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.