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Leading Man

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

The experience is like walking up the three steps on a front stoop to talk to the leader of a neighborhood motorcycle gang. The large men with the juvenile-delinquent hair are waiting. Their eyes appraise the newcomer and do not seem to like what they see. Who is this guy, this civilian? What is he selling? Doesn't he see that we're busy?

"Over here," the leader of this group, Darren (Dutch) Daulton, tells the intruder, who is there, it turns out, to interview him. "This is where we can talk."

Here? The interviewer can feel the other guys' eyes as he moves into the scene. There is a line of five red lockers against the far wall of the Philadelphia Phillies' clubhouse. The residents are Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams, Pete (Inky) Incaviglia, Lenny (Nails) Dykstra, John (Krukie) Kruk and Daulton. All of them are here at three o'clock in the afternoon, four hours before the game, sitting and scratching and smoking cigarettes and talking. What is this interruption? That plan for terrorizing a small town will never be finished if strangers keep coming around.

"What's this story about?" Daulton asks. "I mean, what kind of story is this?"

"It's about...." the interviewer begins.

What is it about? The eyes all stare. Incaviglia has a beard. Kruk has a beard. Williams does not have a beard but also has not shaved in a day or two. The very idea of a story suddenly seems stupid. Any story about any of these guys always does some kind of dance around this offbeat team that won the National League East. Don't those stories tend to merely glamorize the unglamorous, the day-to-day sweat and grind of a hard-hat job? Make something big out of something that really is nothing? A story. Hah! None of those stories ever gets it right.

"The story's about you," the interviewer says to Daulton. "It's about baseball and life and the pennant race and, uh, rock 'n' roll, I guess."

The eyes stare.

"I don't know about the other stuff," says a voice—is it Kruk's?—"but you came to the right place to hear about life."

He is the grand survivor. That is Daulton's story. On this team of outcasts, this collection of other people's cranky spare parts—the lineup has been built through a succession of trades into sort of a baseball version of the old Oakland Raiders everything working in the end—Daulton has taken the toughest road of all. Well actually, there was no road. He has beer here all along.

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."

"By the time I came here [in 1988], Darren had had three or four operations, and I didn't think he'd ever be healthy," says Philadelphia general manager Lee Thomas, who made various attempts to find a replacement for Daulton. "That's why I thought I had to do something. What I say now is that anyone who has had any injury whatsoever should look up to Darren Daulton, to see what he has done."

The turnaround came in the middle of the 1990 season. The knee simply started to feel better. The latest operation, the latest rehab, had subtly changed the conditions. There still was pain. (There is pain even today.) The difference was that the pain had become more tolerable. Limits were widened. He started to hit so well—.303 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs after the '90 All-Star break—and play his position so well that Thomas was moved to sign him to a three-year, $6.75 million contract. The promise had returned.

Then, on May 6, 1991, before the next step could be taken, Dykstra's car hit the tree. Daulton was injured again. The pictures in the paper showed him coming out of the hospital, Lynne at his side, his left eye virtually swollen closed. The stories centered on the drinking at the bachelor party, followed by the driving.

"There was a lot of heat for that," he says. "Lenny took most of it, but I got some too. I wanted to come back so bad, I rushed myself. I went out there, and I couldn't do anything. I had the double vision, a bad shoulder. The worst was when a guy tried to steal and I stood up and I saw two second basemen, two shortstops and I threw the ball about 10 feet. I had to get out of there. That was a tough thing to do, to go back on the disabled list."

All of this, of course, has been followed by two All-Star years. Has there been a better catcher in baseball? In '92 he hit .270 with 27 home runs and a league-leading 109 RBIs. This year he hit .257 with 24 homers and 105 RBIs, the primary run producer for a club that wasn't shut out until the last week of the season. He has become the acknowledged front man of this offbeat team, Brando on the lead motorcycle with his killer friends behind. Fregosi, when he became manager in '91, talked with Daulton about becoming a team leader, but Daulton thought it was not possible. How could a guy who is not playing well be a leader to anyone else? That is no longer a concern.

He is the guy who sits at his locker after the tough losses and answers the questions. The other members of the gang disappear to the trainer's room, but Daulton sits and talks. This is a curious team—defensive and paranoid. The flush of success is muted by the memories of failure for most of the players on this club, adding a quality of vulnerability to winning that does not exist in most places. Daulton knows more about vulnerability than any of them. Maybe that is why he leads.

"You become guarded," the grand survivor says. "You know that the same people who are cheering you now are the same ones who were booing you before. You don't like to think that."

As he talks, as he smokes his Marlboro Light and drinks his coffee, black, the other players sometimes listen in. A story. What kind of story is this? Williams wonders out loud if it would be possible for a relief pitcher, a closer, to slip away to watch a Sawyer Brown concert, then reappear at the ballpark around 10 o'clock to pitch the ninth inning. Kruk and Dykstra talk with each other. Incaviglia is in and out, mimicking Daulton's words.

"I did this...I did that...I, I, I," Inky says. "What is this, a book? What year are we up to now?"

"We're up to 1914," the interviewer says. "It looks like there might be war."

"No," Daulton says. He checks the Phillie schedule taped to the side of his locker. His finger runs across all the games Philly has played in its season-long march ahead of the pack. His finger stops.

"We're up to September 11, 1993," he says.

That is the date of the interview. That is the end of the interview. Fair enough.



Once thought to be washed up, Daulton has become one of the game's top-hitting catchers.



[See caption above.]



Daulton, with Lynne after the May 1991 auto accident, still has double vision in his left eye.