Inside the Phillies: Darren Daulton, faults and all, always a stand-up guy

Darren Daulton, here at spring training in 2004, will undergo surgery this week for two brain tumors.
Darren Daulton, here at spring training in 2004, will undergo surgery this week for two brain tumors. (Daily News)
Posted: July 01, 2013

Darren Daulton could have been just another pretty face.

No work would have been needed, and a lot of people did not expect much more from a 25th-round draft pick anyway.

Richie Ashburn, the late broadcaster with the wry sense of humor, once described Daulton as not much of a ballplayer, but a great guy to be seen with in the lobby. That was in the mid-1980s, when Daulton struggled to keep his batting average above .200 and yearned to be the Phillies' starting catcher.

When Daulton's first child, Zach, made a spring-training clubhouse appearance as an infant in the early '90s, pitcher Jason Grimsley took one look at the kid and confidently predicted: "That kid has zero percent chance of being ugly." It didn't hurt that the first Mrs. Daulton - Lynne Austin - was a Playboy Playmate and the original Hooters model, but the well-tanned catcher from Arkansas City, Kan., contributed his share to the kid's blessed gene pool.

Just about every woman I know, my wife included, thought Daulton was the dreamiest.

Through hard work, perseverance, and life experiences, he became something much more as a baseball player and a human being.

He wasn't the greatest ballplayer, but he might have been the grittiest. That's a trait I hope serves him well as he begins a fight much more daunting than any he faced during a 14-year career that included nine knee surgeries, a self-inflicted broken hand when he punched a clubhouse wall in 1988, and multiple injuries after a near-fatal car accident with teammate Lenny Dykstra at the wheel in 1991.

The news Thursday that Daulton has two brain tumors and will undergo surgery this week was devastating for a lot of people, including this writer, who covered the three-time all-star catcher for a decade and has remained in contact with him since his playing days. It is well-documented that Daulton was the clubhouse leader of the 1993 Phillies. If you want verification, all you have to do is ask anyone who was there.

It was a lot of fun covering that team, but it was not easy. I did it for the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, and Dykstra never had much time for the newspapers he deemed second-tier. John Kruk was moody and Dave Hollins was often unapproachable. Much of Macho Row was a no-go zone if you were looking for some help on a story.

That left Daulton to handle the pitching staff - Mitch Williams was a full-time job in himself - the clubhouse policing, and the media. He did it all. Daulton could be surly, especially if he didn't like the line of questioning, but for the most part he was a thoughtful gentleman who respected anyone who worked hard.

Daulton was so good at being a leader that when the 1997 Florida Marlins needed one, they turned to him. He couldn't catch anymore because of his creaky knees and was a liability in the outfield and at first base. His expiration date for playing was quite visible, but there was still some thunder in his bat and endless wisdom in his baseball brain. The Marlins were a collection of stars who needed some cohesion. They found it with Daulton, and both the team and the player were rewarded with a World Series title.

Worn down from working and playing so hard, Daulton retired after that season. He entered the real world and found it to be every bit as turbulent as his playing career. Instead of battles with injuries and prolonged slumps, Daulton struggled with booze and legal issues, including spousal-abuse charges that eventually led to a 21/2-month stint in prison when he did not abide by a legal agreement as part of his divorce from his second wife, Nicole.

When Daulton wasn't making legal news, he was the subject of ridicule for his belief in the supernatural that he shared in the book If They Only Knew, which was released in 2007. I never talked to Daulton about his beliefs and I certainly don't share them. But I do believe peopeople have the right to believe in whatever they want - religion, UFOs, time travel - provided they do not harm others.

Daulton, of course, did some harm, but he was accountable for it just as he was the one guy almost always accountable in the 1993 clubhouse.

This is what Daulton said at the end of an interview with Philadelphia Magazine in 2011: "Anything I did in the past is my fault. Not my ex-wife's fault, not any of my kids' faults, not baseball, not the media - me, my fault. I did the damage. Will you make sure that comes through? Will you do that for me?"

Darren Daulton, in my view, is a good person, and that's based on the way he treated me and the way others responded to him. The late John Vukovich, another man who battled brain cancer, summed it up best when Daulton was traded to the Marlins all those years ago.

"I played with better players," Vukovich said. "I've coached better players. But in 32 years I never saw a bigger leader. For me, he set the standard of being a man."


Contact Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @brookob.

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