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Darren Baker, who grew up around the game, inches closer to his dream

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Darren Baker, who grew up around the game, inches closer to his dream


Darren Baker and his dad don’t just share a love for baseball. They also have an appreciation for wildlife. The two spent time fishing together in South Florida during the last two spring trainings and also visited a turtle reserve, not too far from where they were staying.

But Darren’s dad, Dusty Baker, retired in this past fall after four seasons as the Houston Astros manager. The baseball lifer stayed around the game, returning to the San Francisco Giants as an adviser. The Astros share a spring training complex in West Palm Beach, Fla., with the Washington Nationals, who are scheduled to have their first pitchers and catchers workout Wednesday. The Giants prepare for the coming MLB season in Arizona, though, which means Darren Baker’s third spring training with the Nationals will look slightly different.

“I’ve definitely thought about it a lot,” Darren Baker said last month. “It happens a lot with parents. You maybe take something for granted and then it’s too late. And then it’s like, ‘Man, that was really nice.’ But yeah, it’s definitely gonna be weird.”

Spring training may bring the future into focus for the Nationals

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This isn’t the only change for the younger Baker. The 24-year-old second baseman is one of six prospects set to participate in their first big league camp. Baker spent last season with Class AAA Rochester; though he missed some time with a groin injury and rehabbed at lower levels. Now there’s a sense of urgency for Baker, who enters 2024 hoping to assert himself as a player who can help the Nationals compete in the future.

Baker has typically gone to Houston during his offseasons to spend time with his dad for the Astros’ postseason runs before returning home to California to train. He went back home earlier than normal last fall, though, to maximize his offseason ahead of 2024.

“I can feel like I’m getting closer,” he said. “Like to a dream, you know? I just know I can take it to another level.”

The offseason heading into 2023 was a lost one for Baker. He tore a ligament in his thumb sliding into a base in September 2022, but played through the rest of the season. He participated in the Arizona Fall League briefly, but ultimately he couldn’t move his hand without pain and opted for surgery.

Baker ended his 2023 season hitting .284 with three home runs and 44 RBI. It was a solid year, but there’s certainly room for improvement. Power has never been a part of Baker’s game, yet he still only had 11 doubles in 107 games in 2023 after 24 in 105 games in 2022. His slugging percentage (.349) was the same as his on-base percentage. Extra-base hits at the major league level will be even harder to come by.

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Baker also missed most of June with a groin injury that lingered into July. He played sparingly and admits that he came back too soon. But the desire to prove himself outweighed the fact that he didn’t feel 100 percent.

“I just want something so bad,” said Baker, who grew up in big league clubhouses. “It’s hard not to see ahead a little bit sometimes.”

Baker said he’s made his biggest jump in an offseason. He put on almost 15 pounds since leaving Rochester. Baker also hopes to display better plate discipline this year, including being “more stubborn” in swinging in his hot zones. Last season, he felt like pitchers at Class AAA exploited him on balls inside, resulting in him getting jammed on fastballs or chasing breaking pitches down and in.

The Nationals have Luis García at second base, though Manager Dave Martinez said García has to earn the job this spring. Jake Alu, Ildemaro Vargas and Rule 5 pick Nasim Nuñez are all utility options behind him. But that hasn’t stopped Baker from believing his opportunity could come soon.

Baker still plans to continue some of his spring traditions, but not all of them. That turtle reserve trip was more of a father-son outing, he says. And, of course, not living with his dad means fewer free meals. But Baker said his dad plans to make it out to Florida to watch him play.

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“He’ll be down there. I mean, he can’t stay away from it even if he wanted to,” Baker said. “My whole life literally, give or take a year or two, he’s been in the game. So I think he’ll really enjoy being able to see me.”



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School districts across Washington see bonds fail despite approval from a majority of voters

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School districts across Washington see bonds fail despite approval from a majority of voters


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After last week”s special election, school districts across Washington are wondering how to move forward after only one-third of the 21 proposed school bonds passed. The rest, even those that were approved by a majority of voters, failed.

This includes all five school bonds that Spokane County voters in various school districts weighed in on. Even though each bond garnered more than 50% of the vote, bond measures require a 60% supermajority to pass.

Reaching that threshold hasn’t usually been an issue for Spokane Public Schools — at least in recent history. Before last week, voters hadn’t turned down an SPS bond proposition in half a century. In the past 20 years, the district successfully passed four bond proposals, raising more than $1.1 billion (which came with an additional $150 million in state-matching funds).

In 2018, SPS asked its voters to approve a $495.3 million bond (it’s largest ask ever) to fund construction of three new middle schools, replacement of three others, updates to some schools’ aging infrastructure and construction of ONE Spokane Stadium in downtown Spokane. Despite rejecting the downtown stadium location in an advisory vote, voters still passed the 2018 bond measure with nearly 70% approval.

