Baker on son: 'He's kept me young'

June 20th, 2021

HOUSTON -- It’s 8 a.m. on a Sunday, and the guitar riffs of Jimi Hendrix are seeping through the door of a luxury hotel in Minneapolis. If Darren Baker had any uncertainty about which room was his father’s, the sounds of psychedelic rock eased his mind.

Once inside, Dusty Baker -- the hippest 72-year-old on the planet and second-year manager of the Astros -- turned down the volume and shared a story of how Jimi Hendrix’s music evolved. Dusty has worshiped Hendrix since he saw him live at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 with the tickets that he received from his parents as an 18th birthday present. Dusty even wrote in a 2015 book about the concert that he later shared a smoke with Hendrix on the streets of San Francisco.

Darren has heard most of the famous names and the fascinating stories before, whether they’re about Hendrix or B.B. King. Or Hank Aaron and Bobby Bonds. That’s only part of the experience of being the son of Dusty Baker, who had Darren when he was 49 years old while managing the Giants. Dusty raised him in baseball while surrounded by music, love and life lessons.

“He’s kept me young and keeps me young and up on the music, the lingo,” Dusty said. “Sometimes he’ll say ‘Your pants are too tight' or 'too loose.’ I think I’m good for him and he’s good for me. It’s a relationship much like I had with my dad. I’m not as strict as my dad was on me, but if you ask him, he’ll probably think I am. Love and discipline.”

Dusty is much closer to his son than he was with his own father, who died in 2009. Johnnie B. Baker Sr. worked two jobs to put food on the table for his five kids -- Dusty is the oldest -- and was a disciplinarian with a military background. He did, though, always find a way to attend Dusty’s games.

Last year, when he was hired out of retirement by the Astros in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal, Dusty added a tribute to his father by putting “Baker Jr.” on the back of his jersey for the first time in his career. He wanted everyone to know he was Big John’s son.

“Father’s Day is big for me because I had one of the premier fathers in the world,” Dusty said. “I didn’t realize it until later, like most of us do. It’s important that he’s proud of me.”

Darren’s different. He already knows to embrace his father, his stories and his baseball career, which ended as a player long before Darren was born to Dusty and his wife, Melissa, just before Spring Training in 1999. But navigating his own baseball path in the giant shadow of his father comes with challenges.

“I think he realizes me growing up in the same town as my dad and going to school in the same area where he made his name, it’s not easy being Dusty’s son,” Darren said. “I think he understands. He kind of lets me be my own man and pushes me to do whatever I believe in.”

Most remember Darren Baker as the 3-year-old batboy who was scooped up by J.T. Snow of the Giants and hastily carried off the field during the 2002 World Series. He’s grown up now. Darren is 22 and recently graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, where he started his final 123 consecutive games as a left-handed-hitting infielder. He batted .327 and was on the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team as a senior in 2021.

He’s off to play summer ball for the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, a college summer team in Ohio that’s managed by 15-year MLB veteran Coco Crisp. Darren is taking with him a dozen wooden bats given to him last year by George Springer. Dusty got Mookie Betts to give a couple to Darren, as well.

“He’ll be a better pro than he was in college,” Dusty said.

Before heading out, Darren came to Minneapolis last weekend to spend a few days with his dad while the Astros were playing the Twins. Their time together is rare. They were together more than they had been in years when COVID-19 shut down baseball for months last year and forced both Dusty and Darren back to the family’s Granite Bay, Calif., home. They hit daily in the Bakers' batting cage, worked out, played hoops on the backyard sport court and talked about basketball and music while mixing in a few fishing trips.

“It’s a double treat to grow up with him and for him to come around and be at the baseball games,” Dusty said. “He was on the bench for every [managerial] stop except this one because of the COVID stuff. He’s a man now. Even though he’s still your kid, he’s a man now. You got to let him be a man. He’s always been his own guy. He’s a respectful young man.”

Darren grew up surrounded by baseball. He had no choice. Summers were spent in whatever uniform his dad was wearing as a manager -- the Giants (1993-2002), Cubs (2003-06), Reds (2008-13) and Nationals (2016-17) -- and helping as the batboy. Family is extremely important to Dusty, who survived a stroke and later beat prostate cancer. Because of that, he always encouraged players with kids to bring them around the team.

When the Astros weren’t allowed to have their wives and kids around during last year’s shortened season, Dusty lamented not being able to meet the families. He longed for the days Darren was at his side.

“I got a warning the first time when I had prostate cancer when he was 3 years old, and that’s why I had him [in uniform],” Dusty said. “Everybody was like, ‘Isn’t he too young to be a batboy?’ But when you got cancer, you start thinking about all the things you want to give your kid. Here I was, old enough to be a grandfather, and I had a kid. I was like, ‘Whoa, I got a lot to live for.’”

When he was sick, Dusty turned to friends like Ralph Garr, Jerry Manuel and Gary Matthews and made them promise him they would help take care of Darren if something ever happened to him. Keep him on the straight and narrow, as Dusty put it.

“It’s kind of like a village raising a kid,” he said.

The baseball world enveloped Darren. He built relationships with Major League players that still exist today. He was mentored by several Reds players, including Joey Votto, and still hits in the offseason with Barry Bonds, the home run king who his dad managed in San Francisco. Being the son of Dusty Baker comes with perks.

“I’m extremely grateful,” Darren said. “There’s only a small percentage of people who probably had the opportunities I had. It wasn’t until I got older that I really came to understand it. When I was three or four years old, he was just Barry. When [Dusty] got to Cincinnati and I got close to high school, guys like Votto and Brandon Phillips and Todd Frazier, those guys became my actual friends.”

After Baker was fired by the Nationals in 2017, Dusty became a full-time dad again. He credits his wife for doing the heavy lifting raising Darren while he was gone, but Dusty thought his career was over when he left Washington. He put his baseball gear in the attic and turned his attention to Darren. They took a fishing trip to Alaska and always made time to hit in the batting cage. Anything to spend time together.

“At home, he really loves westerns,” Darren said. “Like Clint Eastwood. He loves those movies. I probably saw every western imaginable in the quarantine times.”

When the Astros called early in 2020 with an opportunity to return to the dugout, Darren was all for it. Sure, he enjoyed having his dad in the stands for his games at Cal, but he knew his father was still chasing that elusive World Series title and aiming for 2,000 career wins (he had 1,932 entering Friday’s game).

“I asked him, ‘What do you think?’ and he said, ‘Dad, you gotta go,’” Dusty said. “He said, ‘I’ll miss you,’ and I miss him, but every now and then a man’s got to do what a man got to do. Plus, like I haven’t reached all my dreams and goals yet.”

Considering he never thought he’d manage again after he left the Nationals, Dusty is treasuring his time in Houston. Some of the players, such as third baseman Alex Bregman and outfielder Kyle Tucker, aren’t much older than Darren. They keep him young, too.

“I think it’s probably the happiest I’ve seen him that I can remember,” Darren said. “He’s really enjoying this run.”

Dusty and Darren won’t be together on Father’s Day. They’ll have to settle for a phone call or a text message, and that’s OK. Dusty cherishes being a father to daughter Natosha and Darren and a grandfather to 17-month-old grandson Nova Love Smith, who he calls “a cool little dude.”

Just wait until he finds out who his grandfather is. And hears all those amazing stories … and the Jimi Hendrix music coming through the door.

“That’s why Father’s Day is very special to me,” Dusty said. “Because I have a heck of a daughter, a heck of a son-in-law, a tremendous grandson and a tremendous son who wants to play ball. ... Life’s good. Life’s real good.”