WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Dusty Baker strutted to home plate as he usually does, carrying the lineup card and thinking through the plans for another spring training game, one of hundreds he has managed. The Houston Astros’ skipper got about halfway to home plate before he realized whom his former team, the Washington Nationals, had sent out to meet him.
His son, 23-year-old Nationals minor leaguer Darren Baker, was in a major league uniform, carrying the lineup card and smiling in his direction. A few hours later, the younger Baker drove in the run that gave the Nationals a 3-2 win over his dad’s Astros in a game that would have been utterly meaningless under normal circumstances.
“We were like, ‘How cool would it be if we can play in the same game?’ ” Darren Baker said afterward. “But when I woke up this morning, that was the last thing I kind of expected. I’ll never forget today, for sure.”
Baseball has a way of making the banal magical, of rewarding those who stick around long enough to watch the road wind its way back home. And those bumpy baseball roads somehow carried everyone involved here again, 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 on a day that was otherwise nothing more than routine.
Dusty Baker’s baseball career began here, where the Atlanta Braves used to train. The Braves drafted Baker in 1967 despite his prayers to go anywhere else and despite his fears of the racism he would encounter when he left his home in California for the South. More than 50 years later, after his team fell a game short in the 2021 World Series and his Astros contract expired, Baker found himself praying he would get a chance to spend another spring training here.
The Nationals had drafted his son. They could go to work together.
“[Nationals Manager Dave Martinez] surprised me. He told me this winter, ‘I’ll get him in a game,’ ” Dusty Baker said later. “I didn’t think he’d get him in that soon.”
After the 2017 season, winter conversations such as those were impossible to envision. 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 it still stings sometimes. By the time he was fired from 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 from the team that beat him, Martinez, who won the World Series in his second year on the job. Baker has spent nearly three decades as a manager and has never won a title.
Martinez played for Baker in the early 1990s and has never expressed anything but respect for him.
“I love Dusty,” said Martinez, who noted that he began plotting as soon as the Nationals selected Darren in the 10th round of last year’s draft. “I told him, ‘I think I made you cry.’ And that was my intention.”
Asked about the moment after the game, Baker said simply, “That’s Davey.”
After all Dusty went through with the Nationals, he was pleased when they drafted his son. He knew General Manager 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 bats left-handed, and he is fast. But he is also slight, which his dad said he was at that age, too. He assures Darren that the power will come in time, but his son has gotten plenty far without it.
“You still have the nerves of a father, but you realize he’s on the other team. You realize that he’s a professional now. This is what he’s always wanted to do,” said the elder Baker, who added that he could feel everyone in the Astros’ dugout looking at him, wondering whether he was nervous watching his son’s major league spring training debut.
“I said, ‘He’s not nervous,’ ” Dusty added, “ ‘because this is always where he thought he belonged.’ ”
After the game, Darren was thoughtful as he explained that his performance was not surprising to him.
“In the most humble way, I kind of knew I could play,” he said. “But just the affirmation today, it definitely helps.”
Still, the younger Baker admitted he was surprised to get his chance so soon. He was headed to the backfields for a minor league game Sunday when someone tapped him on the shoulder and told him Bob Henley wanted to talk to him. The informant suggested Henley might be telling him he would play in the major league game.
“I said: ‘Nice. Good joke,’ ” Darren recalled.
But it wasn’t a joke, and after sprinting back to the minor league side to get his things, he was whisked into the stadium and out of sight so as not to give his father any hints. Within a few minutes, Martinez was pushing Darren out of the dugout with the lineup card in his hand. He hugged his father at home plate and told him he was “going to get a knock.”
“Okay, that’s fine,” Dusty said he told him. Then they hugged again, at which point the umpires told them it was time to part ways.
Darren made good on his promise. He entered the game as a defensive substitute at second base in the sixth inning. He singled through the right side in his first at-bat to lead off the seventh. And in his second, in the eighth inning, he hit a two-strike line drive to center that was caught but was deep enough to drive in the go-ahead run.
“He’s usually pretty good at picking up runners with less than two outs,” his father said. “I harp on it all the time, and it cost me.”
The “cost,” of course, was a loss in a spring training game and the price of dinner afterward. The value of a moment such as this, though, is probably far greater than either father or son could say.
Dusty spent years on the road when Darren was young and has watched his managerial career end and begin anew more than most. Darren fought for years to be more than just the kid who nearly got run over at home plate during the 2002 World Series, watched people say the Nationals only drafted him out of high school in 2017 because of his father, then needed all of one pitch to get his first hit in a big league spring training game.
“I can’t even put it into words,” Darren said. “... My dad’s had a couple health scares in between there. 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 awesome.”