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, Darr 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 Darr 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."
Davis, meanwhile, says, "I don't think I'll ever be able to put
this behind me." The second overall pick in the 1995 draft, he
spent his first full season in the majors last year, batting .239
with 11 home runs and 57 RBIs in 138 games. San Diego, though,
preferred the defensive skills of Wiki Gonzalez and used Davis to
fill a need at shortstop, acquiring Ramon Vazquez in the trade
Davis's attitude was questioned in 1999 when, in a tiff about
playing time, he refused to warm up a pitcher in the bullpen. But
last year "Ben really matured and did everything we asked of him
and more," Bochy says. "I see him being an All-Star. He has that
kind of ability."
Piniella says that incumbent Dan Wilson remains his primary
catcher, though Davis, a 6'4", 215-pound switch-hitter, could
play his way into a larger role. The Mariners' manager says that
he is "excited to have him here"--especially in the wake of the
terrible crash on Highway 101."It does make you think," Piniella
says. "What if Ben had joined them for dinner? What if he was in
the car? He was such a close friend, maybe he would have been in
the front seat."
A funeral service was scheduled for Wednesday in Darr's hometown
of Corona, Calif. The Padres arranged to fly the entire team
there. Davis asked for and received permission from the Mariners
to be there to say a final goodbye to his bro.
Phillies' Mike Lieberthal
No Yogi, but Plenty of Yoga
The most welcome sight for Phillies manager Larry Bowa last
Friday, the first day of workouts for his pitchers and catchers,
was Mike Lieberthal squatting in a practice bullpen, on the
receiving end of staff ace Robert Person's first 15-minute
throwing session. Last year Lieberthal's season ended on May 12,
when he collapsed in a heap on the base paths at Bank One
Ballpark with a torn right anterior cruciate ligament. The
Phillies won 86 games and finished a mere two games behind the
Braves in the National League East without their two-time
All-Star catcher, so Lieberthal's return is eagerly anticipated.
"Everyone says we only got one free agent [over the winter],"
says Bowa, referring to righthanded starter Terry Adams. "But I
say getting Mike back is like getting another player."
That's assuming the 30-year-old Lieberthal is able to return to
form eight months after having a cadaver's tendon grafted to his
knee. After the first day of camp in Clearwater, Fla., he said
he felt "pretty close" to being able to go at full speed and
that he expected to be completely comfortable well before
Lieberthal credits a rigorous rehab and off-season workout
program for his return. He had a batting cage installed in the
backyard of his home in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and hit regularly
during the winter. As he said after BP last Friday, "These
aren't my first swings of the year." He also exceeded his
preinjury levels of strength and flexibility with twice-weekly
sessions of yoga. "Even before I got hurt, I always had tight
hamstrings, tight legs," Lieberthal says. "All that stretching
allows me to have the strength from weights [and still gain]
flexibility." --Stephen Cannella
COLOR PHOTO: J.T. LOVETTE/REUTERS Darr was devil-may-care, whether diving in the outfield at Qualcomm Stadium or driving, unbelted, in his new SUV.
COLOR PHOTO: MATT YORK/AP [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Having been cut on last spring, a more limber Lieberthal was happy to take his cuts last week.
The Hot Corner
Carlos Baerga, 33, is in Red Sox camp on a minor league
contract, but he might be a good bet to return to the majors for
the first time since 1999. Boston has little faith in second
base incumbent Jose Offerman, and a newly trim Baerga--who spent
the last two seasons trying to rejuvenate his career in, among
other places, the independent Atlantic League and South
Korea--swung the bat well while playing winter ball in Puerto
Rico.... Teams looking for starters this spring might get lucky.
Twins righthander Rick Reed can become a free agent if he's not
dealt by March 15; he will probably be unloaded for prospects.
If lefthander DAVID WELLS fills the Yankees' final rotation
spot, New York will be in a position to deal righty Orlando
Hernandez. Mets lefty Bruce Chen, who is out of minor league
options, may be dangled if the club decides it needs another
outfielder.... Reds manager Bob Boone wants righthander Scott
Williamson, who had Tommy John surgery last April and who has
been a starter and a reliever, to begin the season in the
bullpen. "If you look at the guys who've come back from Tommy
John, it's typically a two-year process," says Boone, invoking
two other righties who did their post-op pitching in relief:
Cardinals ace Matt Morris and Braves closer John Smoltz.