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‘The Zookeeper’ Fits Daulton Perfectly : Baseball: Label is appropriate for Phillie catcher, who keeps a loose bunch of characters focused as a team.

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It was right after a particularly galling 14-5 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in July, a loss that cut the Philadelphia Phillies’ lead in the NL East to 5 1/2 games and invoked flashbacks of the notorious collapse of a Phillies team 29 years earlier, that Darren Daulton, alias Bubba, alias Dutch, alias The Rock, earned yet another nickname.

He earned it by way of a postgame tirade that cut through a lot of the swagger and puff of these back-alley brawling Phillies. He told them, basically, that this battery of loose cannons was on the verge of becoming a rack of popguns. He pointed fingers and he named names. He said two Phillies pitchers, Tommy Greene and Curt Schilling, had “pitched scared.”

And you know what? There were no repercussions, no dissension, no fisticuffs and no heated voices raised in protest. There was only the nickname, which now seems more appropriate than ever -- The Zookeeper. Its meaning is self-explanatory. The Phillies, we all know, need a zookeeper the same way it sometimes seems the Toronto Blue Jays could use an undertaker.

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“That was about the day it started,” Schilling said Friday. “He ripped into us pretty good. It took a lot of guts to say it, but it was something that needed to be said. And it was true. What could I say? I couldn’t be angry.”

Instead, Schilling went 8-3 the rest of the way. He became the MVP of the NLCS without earning a victory, although he certainly destroyed the Atlanta Braves in the two games he pitched. And Thursday night, he pitched the best game this World Series has seen and one of the best any World Series has had in a long, long time.

“I just have a tremendous amount of respect for Darren,” said Larry Andersen, the Phillies’ 40-year-old reliever. “For how long he’s been here, for what he’s been through, physically and mentally, and how much he’s meant to this team.”

When they talk about the Broad Street Bellies, they are not talking about Darren Daulton. When a Toronto fan won a contest last week by completing the phrase “The Phillies are so ugly ...” with, “... the turf spits back,” it had nothing to do with Darren Daulton. He is the flip side of John Kruk, the mature older brother of Lenny Dykstra, the surrogate son of Manager Jim Fregosi. If there is any player who, by his example, can inspire this Phillies team to come back and beat the Blue Jays in seven games, it is Daulton. He is the cotter pin that keeps the wheels from coming off the Phillies’ jalopy.

Or, as Andersen put it, “it’s like he’s the Godfather and we’re his thugs.”

Why “The Zookeeper?”

“He tames the lions and cleans out the cages,” Andersen said. “It takes a strong man to do that.”

How strong is Daulton? Strong enough to deal with having a wife who was a Playboy centerfold and has her likeness adorning billboards advertising a restaurant chain called Hooters. One of those billboards is on the outfield wall at the Phils’ spring training complex in Clearwater. Think that’s fair game for opposing teams’ bench jockeys? And strong enough to battle through the pain that eventually shortens every catcher’s career and curtails their production.

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Andersen likens Daulton to fictional Philly “hero” Rocky Balboa, only Daulton could never make it up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art because of knees that Phillies GM Lee Thomas once described as “the worst I’ve ever seen on any athlete.”

And yet, counting the postseason, Daulton has appeared in 158 games for the Phillies this year at baseball’s most demanding position. And while Daulton’s shoulders are certainly broad enough to handle the burden, his knees are so fragile that any one of the 150 or so deep-knee squats he performs each night could be his last. In Wednesday night’s Game 4 debacle, won 15-14 by the Jays, Daulton repeated the maneuver more than 190 times. That is more reps than Richard Simmons performs in 90 minutes of aerobics. He followed it by catching Schilling’s five-hit, 148-pitch shutout in Game 5.

It is repeated and sustained torture for Daulton, who besides his numerous “other” injuries -- he has had a broken hand as well as a crushed eye socket in a near-fatal car accident with Dykstra in 1991 -- has had six knee operations. He plans on No. 7 in the offseason.

“That’s becoming a seasonal thing for me,” he said after Friday’s off-day workout. “What we’re talking about here is really not a big deal. It’s just a little clean out so I can come back next season and start all over again.”

But in a moment of candor after the Phillies eliminated the Braves, Daulton provided a rare glimpse into his pain. “Look at these guys,” he said, as his teammates celebrated. “They all feel terrific. I feel like 9crap).”

That is the price he is willing to pay to bring Philadelphia its first World Championship in 13 years. As a rookie, he appeared in two games with the 1983 Phillies, the team that lost to the Orioles in five games. He knows that, considering the condition of his knees, he may not get another chance.

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How much pain is Daulton in now, with two crucial games to go? “I don’t even want to talk about it. Let’s say none,” he said. “I’ll be suited up for the sixth game of the World Series and you won’t be able to tell.”

But in private, Daulton cannot hide the truth. Friday, Fregosi told of watching Daulton during some games, sitting in the runway staring at his legs, rubbing them, trying to cajole one more inning or one more at-bat. “Sometimes he’ll talk to them and say, ‘You’re gone, you’re gone,’ ” Fregosi said. “But he battles through it.”

And Schilling told of card games on airplane flights when, suddenly, Daulton’s body will cramp and he will double over in pain. “I’m talking big, convulsive cramps,” Schilling said. “But he goes out there the next day and plays his ass off. That’s what makes him a winner and that’s what makes us winners.”

Daulton said he has considered catching fewer games in the future, based on the premise that if he plays less, he can produce more, especially late in the season. Still, he has put together back-to-back 100-plus RBI seasons, a rarity for a catcher. He has struggled so far in the Series, batting .211 with a two-run home run in Game 4 to break a 7-7 tie.

But his influence goes far beyond the boxscore, into the area below the breastbone, where exhausted fighters find the reserve to win a close bout in the final round, and where teams that looked to be dead at home can find new life in a ballpark not far, appropriately enough, from the Toronto Zoological Gardens. Unlike the SkyDome, that is a place at which both the Phillies and their leader can feel at home.

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