Dusty Baker surprised as his son, Darren, delivers composition card for Nationals

His son, 23-year-old Nationals minor league player Darren Baker, was wearing the major league uniform, carrying the roster card and smiling in his direction. A few hours later, young Baker started the run that gave the Nationals a 3-2 victory over his father’s Astros in a game that would have made no sense under normal circumstances.

“We were like, ‘Would it be cool if we could play in the same game?’ “Darren Baker said afterwards. “But when I woke up this morning, it was the last thing I expected. I will never forget today, that’s for sure.

Baseball has a way of making the mundane magical, of rewarding those who stick around long enough to watch the road wind its way home. And those bumpy baseball roads somehow brought everyone involved back here, to a beautiful Sunday afternoon in West Palm, to a place in their careers where they could give each other the gift of the unforgettable during a day that was otherwise nothing more than routine.

The Nationals had drafted his son. They could go to work together.

“[Nationals Manager Dave Martinez] surprised me. He said to me this winter, ‘I’m going to get him in a game,'” Dusty Baker said later. “I didn’t think he would bring him in so soon.”

After the 2017 season, such winter conversations were impossible to contemplate. That year, the Nationals let Dusty Baker go after a five-game loss to the Chicago Cubs in the National League Division Series. Baker said in October that he still stings sometimes. By the time he was laid off from his previous jobs, he and his employers were ready to move on. In Washington, Baker felt he had more to do.

The Nationals replaced him with the bench coach of the team that beat him, Martinez, who won the World Series in his second year on the job. Baker spent almost three decades as a manager and never won a title.

Martinez played for Baker in the early 1990s and never expressed anything but respect for him.

“I love Dusty,” said Martinez, who noted he started plotting as soon as the Nationals selected Darren in the 10th round of last year’s draft. “I said to him, ‘I think I made you cry.’ And that was my intention. »

Asked about the moment after the match, Baker simply replied, “It’s Davey.”

After everything Dusty went through with the Nationals, he was happy when they drafted his son. He knew that GM Mike Rizzo relies a little less on data than your average executive these days. Darren hit .303 with 58 stolen bases as a four-year starter at the University of California. He beats with his left hand and he is fast. But he’s also light, which his dad said he had at that age too. He assures Darren that the power will come in time, but his son has come a long way without him.

“You still have the nerves of a father, but you realize he’s on the other team. You realize he’s a professional now. It’s what he’s always wanted to do,” said the elder Baker, who added that he could feel everyone in the Astros dugout watching him, wondering if he was nervous watching the his son’s spring training debut in the major leagues.

“I said, ‘He’s not nervous,'” Dusty added, “because that’s still where he thought he belonged.” ”

After the match, Darren was thoughtful as he explained that his performance didn’t surprise him.

“In the humblest way, I kind of knew I could play,” he said. “But just the affirmation today, it really helps.”

Still, the younger Baker admitted he was surprised to get his chance so soon. He was heading out to the backfield for a minor league game on Sunday when someone tapped him on the shoulder and said Bob Henley wanted to talk to him. The tipster suggested that Henley could tell him he would be playing in the major league game.

“I said, ‘Fine. Good joke,” Darren recalled.

But it was no joke, and after sprinting to the minor league to collect his belongings, he was whisked into the stadium and out of sight so as not to give his father any clues. Within minutes, Martinez was pushing Darren out of the dugout with the lineup card in his hand. He hugged his father to home plate and told him he was “going to get hit”.

“Okay, that’s good,” Dusty told him. Then they hugged again, at which point the referees told them it was time to part ways.

Darren kept his promise. He entered the game as a defensive backup at second base in the sixth inning. He singled out the right side on his first at bat to lead the seventh. And in his second, in the eighth inning, he hit a two-strike line down the center that was caught but was deep enough to drive into the go-ahead run.

“He’s usually pretty good at picking up runners with less than two outs,” his dad said. “I repeat it all the time, and it cost me dearly.”

The “cost,” of course, was a loss in a spring training game and the price of dinner afterwards. The value of a moment like this, however, is probably far greater than father or son could say.

Dusty spent years on the road when Darren was young and saw his managerial career come to an end and start over more than most. Darren fought for years to be more than the kid who nearly got smashed at home plate in the 2002 World Series, saw people say the Nationals only pulled him out of high school in 2017 because of his dad then needed a whole field to get his first hit in a big league spring training game.

“I can’t even put it into words,” Darren said. “…My father had some health issues in the meantime. He didn’t know if he was going to be in baseball. Then the [shortened] draft when I was a junior – I don’t know. Just to have a moment like today is great.