On the first day of spring training, every year, Padres players and coaches check into the Peoria Sports Complex and usually greet each other happily with handshakes, high fives and even a few hugs. But the meet-and-greet in spring training 2002 was somber as players, coaches and other members of the organization comforted each other through sobbing eyes and heavy hearts, having just learned of the death of one of their own—outfielder Mike Darr.
Darr, 25, from Corona, CA, was killed exactly 10 years ago, when he lost control of his GMC Yukon in a single-car accident on Highway 101 at 2 a.m. Feb. 15, 2002. It was reported in Sports Illustrated that the Yukon swerved into a dirt median, then quickly darted right, sending the SUV into a roll. It tumbled across the traffic lanes, plowed through a chain-link fence and came to rest upside down on a service road. Darr and passenger Duane Johnson were not wearing seat belts and both died instantly. Minor league pitcher Ben Howard, who was sitting in the back seat, wore his seat belt, and survived suffering minor injuries.
Frank Valenzuela, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, said at the time that the accident appeared to be alcohol related.
Going into spring training 2002, Darr had been tabbed as the everyday right-fielder, taking over a position held by Padres legend and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who retired the year before.
Former Padres and current Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers, said he believed Darr had the tools to succeed in the Major Leagues.
“I was fortunate enough to watch him play high school ball as well as watch and admire his development with the Padres and getting to the big took advantage of an opportunity. He played the game hard, with a lot of passion, and I still miss him to this day.”
Gwynn said he never had second thoughts about the kind of impact Darr would have made with the Padres.
“I just loved him. I just thought this guy is a can’t miss guy. I thought the Padres were going to be in really good hands because Mike was a diligent worker and really tried to be that player that the Padres wanted him to be,” Gwynn said.
In 188 games played with the Padres, the 6’3”, 205-pound Darr had a career average of .273 with five home runs and 67 RBI.
But his biggest weapon was probably his throwing arm. His arm was so strong that Gwynn said that at times he was embarrassed to take infield-outfield practice with Darr.
Gwynn went on to say that Darr was very hard on himself because he wanted to succeed in the Major Leagues. Gwynn recalled that on numerous occasions he had to tell Darr that he just needed to relax and play his game.
Towers said attending Darr’s memorial service was one of the hardest things he ever had to endure.
“To see his lovely wife, Natalie and his kids, was so hard. I’ll never forget he had his Padre cap and jersey in his casket with him. It was pretty difficult on all of our players. They lost a teammate, but in baseball, they’re like family members, so we felt like we lost one of our own.”
Gwynn said he always wonders what type of player Darr would have been if he were living today.
“The thing I’ve always wondered was, I wondered what type of player he would have turned into? And that’s the thing I think haunts us all. I think we all know he could have really been a great player, and we never got the opportunity to find out.”
Darr is survived by his wife, Natalie, and two sons, Mike Jr. and Matthew.