The Padres and a close former teammate try to come to grips with Mike Darr's death
The Shiny, new white GMC Yukon caught Ben Davis's attention, but not as much as the familiar smile and easy laugh of the man behind the wheel, Padres outfielder Mike Darr. Davis had played with Darr for five seasons in the San Diego organization until the Padres traded Davis, a catcher, to the Mariners on Dec. 11. Late last Thursday afternoon, having left his home in suburban Philadelphia and flown to Phoenix for the start of spring training, Davis happened upon his close friend in the parking lot of the apartment complex at which they would live while their teams shared a spring training base in nearby Peoria.
The two strapping young men jumped out of their vehicles and hugged each other. Maybe, Dan-mentioned, Davis could join him for something to eat later. A travel-weary Davis said no, but added, "We'll definitely hook up soon."
"O.K.," Darr said. "Catch you later, bro." Darr called everybody bro. When Davis would tell him to wear his seat belt while riding in Davis's car, Darr would reply, "Nah, don't worry. I'm all right, bro."
There would be plenty of opportunities, Davis assumed, to hook up with Darr. "I never thought," Davis says, "that would be the last time I saw him."
On Friday at about 2 a.m., driving on Highway 101 only a few miles from his apartment, Darr lost control of the Yukon. In the passenger seat was Duane L. Johnson, 24, of Reno, a friend of Darr's. Ben Howard, 23, a rising pitching prospect in the Padres system, was in the back. The Yukon swerved left onto the dirt median, then quickly darted right, sending the SUV into a roll. It tumbled across the traffic lanes, plowed through a chain-link fence and came to rest upside down on a service road.
By then Darr, who would have been 26 on March 21, and Johnson were dead. Neither had been wearing a seat belt and both were thrown from the vehicle. Howard, who had belted himself in, walked away with only minor scratches and bruises. Frank Valenzuela, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, said that the accident appeared to be alcohol-related.
The baseball season officially began for many teams, including the Mariners, later that morning with the first workouts for pitchers and catchers. Davis, who will turn 25 on March 10, held back tears as Seattle manager Lou Piniella, in his welcoming address, stressed the importance of safety and seat belts. "We talk about it every spring," Piniella said after the meeting, "but today we went a step further."
Darr left behind a wife, Natalie, and two young sons, Mike Jr. and Matthew. A fourth outfielder blessed with speed and boundless enthusiasm, the 6'3", 205-pound Darr hit .277 with two home runs and 34 RBIs in 289 at bats last season, his third with the Padres. During his five years in the organization he personified the spirit of a youthful, scrappy outfit. Once, in the minor leagues, an injured Darr was sitting in the training room wearing only sliding shorts hiked to his hips, ice packs strapped on his hamstrings and shower sandals when a brawl erupted on the field. A nearly naked Dan-bolted onto the field to join the fray. "At one point the fight just kind of came to a halt because nobody could believe what he was doing," Davis says.
Only seven months ago the Padres lost a top pitching prospect, righthander Gerik Baxter, in another auto accident. Now they must continue with an encouraging rebuilding program after losing one of their most beloved players. Moreover, the organization will closely monitor Howard, the survivor. "Physically, he's absolutely fine," Padres manager Bruce Bochy said last Friday. "It's the psychological part you worry about."