In Memoriam

Darren Daulton was everything we wanted to be

DarrenDaulton.jpgIt’s a crisp, sunny afternoon on Belgrade Street in Port Richmond. My friend Scott and I are set up on his front porch. We bought the colored stickers from the dollar store. We wrote on poster board and construction paper and littered every pole nearby – Allegheny Avenue, Clearfield Street, Aramingo Avenue even. The cards mostly came from the collectible shop a few blocks away, but some are from my original collection, the box my brother gave me upon moving out a few years before.

We think we priced everything correctly. We used Beckett as our guide, but intuition dictated a few other choices, such as the Phillies Finest series, a 20-card set produced by Fleer Ultra for 1994. In my 9-year-old eyes, this was the Phillies becoming legitimate. Only players like Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas showed up in those special sets, but now the Phillies – my Phillies – were subject of their very own set of 20 cards. And it wasn’t even the whole team, just two in particular: John Kruk and Darren Daulton.

Kruk was the .300 hitter, the guy who could spray the ball wherever he pleased. He was the fool, the guy ducking and weaving from Randy Johnson fastballs at the All-Star Game. We laughed with Kruk. We imagined hanging out with Kruk, a kid at heart.

But Darren Daulton was the rock. For many, the Adonis. Chiseled with an easy smile and gorgeous hair, Daulton was eye candy for every girl and woman I knew, but for every Phillies fan, he was “Dutch,” a big-hitting catcher with a knack for calming everything down. He calmed down his pitchers, calmed down the defense, and kids across the Delaware Valley in those days could be assured that when “Dutch” stepped to the plate, you need not worry. He’d get the job done.

Daulton, who died Sunday at age 55 after a long battle with brain cancer, always got the job done. Sometimes it took a while. Typically it wasn’t easy. But he epitomized the will-do, come-hell-or-high-water spirit of Philadelphians everywhere.

He was drafted in 1980, a 25th rounder out of 30 picks, and an afterthought. The Phils started the draft picking a catcher, high schooler Lebo Powell, and in the third round nabbed backstop Doug Maggio from Glenshaw, Pennsylvania. Daulton wasn’t expected to be a future everyday player, but he displayed unusual patience during his ascent in the minors. He sipped his cup of coffee with the 1983 pennant winners but spent 1984 as the everyday catcher in triple-A Portland, coming alive with a .298/.426/.488 line, seven homers and 19 doubles.

But Daulton had to wait in line. First it was Ozzie Virgil, then John Russell, then big signing Lance Parrish. Daulton stirred on the bench, his numbers worsening through his mid-20s. He finally won the starting job in 1989, but he didn’t improve on his tepid offensive numbers. Then, in 1990, he broke out, hitting .268/.367/.416 with 12 homers and 30 doubles. With newcomers John Kruk and Lenny Dykstra bolstering the offense, the Phils had the makings of an interesting squad.

Daulton had vices, as we all do. He was charged with DUI on multiple occasions, and in 1991, he was involved in a severe car accident with a drunk-driving Dykstra. Daulton lost time in 1991, and when he returned wasn’t the same, finishing the year with a .196 average. He was booed lustily by fans. He had to work to win back the adulation, and for some fans, trust.

I don’t recall much of these times. I was 6, still learning the game while rooting for whoever wore maroon pinstripes. There are visuals that stand out – the Terry Mulholland no-hitter in 1990, Steve Carlton Night after his retirement, multiple Kodak Photo Nights – but those late 1980s and early 1990s Phillies teams bleed into one another. Daulton was the only through line in that era, the one player who started during Mike Schmidt’s peak and played through the days of Dykstra and Kruk. Once the Phils traded Von Hayes to the Angels in 1991, the team suddenly became Daulton’s. And that’s when my baseball evolution expanded. No longer was I simply a baseball fan who rooted for the Phillies, but starting in 1992 I was a Phillies fan who loved baseball.

Daulton’s 1992 season – a .270/.385/.524 campaign with 27 home runs and 109 RBI – was one of the better offensive seasons by any catcher in history. More than half of his 131 hits were for extra bases, and it was almost a certainty that he would slug a double or homer every two games. He’d continue his superior offensive play in 1993, the year it all came together.

Not only did the Phillies come together that year, but my fandom had coalesced. Now eight years old, I could feel the impact of big hits, like Mariano Duncan’s grand slam off Lee Smith on Mother’s Day, or Mitch Williams’ unlikely game-winning hit to end the longest marathon in baseball history. I lived for each box score, and I saw those players as superheroes. Dykstra was cagey and unpredictable, Kruk was funny and lovable, Dave Hollins was quiet but able to turn it on at any moment, and Daulton was the leader, the steady hand, the force of cool.

Everyone loved Daulton. Men wanted to be him, and women wanted to be with him. Kids couldn’t help but look up to the catcher, a mountain when wearing his gear, a fulcrum for a team of weirdos and crazies. He hit fifth in that 1993 lineup, insurance when those ahead of him couldn’t get it done, a sparkplug when he could start the offense. It was the perfect place for him, smack in the middle, crouched and ready for bear, silently waiting for his chance to strike.

Without Daulton the 1993 team never happens. Not even close. There may have never been a more perfect leader for any one team in Philadelphia history. The Florida Marlins saw that four years later, trading for Daulton to surround its young talent with a wise veteran presence. He immediately took control of the clubhouse, notably getting Gary Sheffield in the right head space. It all seemed to come together in a wild Game 3 of the 1997 World Series, when Sheffield homered, then Daulton homered, then Phils’ teammate Jim Eisenreich homered.

Daulton led by example. He punched that home run to help the Marlins win his only championship, and in Game 6 of the 1993 NLCS he stroked a double off Greg Maddux to put the Phils in position to win the pennant. He came up big in big spots, and as a kid, I never had to worry. If we got to Daulton, we had a chance. We always had a chance.

As kids we had our favorite Phils. A middle infielder by trade, I loved Mickey Morandini, but right behind him was “Dutch.” He carried himself like he was born to play baseball, and I wanted to be just like that. All of us did. When he was on, he could do incredible damage. And he typically found himself in the big spot. He never let us down. He always got the job done.

That afternoon in Port Richmond in 1994, as Scott and I arrange our cards, a truck pulls up and double parks on Belgrade. A middle-aged man runs out from the truck and comes to the porch. He saw our sign, the one on Allegheny that says “Phillies Finest cards for sale.” He asks how much for the Daulton.

“Two dollars.”

It’s a big score, since Beckett priced the card for $0.75. But the man had what he wanted – he wanted a “Dutch.” He wanted a memory to hold.

I wish I still had that card. Those were the innocent days, when baseball was child’s play and my Phillies were the talk of the world. Those were the days when “Dutch” ruled our lives. Steady, sure, the leader we all loved, the ballplayer we all wanted to be, the cool force that led our favorite band of bozos.

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