By John Maffei
February 18, 2002
Photo: Mel Bailey
PEORIA, Ariz.-Padres outfielder Mike Darr was killed early Friday morning when the SUV he was driving rolled on Loop 101 in Phoenix, about five miles from the Padres’ training complex. Darr’s friend, Duane Johnson, also was killed. Johnson played in the Phillies farm system in 1997 and 1998.
Padres pitching prospect Ben Howard survived with only scrapes and bruises. He was wearing a seat belt and riding in the back seat.
Police suspect alcohol was a factor in the crash.
Darr leaves his wife, Natalie, his high school sweetheart, and two young sons. He lived with his family in his hometown of Corona and commuted 90 minutes each way to the Padres’ Qualcomm Stadium home, so he could be at home.
“It’s overwhelming, what happened,” said former Padres catcher Ben Davis, a teammate on three minor-league clubs before sharing a big-league clubhouse with Darr. “I wasn’t doing real well when I heard the news. I’m still not doing real well.
“Everybody liked Mike Darr. I don’t think anyone could not like Mike Darr. Everyone liked who he was and how he played the game. He’s one of my best friends.”
Davis, traded to the Mariners in December, is training on the other side of the Peoria Sports Complex this year. But staying at the same apartment complex where Darr was staying, Davis said he bumped into Darr about 7 p.m. Thursday.
“He was smiling, like always,” Davis said. “We hugged. I was just glad to see him.”
Darr arrived in Peoria a full week before position players were required to report, before most pitchers even showed. After a light workout Thursday, Darr joined Damian Jackson, Kevin Jarvis and a couple other players in an old-fashioned bull session in the trainer’s room.
For a time, it appeared Darr’s stories would outweigh his athletic accomplishments. As second-round pick by the Tigers in 1994, he wore out his welcome in three years with that organization. He fought with coaches who tried to turn him from a gap hitter to a pull-power guy.
His 1996 season was a waste-.248 batting average in Class A-after he broke both hands in bar fights.
But things quickly turned. The Padres traded for him and gave him a second chance professionally. That's Darr met Duane Espy.
Espy was the Padres' roving hitting instructor, and he helped get Darr back on track. Playing in Rancho Cucamonga, 45 minutes from home, Darr blossomed. He batted .344-15-94, scored 104 runs and had 23 steals.
He was named the organization's player of the year, an award he got a second time while playing a half-season in Triple-A three years later.
“I remember Mike coming out to the ballpark at 1 o'clock one day to work out before the players showed up,” Espy said. “Next day, same thing. After this went on a while, I started to get concerned, maybe he was sleeping there. I even asked him, 'Is everything OK at home?' “He said, 'Yeah. My wife works. I drop the kids at the sitter at noon. It's either come here or just sit around.'
“That's when we really went to work, starting putting that time in.”
Last season, Darr went from Opening Day center fielder to backup, batting .277-2-34 in 289 at-bats.