First loves

I remember the conversation and, thanks to baseball-reference, I know when it took place. 

It was April 8, 1993. A Thursday. When I woke up that day, there were two sports I cared about, basketball and Penn State football. I also loved professional wrestling. For whatever reason, before the school is came that morning, I decided to tell my dad something about the WWF.  I don’t remember what it was but it was something that excited me.  My father responded by saying, “The Phillies are 3-0. They swept the Astros, who are supposed to be good this year. We’re not supposed to be good.” 

It was basically his way of responding to me telling him about something he didn’t care about by telling me something I didn’t care about. Kind of a dick move, and not really how he normally handled things. 

My father must have absolutely hated my love of pro wrestling. Everything else I ever cared about while growing up, from Transformers to archery to Lord of the Rings, he would become of a fan of. Even if I liked that topic – like archery – for a few months.  

At that time of the conversation, I knew one Phillies player, Lenny Dykstra.  I know this now because I recently saw a little league card of mine that claimed he was my favorite player.  In truth, I couldnt have picked Dykstra out of a lineup that included Warren Christopher, Jerry Garcia and Kurt Cobain that morning. 

But I was trying to collect cups with each MLB team’s logo.  You got one with a slushee at the Kmart we lived near. I had an Astros cup and I liked their logo.  

My knowledge of the game basically included Babe Ruth, Mike Schmidt, that the Phillies were to be loved and the Yankees to be loathed. That the Red Sox and Cubs were kind of cool. I knew a few names – I had a Bo Jackson poster – and the voice of god that came out of the radio in my dad’s blue Volkswagen Beetle or the radio in his garage. 

When I got on the school bus that day, I asked a few friends about baseball, clearly shocking them.  It would have been just as likely that 12-year-old Patrick would have started asking about nuclear physics or what I thought of “The Prince of Tides.”

A dramatic transformation took over me by the All-Star Break. I knew the stats of every player on that 1993 Phillies team by heart. I was the proud owner of stacks of baseball cards and was devouring baseball books, seemingly on a weekly basis. My dad would supply a biography of a player like Hank Aaron or Kirby Puckett, and I’d have it read and telling my dad what was on almost every page.  

I’d imitate players’ batting stances and – after not taking any interest in the game – started playing it every chance I could get.  

If ever there was a sports team for a nerdy team to fall in love with, it was the 1993 Phillies. They were straight out of a storybook. A ragtag bunch of misfits and cast offs who should have finished in last place. But instead of getting injured as all the players on that team seemed to do the rest of their careers, they stayed healthy. And they drew an insane amount of walks, forcing pitchers to tire early in games and constantly pitch with men on base.  So I fell in love with on-base percentage and different statistics. They were Moneyball before Moneyball was invented. 

Soon, I’d picked favorite player. John Kruk. But I also loved Terry Mulholland, Curt Schilling, Mitch Williams, Jim Eisenreich and Milt Thompson.  

While Kruk was an All Star, and Lenny Dykstra was the team’s best player, one member of the Phillies stood out the most. 

Darren Daulton. 

He was a god. He had the physic of a pro-wrestler, the leadership ability of Optimus Prime, the fearlessness of a Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones’ ability to do the right thing at the right time.  

I can tell you where for so many games that season. We were at an Irish Festival when Milt Thompson plucked a home run out of the air in San Diego. We were at my grandmother’s when Mariano Duncan launched a grand slam off Lee Arthur Smith on Mother’s Day. I was playing Eiffel ball with friends and my dad had the radio on when Dave Hopkins launched an improbable home run against the Cubs in Wrigley Field. 

To say that team changed my life is, in all honesty, an understatement. It’s why I fell in love with baseball and how I ended up wanting to be a sportswriter. It’s how I ended up working for a minuscule paper in Bradford County and meeting my future wife. My love of baseball hasn’t waned since that magical year.  It somehow grew. 

But one thing has stayed the same.  

Every player I’ve ever watched has been measured up to one man: Darren Daulton. 

A player doesn’t hustl!. Well, Dutch would slide into second base on AstroTurf with knees that had seen 9 surgeries just to break up a double play.  

A player swings at a bad pitch? Well, Dutch Daulton knew the strike zone. 

A guy’s got power? Well can he take Greg Maddox deep while Maddux is the best pitcher alive?

The Phillies have had several stars come through town since Dutch retired in 1997. Jim Thome, Bobby Abreu, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Roy Halladay, Coke Hamels, Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard.  

Every one of them is measured against Daulton. 

The funny thing is Daulton isn’t one of the ten or twenty best players in franchise history. He was often hurt. But when he was healthy, like in 1992-1993, he was among the best in the game. 

Those injuries meant we never saw all of Daulton’s promise. So there will forever be a “what if” when it comes to him.  Could he have been a 5 or 6 time all star, a guy with 1,200 career runs batted in?

I don’t know. Truly. 

Numbers never really defined Darren Daulton. 

I remember hearing Kruk talk about him once. He said before he came to the Phillies Kirk didn’t think Daulton was that impressive. Just a good looking California kid. Then he played with him. And he realized Dutch was from Arkansas and chiseled with grit.  

Daulton died Sunday. He was 55. Grown men and women who’d never met him choked up when they heard the news. 

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First loves

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