Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker pulled his pickup truck into the Palm Beach International Airport at 6:30 on Monday morning, took the suitcases out from the back, walked around, and hugged his roommate nearly as hard as he could.
He looked at him. There were tears in each other’s eyes. Then they hugged again.
“He was an unbelievable roommate,” Baker told USA TODAY Sports. “I was so proud of him because he was a good roomie. He was the one who wanted to room with me, and it was a great spring, really, the best spring I ever had.
The roommate was 23-year-old Darren Baker, Dusty’s son.
“It was emotional, for sure, just not really knowing when I may see him again.” Darren said
Darren is off to Wilmington, Delaware, where he will be playing second base for the Blue Rocks, the Washington Nationals’ Class A team, with opening day April 8 against Brooklyn. Dusty is off to California, where the Astros will open the season against the Los Angeles Angels on April 7.
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The two spent six weeks together this spring, with Dusty arriving early during the lockout to watch the Astros’ minor-league players, along with a certain minor-leaguer with the Washington Nationals – who happen to share the same spring-training complex.
“He came by a couple of times trying to go unnoticed,” Darren said, “but I always knew when he was around. He watched me through the fence, and I’d always notice him there, somehow.”
They stayed together three or four times a week at Dusty’s condo near Juno Beach in Jupiter, about 30 minutes away from the complex. They rarely cooked, except when Melissa, Darren’s mom and Dusty’s wife, came in for two weeks. They would either go out to eat, or Dusty would pick up food from a restaurant and bring it home.
“It was great for him, because I paid for it,” Baker said, laughing. “I made sure he ate good to keep his weight up. I had a hard time keeping weight on when I was playing until I became a man. Darren’s a late bloomer like all the Bakers are. He still doesn’t shave. Neither do I.”
The nights would always end up the same with the two retreating back to the condo, Facetiming Melissa at home in Sacramento, and, of course, making sure the dishes were done and the garbage was taken out.
“They had a rule each night that there would be no dirty dishes in the sink,” Melissa said, “so they took turns to follow that rule. Dusty is a neat freak so Darren already knows what his dad expects.”
They didn’t carpool to work, with their varying schedules. Dusty had his pickup truck. Darren had a Toyota Corolla. Most nights, Darren stayed up later than Dusty. Most mornings, he was up earlier, too.
“It was pretty funny with the pipes in the house, every time I turned on the faucet at 6:30 in the morning,” Darren said, “he would hear it through the walls and in the room. He knew I got up in time.”
Dusty: “All I know is that he was never late once.”
Family friends would pop into town to visit, too. Longtime family friend David Donati spent nearly a week in Jupiter, sitting back, watching father and son discuss their day over dinner.
“It was just such a beautiful thing to see them together,” Donati said, “and how happy it was making Dusty.”
The highlight of not only the spring, but Dusty’s career, he says, was the afternoon of March 20. The Astros were playing the Nationals for the first time this spring.
Nationals manager Davey Martinez summoned Darren 20 minutes before game-time, and told him he’d be playing. Oh, and one more thing, he also will be responsible for taking the lineup card to home plate.
Dusty knew that Martinez promised him during the winter that Darren would get into a major-league game against the Astros, but never imagined it would be so soon.
“It shocked me,” Dusty said. “I’m on the bench, and I see someone waving to me from their dugout. I didn’t know who it was. I look, and he’s waving to me to come out. I’m thinking, “Who’s waving to me? I start walking out, and say, ‘That’s my son.’ ”
They walked to home plate, with Darren arriving first, shook hands with the umpire crew, and then hugged. They exchanged lineup cards, looked at one another, and hugged again. They were going to hug one final time until the umpires laughed and said no more hugging.
Before retreating to their benches, Darren said, “Dad, you know we’re going to beat you.”
Sure enough, the Nats did, 3-2, with Darren entering the game at second base in the sixth inning, hitting a single with his first swing of the bat in the seventh inning, and hitting the game-winning sacrifice fly in the eighth .
“I had flashbacks to the day he was born,” said family friend George Santiago, who was at the game, staying with the Bakers. “I still remember seeing him hit off a batting tee at the age of 1, breaking things in the house when he was hitting, and Melissa yelling, ‘Darren, stop hitting that ball.'”
Dusty brought the lineup card home, and presented it to Darren. The lineup card and pictures from the game will be prominently placed in the Baker memorabilia room.
“That was the biggest thrill of my career,” said Baker, who won a World Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and managed two different teams in the World Series. “It was a pleasure, a joy and a lifetime goal. To see his first big-league hit, in the same spring training town where I first started with the Braves, I’ll never forget it.”
The two went home that evening, shared the moment with Melissa, but didn’t really celebrate. It was just two Baker men doing their jobs.
Now, 54 years later after Dusty first came to spring training in West Palm Beach as a 26th-round draft pick to begin his 19-year career, along comes Darren, a 10th-round pick out of the University of California. Darren hit .303 with 58 stolen bases for Cal, but what meant most, Baker said, was that his son graduated with honors in four years from Cal. He received the Pac-12 Tom Hansen award from Cal for “the greatest combination of performance and achievement in scholarship, athletics and leadership.”
“That’s what made me most proud is graduated from a great institution,” Baker said. “I would remind him all of the time that I know you get to play ball, but you’re a student-athlete. Going to college have him a lot of discipline, and turned him into a man.”
Baker, who relished the summers he was around to watch Darren while in between managerial jobs, still tells stories of about the Alaska fishing trip they took together with family friend Ken Tennell in the summer of 2019. One day, he’ll have even more time to spend with his son. Baker, 72, doesn’t know whether or not this will be his final season as manager, but if it is, at least one more special day awaits.
It is July 19, day of the 92nd All-Star Game, played at Dodger Stadium for the first time since 1980.
Baker, who spent eight years with the Dodgers, helped lead them to the 1981 World Series championship, and wears No. 12 in honor of former Dodgers great Tommy Davis, will be managing the American League All-Star team.
“I’ve definitely been thinking about that,” Darren said. “I know how special that will be for my Dad, and obviously, I’d love to go.
“But it could be a little weird situation.”
Darren, you see, just might be playing at the same time in a minor league All-Star Game of his own.
“It doesn’t matter,” Dusty said, “because of what we just shared together this spring, nothing will top that. I know it was a strange time with the lockout, and everything got so rushed at the end, but the time we spent together, father and son as roomies, it will be something I’ll never forget.”
Said Darren: “It was perfect.”