The Phillies checked into their downtown St. Louis hotel before opening day in 1995, and Gary Varsho, who hardly knew any of his teammates after joining them just a week earlier, retreated to his room to wait for his luggage.
“The hotel phone rings and I’m thinking ‘Who the heck is calling me?’ Maybe it’s my wife. I don’t know,” Varsho said. “It’s Darren Daulton. Darren goes, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Waiting for my luggage.’ He goes, ‘No, you’re not. Come down to the lobby. We’re going out to eat.’ ”
The team’s newest player — a reserve outfielder — was being invited to dinner by the team’s star player. Varsho had played parts of the previous seven seasons in the majors. He had never experienced that before. It was the beginning of Varsho’s final year and the start of his admiration for Daulton, who died Aug. 6 after a four-year battle with brain cancer.
Varsho respected Daulton so much that naming his baby was easy after his wife became pregnant at the end of the 1995 season.
“There was no doubt about it that he was going to be named Daulton,” Varsho said. “He was caring. He was loving. He exemplified everything that Philadelphia Phillies baseball was all about. It’s about loyalty. It’s about love. It’s about pulling for one another. It’s about giving everything you have that night and preparing to win.
“Just a great leader. Dutch was very special. Obviously, if I had had a daughter, I’m not sure she would be named Daulton.”
Daulton Varsho is now a 21-year-old catching prospect with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who drafted him in the second round last June. He not only plays the same position as his namesake but also is lefthanded with some power in his swing. Daulton Varsho’s climb to the majors began this summer in Hillsboro, Ore., with Arizona’s short-season Class A affiliate.
“My dad told me that he was a great friend of his and that he was one of the hardest workers he knows,” Daulton Varsho said. “I can’t thank him enough for naming me that. It’s awesome.”
Daulton Varsho’s middle name, John, is a tribute to John Vukovich, the bench coach of that 1995 team. Varsho said his son, the youngest of three children, is a “full-fledged Philly baby.” Vukovich spent 31 years with the Phillies before he died in 2007 from the same disease that Daulton had.
“Vuke was blue-collar. He liked blue-collar guys, guys that were going to go out there and bust their [butt] every day,” Gary Varsho said. “That’s why he fit in Philly so well. People craved what Vuke brought. I craved it, too, as a player. He appreciated it and always showed me that type of love. I thought I was like him as a player. He was one of those guys that had to fight like hell to be the 25th guy.”
Gary Varsho coached for the Phillies after retiring — he even was interim manager for two games in 2004, after Larry Bowa was fired — and is now a scout for the Pirates. He played sparingly during the 1995 season, his final year in the majors. But he vividly remembers Daulton, dressed in full uniform, waiting at the tunnel near the Veterans Stadium dugout and telling all the players as they exited the dugout how much the team needed them that night.
“I wasn’t playing. I didn’t play a whole lot. I was just pinch-hitting. He would say, ‘Varsh, we need you tonight’ as he hit me on my chest,” Varsho said. “And I thought to myself, ‘What an absolute warrior.’ He was full out and you would never know that he had gone through so much pain in his life with his knees and all that. He was a real warrior on the field.”
Daulton Varsho started each morning as a kid in his Wisconsin home by waking up and looking at the framed Daulton jersey on his wall. Daulton signed it and added, “I am very proud to share this name with you.” Attached in the frame is a photo signed by Daulton with an added inscription of “Someday I will share stories about your ‘old man’ and if you work as hard as he did you will achieve greatness.”
Gary Varsho was a grinder who played eight seasons in the major leagues. And what a message, from Darren to Daulton, for Daulton Varsho to cling to as he begins to chase his dream.
“It’s a good feeling to have being named after him, especially now that I’m a catcher,” Daulton Varsho said. “I would just look at that, and it inspired me to know that I’m named after a really great baseball player. It’s a great feeling to have that I’m going to carry on the name a little bit.”
“I just admired and, slash, loved this guy so much,” Gary Varsho said. “I had never seen anyone exemplify a leader of men, a warrior on the field, all about getting everyone as a player to play for each other. If you wore a Philadelphia Phillies uniform, you were a part of something special. He made you feel special.”