In four months, the California baseball class of 2017 will finally sign their national letters of intent.
For the first member of that class, Carmichael (Calif.) Jesuit infielder Darren Baker, it's been a long time coming. But, he's got a few things to take care of, first.
The one-time 5-foot-9, 140-pound freshman who committed to the Golden Bears has blossomed into a 5-foot-11, 160-pound 17-year old, who just finished off a superlative season for the Marauders, hitting .386 with 30 runs, 13 walks, an on-base percentage of .448 and 16 steals in 19 attempts.
After this summer, Baker should know plenty about base stealing. After showing out at the Perfect Game Showcase (burning up the 60-yard dash in 6.63 seconds) in Ft. Meyers, Fla., he's headed to the Met Classic at Citi Field in New York, but in between those two events, he's been on the field, on the bench and in the home clubhouse at Nationals Park.
Baker has spent the past month -- while interning for the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy -- around his father's Nats, including first base coach Davey Lopes. Lopes -- a teammate of Dusty Baker's with the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1976 through 1981 -- stole 557 bases in his career.
"I work out with the team during batting practice, taking ground balls, and I've been hitting with the pitchers whenever they take batting practice," says Baker. "During the games, I sit with the first base coach, Davy Lopes, and talk about base stealing, or I talk with Gio Gonzalez about which pitches he would throw here, and there, and just expanding my knowledge of the game."
Baker goes on team road trips, and is at nearly every home game, soaking in everything he possibly can. Working out with the Nationals has been a learning experience in and of itself, for Baker.
"I really have started using my legs more in the infield," says Baker, who Cal will be signing as a shortstop. "Really, it's how they carry themselves on the day-to-day, working on fundamentals and fine-tuning things."
Apparently, there are plenty of perks to being the manager's son. He's been able to sit at the feet of some of the best in the game while accompanying his father -- from Hall of Famer Ken Griffey, Jr., with the Cincinnati Reds, to Bryce Harper, with the Nationals.
"I can't put into words how much it's benefitted me," Baker says. "Even in Cincinnati, I spent six years with Brandon Phillips, and being under his wing helped me out a whole bunch. Now, I'm here with Bryce. Seeing how they carry themselves is eye-opening. It's very cool. I've been around Bryce about a month, and he's been nothing but nice and helpful to me. I saw Griffey not too long ago, because my dad's still in touch with him, and I'm friends with his son Trey [Griffey], who's at Arizona right now."
Of course, there are some downsides to being the manager's son.
Most of the baseball world doesn't think of "Cal commit" when they hear the name Darren Baker. No, they think of the 2002 World Series. Then-three year old Baker was accompanying his father on the San Francisco Giants' bench during that run -- as he has almost every summer since -- and had ventured out onto the field, and into the dirt surrounding home plate, as J.T. Snow came home on a Kenny Lofton triple, he whisked young Baker up into his arms, and out of the way of David Bell.
Before Game 5 of the 2014 World Series, Baker and Snow threw out a first pitch at AT&T Park.
Baker hears about it daily.
"Especially being around the ballpark lately, more than ever," he laughs. "It's almost daily, when people ask me, especially if I'm with him (Dusty). I've come to grips with it."
Baker doesn't even remember the incident.
"Not at all. I only know what I see on YouTube or on TV," he says.
YouTube, it must be noted, wasn't founded until three years after J.T. Snow scooped Baker up and out of harm's way in the 2002 World Series.
Baker has certainly come a long way, since then. Now, as part of his summer internship, he's the one taking care of children.
"I took it because my school requires a certain number of community service hours, so I contacted the Academy, and they had me work with third and fourth graders, and talk about the importance of academics and sport, and how they go together," Baker says. "I help introduce baseball to them, and try to make it fun."
As soon as Jesuit let out, Baker and his mother, cousin and a high school friend packed up and headed East.
"I get there in the morning, and I help the kids out with breakfast, make food for them, and then we go on the field and do some kickball or something in the morning, then we head into the classroom, and do regular school day stuff, and then after that, it's just a lot of baseball," Baker says.
There are field trips to Nationals Park, and buses to night games. It's a combination of summer school and baseball camp, all about 10 minutes outside of downtown D.C.
A year from now, Baker will be moving into his Summer Bridge dorm. That, too, has been a long time coming.
Baker's first memory of Cal was the DeSean Jackson punt return against Tennessee in 2007. That, Baker says, is when he "fell in love with the school." Cal, Baker says, "was my No. 1 school."
Nine yeas later, he's still in love, and still secure in his commitment.
"It's up-and-coming, definitely," Baker said of the Cal program. "They had some injuries this year, but the talent was there, and this year, with Jack Wolger and [Conner] Bock, it's definitely getting better and better."
Given the length of his commitment, it should be no surprise that Baker is one of the more well-networked commits the Bears have had in the past several years. He's "good friends" with his future double play partner, Ripken Reyes (who will in all likelihood take over for Robbie Tenerowicz starting in fall ball), and was teammates with Wolger this season.
"I'm pretty close with all those guys," Baker says. "I played on NorCal Baseball for a while, with Chris Joaquim, and we spent three summers together on the same team, went to Arizona. He's been my closest friend even before he committed. It's just icing on the cake that he's at Cal, too."
Wolger, in fact, committed almost exactly a year ago.
"I had my recruiting pitch," Baker remembers. "I was ecstatic. He told me, one day, and we were walking down the hall, and gave him a big hug. That's one of my favorite guys on the team."
When Baker committed -- back on May 24, 2014 -- the Bears' coaching staff was almost entirely different. Brad Sanfilippo has replaced Tony Arnerich as the hitting coach, and volunteer assistants Noah Jackson and Mike Reuvekamp followed former pitching coach Mike Neu to Pacific.
"Even though Neu and Noah aren't there anymore, I'm a big fan of [Thomas] Eager and coach Brad," Baker says. "I really love the coaching staff. I love how they communicate with their players. It's really the coaching staff that won me over."
Baker has certainly rewarded the faith the Bears showed in him back in 2014.
"They believed in me to make improvements from year to year, which I think I have," Baker says. "I've been working out with the [Nationals], and I've been in the weight room with most of these guys, but I think some of that will come as I get older and mature a little bit. I've been working on that over the summer. It's just getting stronger."
Not a bad way to spend his last summer vacation.null