “As Told to Amy G” interview with Dusty Baker on NBCSportsBayArea.com or the MyTeams app.

Also follow Amy G on Twitter @AmyGGiants, on Instagram @amygon Facebook, and, of course, watch her on NBC Sports Bay Area’s Giants coverage all season.

POLL: Giants Memorable Moments -- JT Snow rescues Darren Baker vs Cody Ross' two homers in Game 1 of 2010 NLCS


POLL: Giants Memorable Moments -- JT Snow rescues Darren Baker vs Cody Ross' two homers in Game 1 of 2010 NLCS

PROGRAMMING NOTE: NBC Sports Bay Area is looking back at the Giants' 60 Memorable Moments since the franchise moved from New York to San Francisco. Tune into Pregame Live at 6pm to see the next two moments you can vote on! Then, after the D'backs and Giants conclude, tune into Postgame Live to see which moment will move on to the next round! Make your vote count!

1. J.T. Snow saves Darren Baker during Game 5 of the 2002 World Series (defeated Angel Pagan's inside-the-park walk-off home run on May 25th, 2013)

(From Alex Pavlovic)

Darren Baker now plays baseball at Cal, but 16 years ago, he was involved in a memorable and scary moment at home plate. Then three years old, he served as bat boy for the Giants as they faced the Angels in the World Series. 

In the seventh inning of Game 5, Kenny Lofton hit a high drive off an archway in right field. J.T. Snow and David Bell raced home. "As I'm running towards home, out of the corner of my eye I see something dart out of the dugout," Snow said later. "I realize about halfway down that it's Darren running and he's making a beeline for the bat."

Snow reached out with his right hand as he touched the plate and scooped Darren up by grabbing a handful of his warm-up jacket a second before Bell crossed the plate. All was fine, although Dusty Baker said he got an angry phone call from his mom after the game.


2. Cody Ross' two home runs off Roy Halladay in Game 1 of the 2010 NLCS

(From Cody Ross)

'Best memory out of the 60 hands down'

In Game 1 of the NLCS we had the hardest matchup that we were going to face the entire playoffs. We were staring down the Late Roy Halladay, who in my opinion was the best pitcher I’ve ever faced. He threw a Perfect Game against me when I was on the Marlins earlier in the year and was coming off a no-hitter in the NLDS against the Reds in his previous start. Not to mention he’s a 2x Cy Young award winner and an 8x All-Star. 

As I walk to the plate in the 3rd inning of a 0-0 game I’m realizing Roy has not given up a hit yet again. He was one of those pitchers who had a chance to throw a no-hitter every time he took the mound. That’s how good he was. Up until this point, I had tried every approach with little-to-no success against him. I tried to work the counts and see pitches, stay inside the ball and hit it the other way, stay up the middle, etc etc... none of these seemed to get the job done. Finally that cold October night I said to myself, “Just try and hit a home run”... and all of a sudden on a 1-1 count I swung as hard as I could and “Bang! A HR!” The best contact I’d ever had against Roy and I was just as surprised as anybody in the ballpark or the millions watching on TV. I couldn’t feel my legs running around the bases and couldn’t believe what just happened. It was the first hit he had given up in the playoffs and it was a go-ahead home run to put us up 1-0 with Tim Lincecum also throwing a gem. 

As I stepped up to the plate in the top of the 5th the game was tied 1-1. At this point I had a ton of confidence and felt like nobody could get me out. I went with the same approach of trying to hit a home run and on a 2-0 pitch the unthinkable happened again! Hard contact and I see the ball flying over the left field fence. I took a peek at Roy and he was in disbelief just as I was. 

There are many memorable playoff HR stories but it’s hard to find one against one of the most dominating pitchers in this era. It will definitely go down as one of my greatest baseball memories. I hope all the Giants fans enjoyed it as much as I did.