To put Darren Daulton’s career with the Phillies in context, to understand and appreciate the affection people felt for him then and the sorrow they feel now after his death Sunday, you have to put the 1993 Phillies in context.
There is no untethering Daulton from that team. Yes, his managers and teammates treasured his leadership and toughness. Yes, there is a generation of women for whom Daulton, with his resemblance to the best-looking bouncer at the local honky-tonk, was their first and greatest celebrity crush. (It was a marvelous coincidence that the name of Patrick Swayze’s mullet-clad sensei in the 1989 cult classic Road House was “Dalton.”) But he was special in no small measure because the ’93 Phillies were sui generis, a one-year wonder that no one expected or could have predicted and that could not be repeated or emulated. And the shower of remembrances this week for Daulton is a testament not just to his impact on that team, but that team’s impact on Philadelphia’s sports consciousness.
And so, context: In 1983, the Phillies reached the World Series, losing to the Baltimore Orioles in five games. Over the next nine years, 1984 through 1992, they finished with a .500 record or worse eight times. Their best season in that stretch was 1986, when they went 86-75 and still finished 21 1/2 games behind the division-winning Mets. It was a fun summer, but only to a point, and it was followed by six seasons in which the Phillies never won more than 80 games.
Now, consider the seven Phillies teams from 1994 through 2000. None of those clubs had a winning percentage higher than .479. None of them finished fewer than 20 1/2 games out of first place. Not one of those seasons was going to be anything other than a hopeless slog through 162 games.
Spiked in the middle of those 17 years of mediocre-to-terrible baseball, 1993 stands out like a single sunflower in an acre of pigweed. It was unlike anything a relatively young Phillies fan had experienced or remembered. Put aside even the collective makeup and temperament of the 1993 Phillies: long hair, barrel chests, beer bellies, the code of Macho Row, an intrinsically smart lineup that ground down pitchers through patience and that walked and doubled its opponents to death, the agony and excitement of Mitch Williams taking the mound in the ninth with a lead. A Phillies game was no longer merely a way to pass time as you sat on your stoop or lounged in your living room after dinner, the television or radio tuned to Harry Kalas’ and Richie Ashburn’s banter for the sake of soothing background noise. Now, baseball was appointment entertainment, offering the nightly promise of pure joy. To be 18 years old that summer was to face a daily internal battle between powerful pulls: What do you mean you want to walk the boardwalk and maybe meet up with some girls? Don’t you want to watch the Phils finish off this sweep of the Cardinals?
It’s no wonder that team was and remains so beloved, and it’s no wonder Daulton, as its leader, became and remained an icon here. But perhaps the ’93 Phillies’ most significant legacy is that they stand as the consummate validation of an approach to team-building that the Phillies and most Major League Baseball teams now eschew.
Already, the Phillies were a veteran-laden club, one that had finished last in the NL East in three of the previous five seasons. Daulton, Williams, Lenny Dykstra, John Kruk, Dave Hollins, Mariano Duncan, Mickey Morandini, Terry Mulholland, Ricky Jordan: these players had been fixtures over that time. These days, a general manager—say, Matt Klentak—would likely have traded away at least some of these established major-leaguers to hoard prospects and gain more personnel and financial flexibility. Yet Lee Thomas, the Phils’ general manager then, instead infused the roster with more vets: Pete Incaviglia, Milt Thompson, Jim Eisenreich, Danny Jackson, Larry Andersen, David West. By today’s standards, there was little or no thought given to “sustained success” and little or no concern about blocking the paths of promising minor-leaguers. Thomas simply stood outside during a thunderstorm and held out an open bottle.
What he caught, in retrospect, was quite remarkable. It’s startling how many of that team’s key players had their best seasons in 1993 and/or never approached that level of production again. Dykstra, Kruk, Williams, Incaviglia, Thompson, Duncan, Jackson, West, Tommy Greene, Ben Rivera, Wes Chamberlain: Once Joe Carter swung at the last pitch left in Williams’ weary left arm, those players’ careers fizzled away like soda bubbles. (Daulton, actually, was an exception. His .929 on-base-plus-slugging percentage during the strike-shortened 1994 season was a career high.) The season had been exhilarating. It had been unique. But once it had ended, no one was, or should have been, under any illusions about witnessing something like it again.
Was that season worth the subsequent seven years of awfulness? Unless you met your spouse on the boardwalk that summer, it won’t take much to guess your answer.