I was 8 years old when my parents were able to afford our first family vacation to Florida.
We were going to Clearwater to see the Phillies, fresh off a 78-84 season, in spring training. My older sister and I couldn't have cared less about that. We had visions of Disney World in our heads.
But something happened on that trip that changed my life forever. It's the reason I'm typing these words right now. Thanks to Darren Daulton and the 1993 Phillies, I fell in love with baseball.
Prior to the first game we attended, we went up to the broadcast booth and talked to Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn (it would be years before I realized the greatness I was in contact with). Harry the K took down our last name and where we were from so he could say it during the broadcast. A family member taped the game for us on their VCR and I can still hear Harry saying, "The Hudricks are here from Bellmawr, New Jersey."
I played little league and would often pretend I was a baseball player, but watching actual baseball games wasn't my idea of fun. In fact, during the aforementioned video, you could see me, pretending to play baseball in the aisle of Jack Russell Stadium while the Phillies were playing the Twins. It was actually during a workout fans were allowed to attend that baseball took hold of me and didn't let go.
It's almost unfathomable how easy it was to access professional athletes back then. Especially the Phillies, who had finished above .500 only once since reaching the World Series in 1983. The excitement for the Fightin' Phils wasn't exactly at a fever pitch. As a kid, baseball players didn't seem like real people. When I got to see them up close and personal (and not in the 700 level of the Vet), I was in awe.
I watched as the players took batting practice, launching balls over the fence, crushing line drives to the outfield. My sister and I eagerly awaited autographs from these mythical figures.
Larry Andersen was a crowd favorite, joking around with all the kids. Guys like Tommy Greene and Mickey Morandini were always willing to sign a baseball or two. But there was one clear star: Darren Daulton.
I'm not sure the phrase "women want him, men want to be him" fit another human being better than Dutch. My dad loved his style of play and smooth, left-handed swing. My mom had to fan herself off as he approached my sister and me to sign our baseballs. Daulton had a really cool, movie star-like signature. He just had this air about him. He was a rock star but played the game like he was the 25th guy on the roster.
When it came time to plan our next vacation, there was no doubt we would be back in Clearwater. This time around, the crowds were insane. It was tough to get autographs and get as much access to players. But we still found a way to get two cool pieces of memorabilia: one of Dutch's bats — the story of how the bat got into our possession is a family secret, which I won't reveal ... if anyone asks, I obtained the bat totally legitimately — and a batting glove.
The trips to Clearwater became a family tradition so I couldn't tell you the exact year the batting glove happened. Whenever Daulton was done taking BP, he'd throw them into the stands. As the crowds got bigger at Jack Russell, this was Daulton's alternative to signing every single autograph. After one session, the batting gloves were tossed in my direction. An older gentleman also reached for the all-red glove with "10" written on it, but to his credit, the guy let go when he saw a spiky haired kid with gold frame glasses and buck teeth also reaching for it.
It was these experiences and interactions that formed my love of baseball and sports in general. I gradually turned into a sports junkie. When I was eight, my dad explained to me that people get paid money to watch baseball games and write about them. I decided then — yes, at 8 years old — that I wanted to be a sportswriter.
And here we are.
I can't tell you a single thing we did in Disney World during that first vacation, but Darren Daulton and the 1993 Phillies captured my heart forever.