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Leading Man
Leigh Montville
October 11, 1993
Darren Daulton, who has both the looks and a strike-it-rich story made for Hollywood, stars for the offbeat Phillies
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October 11, 1993

Leading Man

Darren Daulton, who has both the looks and a strike-it-rich story made for Hollywood, stars for the offbeat Phillies

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At 31, with eight years behind the plate at Veterans Stadium, he has been with the Phillies longer than any other player on the roster. Losing? He has seen losing. Booing? He has been booed. He has walked through the media fire storms, been dragged through the talk-show mud and come out standing at the end—the leader of this team, an All-Star two straight seasons, working on the first year of a four-year contract extension worth $18.5 million. He has completed the toughest turnaround of all simply by staying put. He has endured.

"You look at all he's been through, and you realize that he's a pretty tough individual," Philly manager Jim Fregosi says. "He had some tough years here, very tough, and now he's the fair-haired boy."

He had major league seasons in which he batted .194 and .208 and .201 and .196. He had one season end when he broke his right hand punching a clubhouse wall. He missed the bulk of another season after he was injured when Dykstra's car hit a tree on the late-night return from Kink's bachelor's party. (Daulton still occasionally has blurred vision in his left eye from the accident.) He had shoulder problems that hampered his throwing. He was displaced for two seasons by Lance Parrish, a big-budget free agent brought in to take his job. There were attempts at signing other free agents to replace him, notably Tony Pena. He had seven operations on his left knee after 1986. And yet he has gone from expendable to most valuable.

"The worst moment, I guess, was when the fans booed my son at the father-son game a couple of years ago," he says. "He was only a couple of months old, and the people started booing. My wife ran under the stands, and she was crying. She said, 'I don't mind if they boo you, but I don't want them booing our son.' I thought about that for a minute. 'What do you mean, you don't mind if they boo me?' I said. That was the worst."

He is a flat-out handsome man, and maybe that has worked against him too. You look at him at 6'2", 200 pounds, and you wonder what you would do if you looked like that for a day. Would you visit those five guys who have always given you a tough time and punch out their lights? Or would you visit those five women at the office who have always seemed intriguing and offer them a night of dinner and dancing? You probably wouldn't figure on hitting .194 and having troubles throwing the ball to second base.

The fact that he married Lynne Austin, a former Playboy Playmate, Miss July 1986, a model whose picture is stretched across national billboards—and even the centerfield fence at the Phillies' spring training camp, in Clearwater, Fla.—to advertise the Hooters restaurant chain, probably also did not help. Shouldn't a guy who is married to a Playboy Playmate at least be able to hit a sacrifice fly once in a while? The fact that Daulton stunk on a succession of Phillie teams that stunk made him vulnerable.

"I was a bad player," he says. "I knew I was a bad player. I couldn't run, throw or hit very well. I always thought I could be a better player, down deep I did, but I had reached a point where I didn't know if that would happen. I had just about accepted that I was going to be what I was, that there wasn't anything else."

Damaged goods was what he was. He had been drafted in the 25th round out of high school in Arkansas City, Kans., in 1980. He worked his way through the Phillies' system and into the starting job at the Vet in '86. He was the catcher of the future. After 48 games in the '86 season, he had eight home runs and was developing into the player he was supposed to be. In the 49th game his left knee blew apart.

It was one of those home-plate collisions made for instant replay. Daulton was guarding the plate, and Mike Heath, the catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, was the other party in the accident report. The impact point was the left knee, and Daulton's promising future had a serious dent in it.

"I lost my mobility," he says. "There were things I just couldn't do. You come back from something like that, a complete reconstruction of the knee, and there's a lot of pain. Then you have more surgery at the end of each year, just to clean the thing out. The people boo and you want to explain, to tell them about the pain, but that's not the way it works."

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