A Baseball Lifer on His Unconventional Path to Stardom
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the obvious route isn’t necessarily the best.
By Matt Foley
Ron Darling speaks with the affable confidence of a broadcasting veteran. Witty and pensive but never flippant, the former New York Mets All-Star has built one of the finest careers in professional baseball over four decades. In his 13 years as a player, Darling won 136 games, threw 13 shutouts and logged 1,590 strikeouts. He nabbed a Golden Glove Award and, in 1986, cemented himself in the eternal good graces of Mets faithful by bringing home a World Series crown.
Many assumed that was the peak of his career, but Darling was just getting started. He played nine more seasons and now, 30 years after World Series glory, he remains one of the most active and recognizable faces in baseball. He’s an in-game analyst for SportsNet New York’s (SNY) coverage of the Mets and works as an analyst for MLB on TBS. OZY sat down with Darling to discuss his unconventional path to baseball stardom, the lessons learned and one helluva World Series memory.
As an Ivy Leaguer from the Northeast, you weren’t the most obvious professional baseball player, were you?
Ron Darling: [Laughs] The odds were definitely against me. I was my parents’ firstborn child; neither of them graduated high school, so all they cared about was me going to college. Education always came first in our house. In high school, I was probably 5’10” and 175 pounds, but I was a great athlete. Then, when I got to college, I went from 5’10” to 6’3” and 175 to 210 pounds. It wasn’t that I was a better athlete; it was just that everything I did was exponentially better — I ran faster, threw harder, I was much stronger. If I had been in high school at that size, I would have been recruited by USC or Arizona State, but instead I had to focus on the schools that wanted a small player from Worcester, Massachusetts. And from there, there were two things: I wanted to get a great education, and I wanted to play two sports.
You played football too. Did you have realistic professional aspirations in either sport at first?
Darling: Yes, I loved football, and Yale was one of the few schools where I could play both while also earning a top degree. Toward the end of my freshman year, I just got real good at baseball real quick. I thought I was just going to be like everyone else — I would go to law school or business school, wear a suit and tie the rest of my life. Even when I was drafted No. 1 by the Rangers, I got my signing bonus and thought, “OK, this covers my school loans and should pay for graduate school as soon as they figure out that I can’t play.” Sixteen years later I was still playing.
Did your unconventional path contribute to your success?
Darling: I think the thing that set me apart was growing up on the East Coast, not playing many games as an amateur. My room for growth was far greater than a player from Florida or California, where they play 100 games per year. I was a good player, but I was inexperienced compared to other guys.
Would you say that alternative backgrounds can benefit athletes in their preparation for the next level?
Darling: There are definitely positives, but the problem is a coach or a scout needs to take a chance on you. How many scouts are going to vouch for a kid that they’ve seen play three times? That can be tough to find. But what I took most from those early days was just pure desire. Early in the season, when it was cold and the kids down South wouldn’t want to play, I was dying to get on the field. I was ready to go into any situation. To this day, when I see a player from the East Coast, I perk up a little. I take note. I always root for those guys to make it through. That being said, sometimes I wish I had been in a nice, warm climate [laughs], but it wasn’t to be.
What is your favorite memory from the 1986 World Series run?
Darling: I started three games in that World Series, but it has to be Game 4 at Fenway Park. I’m from Worcester, a Red Sox fan since ’67. So to pitch on that mound — I had never even been on the field. I was warming up in the bullpen and had an awful warm-up. It must have been nerves. I told [pitching coach] Mel Stottlemyre, “Let’s race across the field. I’ll worry about this when I warm up on the mound.” It’s my 40th start. I should figure it out by now.
As I was coming across the field, the national anthem started before I thought it was going to, and so I’m stuck in right field — the bullpen in Fenway is in right field, so you have to walk all the way across. I heard a little “psst, psst.” I had forgotten, but my dad was in the National Guard and he was holding the flag that night for the national anthem. He was on the field. So I kind of sidled up to him, put my arm around him. I was like, “OK, this guy taught me how to play. It’s cool. Everything’s gonna be cool.” And then it changed. I threw seven shutout innings. I’m a spiritual person, not a go-to-church person, but that had to be some kind of divine intervention or something. I’ll never forget that.