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How the Sports Baby Has Grown Up

The evolution of the Sports Baby—from Ken Griffey Jr. to Riley Curry and countless toddlers in between

A Sports Baby can be loosely defined as the offspring of a professional athlete who by some amalgam of parental talent, childhood adorableness and media exposure attains a level of fame that exists alongside that of their “legitimately” famous athlete parent. For instance, at this point, non-sports fans may only know Steph Curry as the father of Riley Curry: He plays a sport, I think?

But like many things in sports, Sports Babies are best defined by an understanding of eras. In baseball you have the Deadball Era, the Steroid Era and so on; in the NBA there’s pre- and post-shot-clock eras; the NFL has pre- and post-merger… You get the idea. As for Sports Babies, they clearly break down into three very distinct time periods — pre-internet, post-internet and social media domination.

Pre-Internet Era

The 1970s: The earliest instance of pro athletes’ kids hanging around the team we could find dates back to the heyday of The Big Red Machine, among the greatest baseball dynasties of all time. Besides Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Tony Pérez and Joe Morgan, there was a guy on the team named Ken Griffey Sr. If you haven’t heard of him, you’ve no doubt heard of his kid, Ken Griffey Jr. — “Junior” or “The Kid” to many of us. Junior was already quickly becoming a legend in Ohio, even at 8 years old. Think Tiger Woods, but with a bat, according to longtime sports columnist Terence Moore:

There I was that July evening, covering a Reds game at old Riverfront Stadium, and one of the veteran groundskeepers waved me over to the side of the batting cage.

“Got a great idea for you … Ken Griffey,” said the groundskeeper, nodding while searching my face for a reaction.

I thought the groundskeeper meant the Reds right fielder who had just spent his first full three seasons in the Major Leagues hitting over .300 and reaching the last two All-Star Games. I started to mention I’d already done something on that Griffey, when the groundskeeper added, “Ken Griffey Jr.”

Ken Griffey Jr.? I thought, with raised eyebrows. That kid? The one who joined Pete Rose Jr., and Perez’s son, Eduardo, for dashes around the clubhouse as if they were climbing trees in their backyards?

“Yep,” said the groundskeeper. “Check him out in a game.”

Late 1970s/Early 1980s: Once most of the Reds’ stars (Rose, Pérez, Morgan) moved over to the Philadelphia Phillies, they joined up with the likes of catcher Bob Boone, whose sons Bret and Aaron were around the team so much they got their own uniforms. Per Bret in a 1996 New York Times article:

“I wanted to go to the ball park every day. If my dad wouldn’t let me, my day was ruined. I just loved it. It was nothing but a positive thing for me. We used to have myself, my brother, Greg Luzinski’s son, Pete Rose’s son, Tug McGraw’s kids, Steve Carlton’s kids. There were quite a few kids hanging around, probably driving the players crazy.”

Also, if you want to get technical, Bob himself was something of a Stone Age Sports Baby back when his father Ray played for the Cleveland Indians. (He debuted in 1948, the year the Indians last won a World Series.) According to Ray’s 2004 New York Times obituary:

“When Ray Boone was with the Indians, his son Bob was hanging around the batting cage in spring training as a 5-year-old. When his father joined the White Sox, Bob took batting practice as an 11-year-old, swinging against the future Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn.”

1983: Still in Philadelphia, 13-year-old Eduardo Pérez (former MLB player, current ESPN baseball analyst and son of previously-mentioned Hall of Famer Tony Pérez) flicked sunflower seeds in the Phillies dugout instead of paying attention to the action in front of him. Worse yet, according to a 2016 ESPN.com story by Jim Caple, Pérez made the mistake of hitting Pete Rose with one:

“What the f — — are you doing?!” [Rose] snapped at Pérez.

“I was stunned,” Pérez recalled. “It was my first year in the dugout, and Pete told me, ‘If you’re going to sit here during the game, you have to watch every pitch and let me know what it was.’ So for the rest of the year during the games, I was sitting on the steps and studying every pitch. And then Pete would tell me, ‘See what the pitcher does with his glove? When he turns his glove, it’s going to be a curveball.’”

Such instruction helped Pérez become a major league player like his Hall of Fame father. Decades later, he still looks back fondly on those days.

“If you took away me being on the field and being away from my dad … I wouldn’t have known what to do,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been a major leaguer. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.”

Post-Internet Era

2002: Two different little dudes spawned the Post-Internet Era almost simultaneously. On the baseball side, there was Darren Baker, the 3-year-old son of Giants manager Dusty Baker/team bat boy who during the 2002 World Series almost got mowed down during the game because he was so excited to retrieve his hero Kenny Lofton’s bat:

His presence in the dugout created a national debate — was it a harmless act of cuteness or a potential hazard? — and left Major League Baseball wringing its hands:

[Sandy Alderson, executive vice president/baseball operations for Major League Baseball] told the Associated Press, “There is no directive or major-league rule which prohibits someone that age serving as a batboy. We don’t intend to prohibit it. But on the other hand, I’m sure even Dusty would agree great care is appropriate for someone of (Darren’s) age under those circumstances.”

