It’s a warm March day in Scottsdale, Arizona. On a small lake, a father and a son sit with fishing poles cast in the water, waiting for a bite. The two men are 8-year-old Darren Baker and his father, Dusty Baker, a former MLB star and manager, taking the afternoon off after a spring training game.
All of a sudden, the boy feels a tug. He starts to reel it in, but the fish is so heavy that his line snaps. From then on, after every game that preseason, he went out on the lake to try to catch that ever-elusive fish, never capturing that one but getting many different fish along the way.
That story, in a way, is emblematic of the Cal baseball second baseman’s athletic and personal development on a larger scale. In his younger years, Darren Baker had been pursuing the ambitious goal of living up to his father’s legacy. That, however, was too much for him to reel in at once, and he often found himself overwhelmed by the expectations.
But to give him the sole identity of Dusty Baker’s son would be a huge mistake. From avidly consuming the History channel to earning a black belt in taekwondo to committing to becoming the first person in his family to get a college degree, Darren Baker has come to embrace that he is just that — his father’s son — and not meant to be a spitting image of the MLB icon.
While Darren Baker has his own set of goals, he is undoubtedly a child of the major leagues. Attending his first Giants spring training game at three days old, he accompanied his dad, who served as the team’s manager from 1993-2002, to as many practices and games as he could from then on.
Darren Baker’s exposure to top-tier professional baseball at such a young age was both inspiring and daunting. His opportunity to see the best of the best from up close sparked a love for the game that would only flourish over time.
Surprisingly, it was never actually a given that Darren Baker would settle on baseball until he began high school. When he was younger, he played every sport under the sun, from soccer to swimming. But when he did realize his love for baseball, he went all in.
Darren Baker committed to Cal when he was just in ninth grade, pressuring him to continually prove he was Pac-12-worthy throughout his four years at Jesuit High School, a baseball powerhouse in Sacramento.
“Living up to that expectation as well as being my dad’s son kind of got to me a little bit my freshman and sophomore years,” Darren Baker says. “I ended up not playing as well as I would like (and) actually got benched my sophomore year on (junior varsity), so I doubted myself.”
This self-doubt also permeated the young player’s life outside the diamond, where he relied on his older sister, Natosha, for advice on how to navigate relationships in the shadow of his father.
“She went through being my dad’s daughter before I did, so (she could answer) any questions … such as, ‘Do my friends like me because I’m Dusty’s son, or do they like me because they like me for me?’ ” Darren Baker says.
In fact, he was quite shy in general when he was a kid, so his parents put him in taekwondo lessons at age 6, hoping that it would boost his self-confidence.
“I got into that, and it kind of just opened me up,” Darren Baker says. “It pushed my comfort zone, and I ended up getting a black belt … when I was 15. A couple years ago, I could do a full split on command.”
The practice of taekwondo allowed him to excel in baseball by improving his overall athleticism and flexibility, especially as he moved into his early years of high school.
The mindfulness aspect of martial arts explains why Darren Baker is one to appreciate simple joys such as an idle afternoon out on the lake with his dad. Or, for example, the beauty of a perfectly executed baseball play.
“It’s really like chess from on the diamond that people don’t pick up on,” he says. “Like man on first, you bunt him over to second, the next guy gets a hit. It’s beautiful to see, honestly.”
Darren Baker’s contributions to the Cal baseball team reflect his nuanced understanding and appreciation for the game, which can only be achieved by someone who has been around the game his whole life — which he has.
The sophomore is one of the most consistent players on Cal’s offense, ranking in the top five in both hits and runs. He has settled into the middle of the batting order after players with high on-base percentages, which allows him to create plays that push his teammates into scoring position.
The second baseman is not a power hitter, instead preferring the altruistic act of advancing his teammates around the bases through bunts or base hits. His selflessness is further reflected in his choice of role models, whom he admires for their good sportsmanship and charity.
When Darren Baker was little, Joey Votto, currently the first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds, acted almost as an older brother, imparting wisdom while driving him to spring training games.
“I feel like he really taught me away from baseball how to be a genuinely good person. Just seeing how he interacts with fans and hecklers,” Darren Baker says. “It’s real easy once you’re that big of a star to totally change as a person, and he really stayed down to earth.”
His ultimate idol, however, does not come from Major League Baseball, but a different sport. Like many other young athletes, LeBron James serves as an inspiration for being a leader both in sports and in his community.
Particularly impressed by James’ philanthropy, Darren Baker one day wants to be able to give back to the Sacramento area, which he considers home even though he has moved around quite a bit during his father’s managing career, which landed him in several cities throughout the country.
Darren Baker currently passes on goodwill by serving as a role model himself to the freshmen on the Cal baseball team. Whether it be baseball, classes or residence hall life, he is happy to give any advice that might help the new players on the team feel comfortable.
“I try to help them as much as I can. Whatever makes them feel welcome I try to do,” he says. “I feel like I’m mature beyond my years in terms of things I have gone through, so I try to spread that to anybody.”
Darren Baker is especially sympathetic to the fact that the level of competition jumps greatly between high school and college, particularly on Cal’s young team where all the freshman have been forced to become a key part of the rotation.
This leadership role on the team has really pushed Darren Baker to think about what he has learned from his unique childhood and how he has matured since then. Dusty himself has recognized that Darren has grown up and developed his own interests and priorities.
“In some respects, it helps the kids of major league players, and in other respects, it does put a lot of pressure on them, and hopefully they don’t put too much pressure on themselves,” Dusty Baker says. “It did put some pressure on him, but I think he’s charting his own ground right now.”
Though he never caught that fish, every time Darren Baker steps onto the diamond or into the classroom, he casts a new line toward his personal aspirations.