The former ballplayer touched the lives of many, including a local musician and a brain tumor patient.
Darren Daulton may have been the least likely athlete ever to achieve hero status among Philadelphia’s sports fans.
A 25th-round draft pick from miniscule Arkansas City, Kan., Daulton batted .206 in his first five Major League seasons as a perennial backup catcher. He never won a World Series in Philly and isn’t close to consideration for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Yet, as many Northeast folks can personally attest, Daulton was special for other perhaps intangible reasons. He transcended sports. In a profession and an era when the well-known often find it necessary to artificially inflate their own celebrity, Daulton made himself enduringly approachable and accessible, according to those who got to know him better than most.
And once you got to know him, he was charismatic and genuine.
That’s why local residents Jennifer Bird Pownall and Mike LeCompt have joined countless adoring fans in mourning Daulton’s brain cancer-related death on Sunday night. He was 55.
“It’s terrible, devastating, because it’s one thing when it’s a ballplayer you knew and loved. Then it’s something else when you knew him personally,” Pownall said. “He used to call me his ‘brain tumor buddy.’ ”
Pownall, a Tacony native who lives in Torresdale, serves as a vice president for The Darren Daulton Foundation, which raises money to provide financial assistance to people with brain cancer and brain tumors. Pownall is living with three benign brain tumors and joined forces with the foundation after launching her own fundraising and awareness campaign in 2015. She’s the creator of the “Air Guitar Challenge” on social media.
She’s also been an avid Phillies fan since long before Daulton’s tenure with the club.
“I got to know him personally through the foundation. He was so involved when his health allowed him,” Pownall said.
Daulton was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013 and underwent surgery to remove the tumors. Two years later, he announced he was in remission. But the cancer returned.
Challenged by the lingering effects of the disease and its treatment, along with his famously bad knees — he reportedly underwent nine knee surgeries during his playing career — Daulton maintained a cheerful and accommodating persona, even when he could no longer play golf at his own charity outings.
“Every event he went to he talked to all his fans. He didn’t turn anyone away and had a big smile on his face,” Pownall said. “That was the kind of guy he was.”
Daulton’s private life wasn’t without public controversy. He was arrested or cited several times for DUI and unpaid speeding tickets. He once wrecked his car while driving with a suspended license. He served two-and-a-half months in jail and entered drug rehab following an arrest for alleged spousal abuse. By 2010, he had redeemed himself and was appearing regularly on local TV and radio sports broadcasts.
His earlier transgressions were perhaps unsurprising to those aware of his reputation as the leader of a 1993 National League-champion Phillies team known as much for its hard partying as its scrappy play and devoted camaraderie.
“Hollins, Kruk, Morandini, Dykstra — they would all come over and I got to know them pretty good. Dutch was a real rock ’n’ roller,” said longtime Northeast-based musician Mike LeCompt.
In the heyday of Macho Row, LeCompt played regular gigs at Eli’s Pier 34 on Delaware Avenue. That’s the same pier that in 2000 collapsed into the river, killing three patrons and injuring dozens. The Phillies were regular visitors in the 1990s.
“(Daulton) was always good to me, to everybody,” LeCompt said. “He was a selfless guy, a pleasant guy, a funny guy. I hung out with him and he stayed a couple of sets. He was a humble guy, very regular. He wanted to talk about music.”
Last summer, Daulton showed up at another LeCompt show at Keenan’s in North Wildwood. Time hadn’t tarnished the former catcher’s popularity.
“Everybody was bothering him (but) I never saw him turn anybody away. He’d take pictures with everybody,” LeCompt said. “He sat in the first booth next to the stage. When people came up to him, he would sign for them. He was a Philadelphia icon and girls loved him.”
His cancer diagnosis and advocacy for other patients only endeared him more to fans and to friends old and new. Pownall last spoke to Daulton last October at the foundation’s annual golf outing.
“We were at an event at Chickie’s & Pete’s the night before and we had a good heart-to-heart about facing your own mortality,” Pownall said. “He talked about how we could be gone the very next day and he really wanted to do something with the diagnosis. (A brain tumor) is something that has complete control over you, but your way of controlling it is to give back and help other people.
“We’re going to keep doing our best to raise money to help because that’s what he wanted.”
Visit darrendaultonfoundation.org for information about The Darren Daulton Foundation. ••
William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow the Times on Twitter @NETimesOfficial.