In the end, the child-safety side won the argument — i.e., not long after this incident MLB upped the minimum age for ball/bat boys and girls to 14.

2002–2003: Right around the time Baker was nearly mauled at home plate, in the NBA, Jason Kidd was bringing his little boy TJ to basically every single press conference he could while leading the New Jersey Nets to back-to-back NBA finals appearances, turning TJ into the de-facto team mascot.

So it’s not really surprising that in 2015, TJ took to Instagram to blast people who criticize the Currys:

“So disappointed seeing all the negative comments on @wardell30 [Stephen Curry] having his daughter at press conference at last nights #WCF game. These times were so special and so important to me. My dad traveled and was away all the time for work so when he was home I was glued. #FamliyFirst #DontGetBetweenAManAndHisChild”

June 2003: Dwyane Wade brings his 1-year-old son Zaire with him to his introductory press conference after being drafted fifth overall by the Miami Heat:

And while that was the beginning and the end of his Sports Baby moment, he’s become quite the Sports Adolescent. According to The Ringer, “The 14-year-old has been the class of 2020’s crown jewel since fifth grade, when the esteemed scouts at Middle School Elite touted his 3-point range and ‘superstar qualities.’” He’s so good actually that he’s now giving his old man pointers:

Valentine’s Day 2007: Deadspin uses the “Babies” tag for the first time with a short post about the surge in births expected that April in Germany, which happens to be exactly nine months after Deutschland hosted the 2006 World Cup. The Sports Baby tag itself, though, is still several years away, as is their first posting about an actual Sports Baby.

Social Media Domination Era

April 2012: This is when Deadspin does its first post about an actual Sports Baby — the newborn son of Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. A June followup reveals the baby already has a sponsorship deal.

May 2012: After a win over the Memphis Grizzlies, L.A. Clippers point guard Chris Paul brings his son, Chris II, to the post-game presser with him and Blake Griffin, where the younger Paul does his best Griffin impression (forever dubbed “Blake Face”):

A year later, Chris II appears in his dad’s first State Farm commercial:

These days, though, he’s mostly a social influencer, with more than 300,000 Instagram followers. His Instagram bio: “Chris Paul is my dad, his wife Jada is my mom. I’m kind of a big deal.”

June 2012: Thomas Robinson, a superstar coming out of Kansas, brings his kid sister Jayla as his date to the NBA draft. During his final season in Lawrence the Robinson siblings lost their mother and both grandparents during a three-week span. Jayla gets an interview, along with her brother, and is totally starstruck:

Robinson would go on to adopt Jayla, and she’s followed him to every city (Sacramento, Houston, Portland, Philly, Brooklyn and L.A.) he’s played in since.

Spring/Summer 2013: Deadspin finds its Sports Baby stride, with posts of Derrick Rose Jr. in a tiny tux; Patrick Sharp’s daughter with the Stanley Cup; Chris Bosh’s kid lounging in the pool; Adrian Peterson’s son at practice; and Paul Pierce’s baby son in what I’m almost certain is the pool at the Luxor in Vegas.

May 2015: Speaking of Derrick Jr., during a playoff presser with his dad, a reporter asks Little Derrick if the Bulls can win in Cleveland against LeBron James. The face he makes in response spawns a thousand memes — and probably constitutes the first instance of a Sports Baby becoming meme-ified.

2016-today: Undisputed Champion of the Sports Baby, Riley Curry, bursts onto the scene. At just 4 years old, she’s already been named to “Best Of” lists from ESPN, CNN and BuzzFeed. Apparently, it runs in the family, as her father, Steph, was a lesser-known Sports Baby in the Pre-Internet Era:

The elder Curry has gotten a fair amount of shit for having Riley around so much. Per ESPN basketball reporter Brian Windhorst: “Steph Curry’s kid is cute. That doesn’t mean she should have been at presser. There are professionals on deadlines there with jobs to do, too.” And Charles Barkley: “I would have never brought my daughter to a press conference personally.”

But as Fusion columnist Jamilah King has pointed out, that willfully ignores a larger dynamic at play:

The celebration of NBA fatherhood is a big deal. Less than 20 years ago, players — most of whom are young black men — were victims of a relentless culture war that painted them as serial womanizers and deadbeat dads. In May of 1998, Sports Illustrated ran a now-infamous cover story titled “Where’s Daddy?” about how fathering out of wedlock had become “commonplace” and high profile athletes in a variety of sports seemed “oblivious to the legal, financial, and emotional consequences” of their sexual affairs. The recent shift toward celebrating sports babies illuminates a loving, caring side of black fatherhood.

The Future

It appears as though we’re on the brink of the Civilian Sports Baby Era. Case in point: The Basketball Child. Per Deadspin, “This video is on the long side, and the basketball child doesn’t show up for a bit. It’s worth watching it all, though, as it makes the deus ex machina of the basketball child that much better.”

It’s also proof positive that it’s no longer a requirement to have Griffey, Kidd or Wade as a last name to become nationally recognized for being adorable during sporting events.