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Dusty Baker's son Darren cherished dad being in the stands

STANFORD, Calif. – Darren Baker doesn't see anyone better to lead the Houston Astros back to respectability than his dad.

A college second baseman at the University of California, he insists that comes from a baseball player's perspective and not just as a proud son.

Dusty Baker was formally introduced as Houston's new manager Thursday, the same day Darren represented Cal at Bay Area baseball media day. The Astros are trying to move forward from a sign-stealing scandal that led to Major League Baseball's suspensions and then Houston's firings of general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch.

“I think it's a perfect fit. Who else to steer a ship or right a ship than my dad?" Darren said. "I don't just say that because it's my dad, I genuinely believe it. Too much integrity — he's the greatest man I've ever met, on and off the field. I think it's a match made in heaven, I think it's fate. Seeing him in an Astros jersey, it's going to be a crazy experience.”

They talk several times a day and text regularly, too. Now, Baker will be back in the dugout and unable to watch Darren's games live — the way it was for so many years as the left-handed hitting Darren grew up and evolved into a prospect.

That's what made all of their time together the past two seasons so special. Baker served as a special adviser to Giants CEO Larry Baer and had the flexibility to be a regular in the stands at Evans Diamond in Berkeley. There he was snacking on raw peanuts, or sharing Pupusas brought specially for him.

He and Darren traded glances, waves and smiles from field to bleachers.

"It's unbelievable. It's really the first time, the first two years he's ever had a chance to see me play," Darren said in an interview at media day on Stanford's campus. “I know it was killing him, you can only get so many videos from the game from my mom and things like that. This two years we've probably become closer than I ever could have imagined. He's like my best friend. It doesn't even feel like a father-son thing anymore.”

Cal coach Mike Neu thoroughly enjoyed having Baker around so regularly the past two seasons, but understands what this chance means at this stage for the 70-year-old Baker to chase his first championship.

“He's been around and it's been awesome to see him be able to be around our program and getting a chance to see Darren play every day, and then even give our coaching staff availability to him has been amazing,” said Neu, a former big league pitcher. “His insight and just being able to have access to that.”

It won't be long before Baker is back: The Astros' first road series is in Oakland beginning March 30, “so I had it circled on my calendar right away,” Darren said.

“I know he was a little sad just because we'd gotten so used to him being around, doing things we never had a chance to do, just because I'm playing baseball, he's playing baseball,” Darren said. “It's so deep in his heart. I'll catch him on the couch just watching any game. I think this is where he belongs. It's crazy how things work out. ... I still can't process it fully until I see him in the dugout."

Being in the Bay Area, Darren understands “a lot of A's fans are pretty upset, but moving forward it's a new man at the ship.”

This has been a whirlwind stretch for Baker, who recently became a first-time grandfather when daughter Natosha welcomed a son.

“It's seriously a blessing for the whole family. In the span of two weeks he became a grandparent, and he's back in the dugout," Darren said. "It's been a roller-coaster to say the least, for all of us.”

Former Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who retired after last season following a 25-year career in the dugout, is another supporter cheering Baker's return.

“I’m excited for Dusty to get this opportunity,” Bochy said. "Know he’s been wanting to manage again, so thrilled for him.”

Darren is offering one new detail about his dad's baseball habits. Baker still chews his signature tea tree toothpicks “all the time.”

But, “he’s got a little cinnamon one now, he’s kind of changing it up.”

One thing remains a certainty, of course.

“He's one of the most competitive people I've ever met,” Darren said, “so that fire still burns.”

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More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports