Darren Baker was first introduced as an adorable 3-year-old Giants batboy, as Dusty’s son, the little guy who ambled toward the plate in Game 5 of the 2002 World Series, oblivious to two baserunners charging from third, and was safely scooped up at the last second by first baseman J.T. Snow.
The video is priceless, enduring, inescapable. Unfortunately, Darren doesn’t remember a thing. Not his attempt to retrieve Kenny Lofton’s bat, not clinging tightly to Snow, not the collective gasp – followed by an immense sigh of relief – that resonated inside Pacific Bell Park.
“It’s like it never happened,” he said this week. “Sadly, in my mind, it’s just not there.”
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But 15 years later, Jesuit High standout Darren Baker has plenty of his own thoughts about baseball, about his career aspirations, about how he wants to spend future Octobers. Ideally he will be a starting shortstop or center fielder who plays exceptional defense, hits for contact, steals bases, avoids collisions and frequently touches plates throughout the major leagues.
The foremost question in his mind these days is this: How does he get there from here? Baker, a senior shortstop who bats leadoff and is hitting .396 as the Marauders prepare to play Del Oro in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I opener Monday, committed to Cal during his sophomore season, well before his physique started filling out and he emerged as a Top 100 prospect.
At 5-foot-11 and 155 pounds, he is a raw bundle of arms and legs, and is growing about an inch per year. Quick and fast, with large feet and soft hands, he moves with the exuberance of an unbridled colt. He is an expressive, charismatic performer, not afraid to flex or flash a grin after turning a double play, or according to his father, display an example of an inherited temper.
Mainly because of Darren’s length and athleticism, most major-league teams project him as a center fielder. And the pro scouts have been paying attention, apparently. Longtime Jesuit coach Joe Potulny has noticed a sharp increase in the number of visits in recent weeks. He says the scouts arrive in clusters and often discreetly stand several yards behind the backstop or near the trees on the nearby grassy slopes. He is aware of the presence, he says, partly because they work so hard to be invisible – dressed in polo shirts and khaki slacks instead of shorts, t-shirts and sneakers.
A few have called ahead and asked Potulny to send Baker into the outfield to take fly balls.
“I was not going to make Darren do that,” said the coach, “but for a while he was OK with it. Then later he decided he was going to just take balls at short. That has to be his choice.”
Darren’s preference is all infield, all the time. Though his father was an excellent outfielder, best known for his years with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he likes the action of the infield and admittedly has been influenced by some of his closest, uh, friends, among them Brandon Phillips, Bryce Harper, Chris Speier.
Being a manager’s son certainly has its perks. Besides the five-star hotels and charter flights, Darren, who has spent his summers traveling with the Giants, Cubs, Reds and Nationals, receives individual tutorials from of the league’s premier players. Jay Bruce and Joey Votto stay in touch. Barry Bonds was expected to call Wednesday night. Dusty and Darren speak at least once, and often twice a day.
“But I never put any pressure on him,” Dusty said from Washington, D.C. “He just loves to play. You give a kid a ball, and you can tell. He loves basketball, too. He was always the kid who was running and sliding. We’d be in airports, and he’d be running and sliding. I would keep telling him he was going to get hurt. But he really took to it and kept getting better. The only thing he’s lacking right now is strength, and that will come. I was built the same way at his age, and I was a late bloomer, too.”
Dusty and his wife, Melissa, who consistently emphasized academics over athletics – and will watch their son graduate with a 3.7 GPA later this month – hope Darren attends three years at Cal before signing a pro contract. But the choice is his. The anxiety that comes with such a major decision? Darren senses a shared burden. His mother, he notes, seems bummed about becoming an empty nester. His father, he suggests, has drawn closer and uncharacteristically open about his emotions. “He sort of realizes this is the end of something. He knows I am going to be making my own way, that we won’t have as much time together.”
With a soft smile, the younger Baker recalls the hours spent playing catch, the fishing trips to Canada, Montana, New Mexico, and virtually every stream or river within the vicinity. “My dad will still go hunting and fishing by himself, and he’ll bring everything home, like a caveman,” said Darren with a laugh. “He’ll put fish in bags of milk, put it in the fridge for a few days and try all these recipes. He’s something else, to say the least.”
And the son? Darren said he is most often compared to Jemile Weeks and Dee Gordon. But this is Dusty’s boy. He is something else. He is warm and engaging, and a good-natured recipient of his teammates’ playful teasing.
“I refer to Darren as ‘refreshing,’ ” Potulny added. “He is remarkably grounded. We are really going to miss him.”