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This year, SPS asked voters to approve a $200 million bond that would’ve funded replacement of two elementary schools (Adams and Madison) and significant updates to North Central High School. It also would’ve funded the construction planning for future school replacements. Though 56% of voters approved of it, the bond failed — making it the largest district in the state to have a bond fail this year.

The other school bonds on the February ballot in the county were in the Cheney, Deer Park, Riverside and West Valley school districts. Each failed despite garnering between 50% and 54% of the vote.

It’s not a total loss though. All but a few of the school levies on the ballot in Spokane County passed. Tax levies require only simple majority of “yes” votes to pass.

‘DEVASTATING’

“Obviously the results were quite disappointing,” says Beth Nye, principal of Adams Elementary School. “The word I’ve been using is ‘devastating.’”

Adams Elementary was one of the two schools that would have been replaced if this year’s bond had been successful. According to Nye, it’s the last school on the South Hill that hasn’t been modernized or replaced.

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As it stands, Adams isn’t compliant with ADA standards because it doesn’t have an elevator. This means students living within the school’s boundaries who are unable to traverse the school’s multiple floors must attend another elementary school.

“We were all looking forward to this bond passing, which would lead us straight into our replacement starting in June,” Nye says. “Now, we’re dealing with that disappointment, and we can hopefully use this as a moment to help [the community] recognize that our schools do need to continue to have these funds so that we can make sure our facilities are kept up and modern for our students.”

All the pre-work for the school’s replacement was completed with funds from the $145 million 2015 bond, according to Ryan Lancaster, the district’s spokesperson.

“We were able to fund through that bond all of the design work and the site planning, so they were pretty much shovel ready,” he says. “That whole project would have gotten off the ground pretty quickly.”

There is about $50 million left over from previous bonds, which Lancaster says will help cover some of the smaller projects that the district had planned. It won’t include any projects at Adams.

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“Typically, we go through a process every year where we have a chance to point out some of the smaller projects that we would benefit from,” Nye says. “But because Adams was on the list for a replacement, we were not focused on any smaller projects.”

The SPS board is scheduled to meet this week to discuss options for the district and Adams, Lancaster says.

‘AWFUL AND UNDEMOCRATIC’

Lancaster thinks that the biggest factors in the bond’s failure are the skyrocketing property values alongside the 60% approval threshold that bonds require.

There’s not much that school districts can do to affect these property values, so the focus has been on reducing the supermajority requirement that’s been in place since 1952. Still, there are many hoops to pass through if that’s ever going to change.

“[The supermajority requirement] is a massive barrier, especially since the culture war against public education,” says Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal. “It’s frustrating, and I think it’s awful and undemocratic.”

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“Obviously the results were quite disappointing. The wordI’ve been using is ‘devastating.’”

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If bonds required only a simple majority for approval, all but three of this year’s bond measures in Washington would have passed. Additionally, over the past 10 years, only 45% of school bonds in the state were approved. If the supermajority requirement weren’t in place, 72% of the failed bonds would have passed, meaning about 85% of the total bond asks would have passed, according to Reykdal’s office.

“It’s always important to remember it’s not just local taxpayers’ funding,” Reykdal says. “A lot of state-matching funds won’t be going to these districts now.”

The state matching funds for the 11 school bonds that won more than 50% of the vote but less than the 60% supermajority totaled $227.1 million, Reykdal stated in a release.

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Since the supermajority requirement is embedded in the Washington Constitution, a two-thirds majority vote is needed in both chambers of the Legislature to change the law. Then, if the Legislature did approve the change, the measure would go to state voters — with final passage requiring support from a simple majority.

Those who support having a supermajority threshold for school bonds say that lowering this threshold would be unfair to the taxpayers that the requirement is meant to protect.

“Most taxpayers can see a good plan and they can see a bad plan. Sixty percent protects them,” Jeff Daily of Port Orchard, a former South Kitsap School District board member, told legislators earlier this year, according to Crosscut.

Jeff Pack, a representative of Washington Citizens Against Unfair Taxes, also told legislators that they “just want to change the rules to fit your agenda.”

While constitutional changes must clear a relatively high hurdle, they’re not unheard of. In 2007, the state constitution was amended to allow school levies to pass with only a simple majority, rather than the previously required supermajority.

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(This year, SPS passed its $300 million levy with about the same amount of voter approval as its bond. Central Valley School District passed both of its levies with about 52% approval, and Mead School District also passed its levy with almost 53% approval.)

That said, a change to school bond requirements looks unlikely this year. Senate Bill 5823, which would reduce the bond requirement to a simple majority, stalled in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, where it died for the session. ♦





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An experienced Eastern Washington team is stacking wins and soaring toward March

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An experienced Eastern Washington team is stacking wins and soaring toward March


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Erick Doxey photo

Guard/Forward Casey Jones

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When you think of Cheney, college basketball probably isn”t the first thing that comes to mind, but these days maybe it should be. That’s because the Eastern Washington University Eagles have found a consistent formula that’s turning high-octane offense into success in the win column.

