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Padres' Darr Dies in Car Accident

Baseball: Passenger also killed in one-car crash in Phoenix. Alcohol appears to be a factor, authorities say.

February 16, 2002|ROB FERNAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

San Diego Padre outfielder Mike Darr and longtime friend Duane Johnson, son of UCLA defensive line coach Don Johnson, were killed and a passenger was injured in an automobile accident early Friday in Phoenix.

Authorities said Darr, 25, was driving and alcohol appeared to be a factor in the one-car accident, in which the vehicle rolled across three lanes of freeway and crashed through a fence, coming to rest on a frontage road.

Frank Valenzuela, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, said Darr and Johnson, 23, were not wearing seat belts and were ejected. Ben Howard, a 23-year-old pitcher in the Padres' minor league organization, was in the back seat and was wearing a seat belt. He was treated at the scene for scrapes and bruises and released.

The accident occurred at 2 a.m. (MST), only hours before the Padres began training for the 2002 season in nearby Peoria, Ariz. Friday was the voluntary reporting date for pitchers and catchers.

Darr and Johnson were childhood friends who grew up in Corona in Riverside County.

"They were as close as brothers," said Derek Robbins, a football assistant who coached Johnson at Corona High.

Darr, a 1995 Corona graduate, still used the school's weight room and baseball field for off-season workouts, and had recently purchased a house in his hometown, said Corona football Coach John Brandom.

Johnson played football and baseball at Corona before spending his senior year at Reno's Wooster High, graduating in 1997. He played one season with the Philadelphia Phillies' minor league organization but was no longer affiliated with a pro team. He was planning to play football in the fall for Fullerton College, where he was a defensive back and kick-return specialist on the 1999 team.

Darr lived with the Johnson family for a time in Reno. Don Johnson was a football assistant for five seasons at the University of Nevada in Reno before coming to UCLA before the 2000 season.

Don Johnson could not be reached for comment. Marc Dellins, UCLA's sports information director, said he spoke Friday with Johnson, who expressed he did not want to make a statement.

"It's an emotional time, obviously," Dellins said.

The Padre organization was shaken by the death of Darr, who was their opening-day starter in 2001--his first full major league season--and started 69 games, 24 in center field and 45 in right.

"We've lost a special teammate, a special person," relief pitcher Trevor Hoffman said. "There are a lot of heavy hearts in the locker room."

Said Padre Manager Bruce Bochy: "This is a very difficult thing to begin spring training with."

Darr was regarded as a good defensive player but didn't have much hitting power. He hit only two home runs last season, but both were game-winners in the Padres' last at-bat. He batted .277 with 34 runs batted in.

"He had a pretty good year last year," Bochy said. "He could run, he could throw, he could hit.... He was a fun-loving guy who played the game like it was supposed to be played. He played all-out, and that's going to be missed."

Darr was the second player in the Padres' organization to be killed in a car crash in less than a year.

On July 29, minor league pitcher Gerik Baxter was killed near Indio when a rear tire on his pickup blew out, causing the truck to swerve into another car and roll several times. Passenger Mark Hilde, a draft pick for the Oakland Athletics, also died.

Authorities in Arizona said Darr apparently drifted into the dirt center median, then overcorrected, causing the car to roll.

Darr is survived by his wife, Natalie, and two sons, Mike Jr. and Matthew.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The Player

Some of Mike Darr's career highlights:

* Hit .512 with 12 homers and 27 RBIs as a senior at Corona High.

* Hit .277 with two homers and 34 RBIs in 105 games with Padres last season.

Made only two errors in 201 games in his career and was often used as a late-inning defensive replacement.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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