MESA, Ariz. -- Darren Baker has new red wristbands, a new blue belt, and even some black cleats with blue stripes - everything the boy needs to complete his tiny new Chicago Cubs uniform.
The 4-year-old son of new Cubs manager Dusty Baker may be banned from the dugout during games for the next 10 years, but he's still going to be around all right. The rule says nothing about keeping kids away during batting practice.
Baseball implemented an age requirement of 14 for bat boys, often referred to as the "Darren Baker rule," after the boy was nearly run over at home plate when he wandered into the action during Game 5 of the World Series.
"That's not fair," Darren says of the mandate.
"How come?" asks his dad.
"Mommy said so."
Darren - all 38 pounds and 43 inches - may just be the most popular 4-year-old in the country, or at least in the baseball world. He became a celebrity of sorts as he scurried to pick up players' bats, then wobbled as he struggled to get them back to the dugout. It was an adorable sight; the equipment is as big as he is. Even non baseball fans fell in love with the toddler, who was 3 at the time.
In the World Series, Darren got so excited to retrieve the bat of his favorite player, Kenny Lofton, that he nearly got himself hurt. San Francisco first baseman J.T. Snow scored, then scooped up the boy before David Bell came charging across the plate.
Darren was fine moments later, sticking his finger in his nose for a national TV audience.
Baker is sad his son will no longer be with him during games, but plans to let him help out during batting practice. Darren will watch games with his mom, Melissa, either from the stands or in the families' lounge.
"He doesn't have to bat boy," Baker says. "He enjoys it, but he doesn't have to do it. He will enjoy just being around the ballpark."
Darren isn't eligible to bat boy again until the 2013 season, and who knows if his dad will still be managing.
"Just wait 'til I'm 14. Just wait," Darren says.
Melissa is trying to find a T-ball league in Chicago that accepts 4-year-olds. Darren will start his final year of preschool this year, and recently begged his parents to invite Cal Ripken Jr. to his 4th birthday party on Feb. 11.
At the Cubs' spring training complex, Darren points to his head in disgust as he follows his father to a field.
He is missing his batting helmet, and he can't believe his mother could forget such an important piece of his equipment. He covered his entire bed with his baseball gear in the morning, but somehow the helmet didn't make it.
Darren has been waiting all winter to take a few swings at spring training, to run the basepaths, field groundballs and make some pitches under the direction of his dad, and he wants it to be just right. He wears a gold chain around his neck, just like dad.
He kicks dirt off the plate before he gets into his batting stance - this day it's his own stance, though he often imitates players such as Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent or Tsuyoshi Shinjo. Darren's a left-handed hitter like his mom, but throws with his right.
He makes contact on the first several pitches, then misses a few. He hits one ball so hard that his dad, pitching from his knees, has to duck to avoid being drilled. Darren always hits home runs, Baker notes.
"Get loose first," his father says.
So Darren hops up and down. His dad again instructs him to warm up, so Darren sprints a few feet and rushes back to the plate.
He runs the bases - "Pump your arms, pump your arms," hollers Baker - and Darren rounds third and slides into home, dusting up his new uniform. He's only worn it once before, and that was to get it altered.
Another time, Darren stops at first and then pretends to steal. He comes back to the batter's box and calls a bunt for himself.
Darren understands his allegiances have changed. Baker's contract was not renewed after 10 seasons with the Giants despite taking the team to its first World Series in 13 years. He was then hired by the Cubs to turn around a franchise that has had only 16 seasons at .500 or better since 1945. The Cubs haven't even had back-to-back winning records since 1972.
Baker doesn't mind if his son still roots for the Giants. But he gives the boy hints all the time about cheering for the Cubs.
Darren's already a big fan of infielder Ramon Martinez, a former Giant, but calls him "Lamon."
"What team are you on now?" Baker asks.
"Cubs," says Darren.
"What town is that in?"
What's Darren think of the move?
"Little cold," he says.
Darren is near tears when his parents say he's had enough baseball for one day. The boy is exhausted, and Melissa knows there's a long nap to follow.
"We'll come back the next day and the next day," Baker promises.
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