The Eagles are 17-9 on the season and an impressive 11-2 in Big Sky Conference play. Their record is no fluke. Under third-year head coach David Riley, Eastern Washington has built a culture that allows players to have fun on the basketball court and, in turn, encourages them to stay and develop within the program. These Eags are old and experienced, and it shows in their results.

“I think our development track record kind of speaks for itself. We had five of the last seven [Big Sky] MVPs. We’ve kind of done all this success with developing our own guys,” Riley says. “I think that’s lost nowadays where people transfer from school to school and they just kind of work on what’s right in front of them. We try to have a long-term vision for each of our guys.”

That long-term vision can only pay off if the players are willing to stick around. At Eastern, the top-five leading scorers are upperclassmen, all averaging over 10 points per game.

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Ethan Price and Casey Jones have spent their entire careers at Eastern. Cedric Coward and Dane Erikstrup are in their second year in the program after transferring up from the D-III and D-II levels respectively. Of those five, only Jake Kyman is a first-year transfer (UCLA to Wyoming to EWU).

When you take an experienced core like that and let them loose on the offensive end, you wind up with some electrifying basketball.

“It’s a fun way to play, and it allows you to be yourself out there” Riley says. “Our guys get to play to their strengths. They don’t have to fit into some box, which is nice, and it’s just a fun group. We’ve got a really low-ego, goofy group. It’s fun to root for.”

He’s not wrong. As of Feb. 16, the Eagles are averaging a shade under 80 points per game behind one of the more uptempo offenses in the entire sport. They’re shooting 49.8 percent from the field, the eighth-best mark in the country. If not for a brutal start to the season that saw the Eagles go on the road to face power conference team after power conference team, those numbers would be even higher.

After reigning Big Sky MVP Steele Venters transferred to Gonzaga in the offseason, EWU wasn’t tabbed by coaches or the media to be Big Sky favorites. The Eagles opened the season with a 1-6 record and losses to Utah, Mississippi, Cincinnati, Stanford, Washington State and USC, all on the road. Their only win in November came in their only home game that month, against non-Division I Walla Walla.

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“I felt like every game [in November] taught us a different lesson, and the beauty of it is it forces you to live in reality, those big games against really good teams,” Riley says. “Because sometimes against lesser teams, if you make a mistake, they’re not going to make you pay for it.”

The Eagles scheduled those games knowing that it would be tough but that they’d be able to learn from them. It’s not the kind of schedule you’d want with a young team, but with an older team like he has this season, Riley’s group wanted the challenge.

“We kind of had a choice between a non-Division I team and Stanford, just the way it worked out. We talked to our veterans that were returning and they were like, ‘Let’s go see where we’re at, let’s get another Power Five game.’”

While all the Power Five games resulted in a loss, it helped lay a foundation for the success that the Eagles are having in Big Sky play. Eastern’s running away with the league race in conference play, multiple games clear of all challengers as the team enters its final five games of the regular season.

Unfortunately, at the Big Sky level, to make the NCAA Tournament you have to win the Big Sky Tournament — in its 60-year history, the league has never sent multiple teams dancing. Last season the top-seeded Eagles fell victim to a 1-point upset in the first round of the conference tournament, which despite an incredible regular season, dashed their NCAA Tournament dreams.

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This season’s Eagles, for the most part, were also last season’s Eagles. They certainly remember what happened a year ago.

“I think it definitely shaped our goals and our vision for the year. We talked about how we have one main goal and then a bunch of secondary goals. So the main goal is to win in [the Big Sky Tournament]. That’s the No. 1 goal. We talked about that on June 20, our first day,” Riley says.

One of the secondary goals, he says, is to win the Big Sky regular season as well. They’re on track to do that with just five games remaining, including two at home next week against rivals Montana and Montana State, the latter of which defeated Eastern in league play this season.

When asked what people around Spokane should know about his team this season, Riley mentions their appealing style of play, the program’s success in having the most wins in the Big Sky over the past 10 seasons, and specifically the quality of this year’s squad. But he twice noted where Cheney is relative to Spokane.

“We’re 20 minutes away to watch some great hoops and come support these guys.” ♦

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Eastern Washington vs. Montana • Thu, Feb. 29 at 6 pm • Reese Court • ESPN+
Eastern Washington vs. Montana State • Sat, March 2 at 2 pm • Reese Court • ESPN+





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Baltimore-Washington Parkway crashes cause major delays early Thursday morning

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Baltimore-Washington Parkway crashes cause major delays early Thursday morning


Two early morning crashes along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway caused major delays Thursday in the Laurel area.

The southbound lanes of the parkway were closed due to a crash before Powder Mill Road. FOX 5’s Annie Mae says traffic is exiting at MD-197 toward US-1 or southbound Interstate-95 to join the Beltway.

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A crash along the northbound lanes of the parkway before MD-197 have the right lane and shoulder blocked.

Southbound delays are at over an hour and northbound lanes are delayed nearly 30 minutes.



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