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Darren Daulton's road to success ultimately made him one of us

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There really isn’t much more  that can be said in regards to Phillies great Darren Daulton, who lost his courageous four-year battle with cancer last weekend, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

 

In some ways, Darren Daulton was the epitome of a Philadelphia athlete, and in many ways, he wasn’t. Phillies fans fondly remember him for his role on the legendary 1993 Phillies team and for his All-Star caliber play in the 1990s. Every woman in the Tri-State area wanted to be with him, and every guy wanted to hang out with him. He was, in every sense of the word, a rockstar.

 

However, it wasn’t always that way. Becoming a respected leader and one of the game’s premier catchers didn’t come naturally for Daulton, and how he eventually got there is the stuff of true Philly folklore.Photo: Joe Vallee Sr.

 

A 25th round pick in the 1980 MLB June Amateur Draft, Daulton didn’t exactly arrive at the major leagues with the expectations of a Mike Trout or Bryce Harper. After making his debut at the end of the 1983 season with a roster of Hall of Famers and one would-be Hall of Famer (Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and Pete Rose), Daulton finally cracked the Phillies’ starting lineup in 1986.

 

A few months into the season, however, he suffered the first of many knee injuries while blocking home plate in a collision with the Cardinals Mike Heath (Ironically, this was Carlton’s last game as a Phillie). On a sidenote, Dutch was so tough, he stayed in the game and tried to bat! Despite his valiant effort, the injury ultimately ended his season.

 

Little did he know, Daulton’s frustrations were just beginning. The next year, All-Star catcher Lance Parrish was signed by the Phillies, blocking Dutch from a starting position on the team. In perhaps a culmination of the aforementioned events, Daulton punched a wall and broke his hand after being called out on strikes in a loss against the Dodgers in 1988. After finally showing signs of promise in 1990, he suffered more injuries in near-fatal car accident with Lenny Dykstra. After voicing his displeasure to Phillies’ manager Jim Fregosi when he was lifted for a pinch hitter upon returning, Fregosi called him out and challenged him to be a team leader that he had the potential to be.

 

The next year, the boos Daulton so often heard from Phillies fans turned into cheers. With a healthy knee, he finally fulfilled the expectations he set for himself and the franchise. Having the best year of his career, Dutch led the NL with 109 RBIs and finished sixth in the 1992 MVP voting. Then came 1993, where his status as the undisputed team leader was firmly cemented. We all know the story. The Phillies’ worst to first story was a rollercoaster ride that captured the hearts of the city and the nation. And despite losing the World Series in heartbreaking fashion to the Blue Jays, no team (including the Phillies’ World Championship team of 2008), has ever won over the city the way that 1993 team did. They bonded unlike any Phillies squad in history, and Darren Daulton helped foster that culture.

 

Unfortunately, Daulton’s injury-free seasons didn’t last. Hurt again in 1995, he missed almost all of 1996 and many thought his career was over. In true Daulton fashion, however, he returned the next year and ended up patrolling right field after the infamous Danny Tartabull injury. Although Philly was sorry to see him go, the franchise did the right thing by trading him to the Marlins that summer, where he got the World Series ring he should have received four years earlier. Most members of that 1997 Marlins team readily admit they don’t win it all if Darren Daulton didn’t join the team.

 

Serving as a bat boy on several occasions for the team, I had the unique perspective of briefly interacting with Dutch in the Phillies’ clubhouse, as well as in the dugout. Although it wasn’t a crazy amount of time spent in his company, and the job of a bat boy is to be seen and not heard, I observed several things: Nobody was respected more, nobody cared more, and nobody played harder and was more dedicated than Darren Daulton was. He cared about teammates, fans, cafeteria workers, even me.

 

Was he Ivan Rodriguez? Not exactly. Mike Schmidt? Not even close, but it didn’t matter. While his stats may not have always reflected his effort, Daulton most certainly encountered more obstacles than those players did, and that’s one of several reasons why his leadership was well earned and he was such an endearing player. His struggles, to go along with nine knee surgeries, gave him that right. It’s not an exaggeration to say he’s probably one the most respected, above-average players in the history of the game.

 

Like many athletes, Daulton had his share of stumbling blocks after his career. While they shouldn't be excused, they aren’t worth mentioning in detail now. Despite his off-the-field issues, his interactions and demeanor towards everybody he encountered, especially those struggling with similar ordeals as he was, never wavered. Whether he was working on television, radio, or making appearances at a local bar, he still treated everyone the same. It was just one of the many reasons why everybody in the Tri-State area and Major League Baseball, rallied around him and pulled for him, as he faced off against the biggest fight of his life. And although he ultimately lost this battle, Darren Daulton fought his illness with the same tenacity and determination he had on the baseball diamond—all the while never losing his smile, and making us feel like we were part of his family.

 

Dutch, you are and will always be a tough act to follow. Chances are we’ll never see the likes of you again. Thanks for making this 14-year old outcast feel like one of the guys.

 

Philly2Philly sends our deepest condolences to his family.

 

 


Contact Joe Vallee at jvallee@philly2philly.com

 

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Photo: Joe Vallee Sr.