With Daulton catching rave reviews, 9-3 Phillies could be for real this year

April 20, 1993|By Jerome Holtzman | Jerome Holtzman,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Unlike Mark Anthony, I have come to praise, not bury. The Philadelphia Phillies, that is. There will be plenty of time to bury them. As has been said, it's a long season; whether they will make their usual plunge to the bottom in the National League East is not known.

What is known is that two weeks into the championship skirmish the Phillies are baseball's surprise team. Also, and this is no surprise, they have the best all-around catcher in the league in Darren Daulton.

"He is the man on this ballclub," insisted Richie Ashburn, a diamond expert of the first rank. Ashburn is in his 31st year as a Phillies broadcaster; before that he won two batting titles during a 15-year playing career.

Mr. Ashburn, you have seen Darren Daulton since he surfaced on the Phillies in 1983. Your assessment, please?

"I remember when you couldn't get a load of pumpkins for him, but somewhere in the last couple of years he's learned how to hit. He is the take-charge guy on this club. And he is a nice person. Everybody respects him. Nobody appreciates him more than manager Jim Fregosi."

In other words, he is like an assistant manager?

"That is correct."

What about his defense? Good defensive catchers are hard to find.

"One of the best at blocking the plate I've ever seen. Against Cincinnati last week, Randy Milligan tried to score and bounced off him like he'd hit a brick wall. Daulton never let him get to the plate. And Milligan is a big, husky guy."

Wasn't Daulton injured in a similar collision with Ray Lankford of the Cardinals two years ago?

"Yes. A lot of people thought he would never play again."

I caught up with Daulton in the visiting clubhouse at Wrigley Field. He was the center of attention, jiving with five or six of his teammates.

Daulton is beginning the equivalent of his ninth year with the Phillies, but he has had only two full seasons. Injuries have dogged him since 1986. He played a full season for the first time in 1990, producing 12 home runs and 57 runs batted in. Last year was the big one: 27 home runs and a league-leading 109 RBI.

Previously, he had been an annual target of the Philly boo-birds, the most vocal in the league. Fregosi, for one, insists a lesser player would have quit or, at the least, asked to be traded.

"I got through it," Daulton said. "You've got to take your lumps. I didn't go home and say, 'Why are these people booing me?' I knew I was a bad player."

Those days are behind him. He made the NL All-Star team for the first time last year. In addition to leading the league in RBI, he was third in home runs, fourth in slugging percentage and sixth ** in on-base percentage. He hit a solid .299 with runners in scoring position, when the pressure is greatest, and also threw out 36 percent of would-be base stealers.

"It takes a while for most of us," Daulton explained. "I'm not one of those guys who stepped right in and had a lot of success."

There have been many debates on which position is the most important. Usually, it narrows to shortstop or catcher. But when a catcher is outstanding both offensively and defensively, as Daulton is, the catcher always wins.

And like all good catchers, Daulton enjoys the work.

"No way I'd play any other position," he said. "People don't realize how much a catcher runs. If there are nine or 10 ground balls, that's nine or 10 sprints backing up first base. And that's just routine stuff."

He also likes the constant action; he is involved on every pitch.

And what about when reliever Mitch Williams, the so-called "Wild Thing," is on the mound? When Williams works, the catcher is put to the ultimate test.

"He's not a guy who paints the black," Daulton admitted. "He's wild. He rares back and throws as hard as he can. You're never sure where the ball is going. But he gets people out. He's leading the league with five saves. I doubt we'd be where we are without him."

The Phillies arrived here for the weekend series in first place in the NL East and, according to Fregosi, could be in the race to stay.

"This club isn't lacking in confidence," Fregosi explained. "We're healthy. Last year we were just all beat up. It seemed like every other week someone was going on the disabled list. We used 17 different starting pitchers."

Fregosi insists the Phillies now have a good mix of young and veteran players. "It's a nice blend that makes for a nice team," he said. Then he added: "I'm anxious to see how good these guys really are."

The Phillies have three high-average hitters in Daulton, John Kruk and Lenny Dykstra, but it was their pitching that helped them to an 8-1 start. Both Terry Mulholland, a left-hander, and right-hander Curt Schilling won their first two starts.

"All of our five starters have very good stuff," Fregosi said. "And we've got good depth in our bullpen. The key is our pitching. And from what we've seen, I believe it's going to hold up."

This is Fregosi's third term as a big-league skipper. He managed the California Angels for two full seasons and parts of two others and then the Chicago White Sox for two full seasons and most of a third. His 1979 Angels won the American League West and lost to the Orioles in the playoffs. None of his White Sox teams finished higher than fifth.

A reporter asked why he seems so much smarter this year.

"Good players," he said.

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