I've loved sports for as a long as I can remember. I learned to read by looking at box scores in the newspaper. One of the first names I remember seeing on those pages was Daulton.
Unfortunately, baseball didn't love me back early in my childhood. Born in the summer of 1984, my earliest sports memories are of lean times in Philadelphia sports. I would actually sit and do the math in my head and figure out if I was conceived between Game 1 and Game 2 of the 1983 World Series and whether or not that meant I was the "bad luck guy."
So, yeah, it wasn't pleasant being a young Phillies fan in the early 90's.
Perhaps no image better represented those lean times than Ray Lankford freight-training Darren Daulton on a Sunday afternoon at Busch Stadium for a walk-off win in April 1991. The collision was so jarring that Daulton didn't drop the ball, so much as his glove catapulted off of his hand. Daulton missed the next couple of games as he tried to deal with what was likely a concussion. But the image that has always stuck with me from that moment was Lankford defiantly rising to his feet. It was almost likely he was angry a game against the Phillies required that type of effort.
Being six years old at the time, I knew the Phillies were in the National League and that a National League team went to the World Series. But it never occurred to me that the Phillies could actually play in it. Even though I loved them, I just assumed that the Phillies basically amounted to extras in a movie that starred teams like the Pirates, Reds, and Braves.
Then 1993 happened. It was right in the sports sweet spot. I turned nine years old that summer so I was old enough to understand what was going on, young enough to have no other distractions.
Complete coverage of the Fightin' Phils and their MLB rivals from NBC Sports Philadelphia.
If you're too young to remember that '93 team, it's impossible to explain what happened. It's not just that most of the players looked like they could fit in at family parties across the Delaware Valley. It's not just that no one gave them a chance. It was the games themselves.
The buzz around that team truly built as they walked a tight-rope every night but somehow found a way to leave on the right side of the scoreboard.
Down 8-1 to the Giants? No problem. Here comes an 8-run rally to win it.
Losing to the Cardinals by three runs in the eighth and facing Lee Smith, one of the dominant closers of the era? Mariano Duncan grand slam.
Give up a run in the top of the 20th to the Dodgers? Dykstra walk-off two-run double.
Play a game that goes past 4 a.m.? The closer wins it with a base hit.
It felt like there was at least one game like that every week.
And it was the player who had been plastered into the dirt at Busch Stadium just two seasons earlier who got up, dusted himself off and led the way. Daulton got the most out of a pitching staff that should have been league average. He also anchored the middle of what became a dominant lineup, driving in more than 100 runs for the second straight season.
In addition to his on-field abilities, it was his leading-man good looks that probably allowed me to watch so much of that team that season. In a world with no internet and only one cable box in the house, I had to convince my mother to let me watch all of the games. I think having Dutch on the team made it a little easier for my mom to stomach a summer spent watching two-and-a-half hours of baseball every night.
In Game 4 of the 1993 World Series, Daulton connected on a hanging Al Leiter slider to put the Phillies back up 9-7. That should have been the turning point we all looked back to years later, savoring the second championship in franchise history, the unlikeliest title in Philadelphia sports history. But a five-run lead and the Phillies' title dreams melted away in the mid-October rain. Everyone knows how this story ends. The first true heartbreak in my life.
I would later get to know Dutch when he spent time as an analyst at CSN. In an effort to not seem like a total fanboy, I never told him about my memories of that afternoon in St. Louis. Or how I wore No. 10 on my baseball team as a tribute. Or how I shaved that same No. 10 into my head that summer. Or how I learned to read by seeing his name in box scores. Now that he's gone, I sure wish I had.
Goodbye, Dutch. You taught me that baseball can love you back.