Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Ron Darling's Biggest Game

I was a big fan of Ron Darling the pitcher, but something about his style always bothered me. He had terrific stuff but didn't seem to trust it. He was a nibbler, the kind of pitcher who fusses on the mound as if gathering the nerve just to throw the ball, then directs his pitches a bit off the strike zone, hoping the hitter will go fishing and give him an easy out. He walked way more batters than he should have (nearly 3.5 per nine innings for his career, leading the league in 1985), got in trouble too often, and seemed to lack the aggressiveness to overpower the opposition. As he puts it, "I fretted instead of fumed."

I have much the same feeling about Darling's new book, Game 7 1986: Failure and Triumph in the Biggest Game of My Life (St. Martin's Press, written with Daniel Paisner). There's a lot of good stuff, plenty of candor and analysis, but his writing nibbles around the edges of his subject while only occasionally digging his heels in and facing things head-on. The result resembles his pitching career--the work is solid, it makes you root for the guy, but it isn't nearly as good as it could have been.

I'll start with the best things about Darling's account of his personal failure and his team's triumph in the final game of the 1986 World Series. At the top of the list is his unflinching view of how poorly he pitched that night at Shea Stadium, getting rocked for back-to-back home runs by Dwight Evans and Rich Gedman in the second inning and getting yanked by Davey Johnson with two outs in the fourth, trailing 3-0.

It took him nearly 30 years to watch film of that game, in order to analyze his performance pitch by pitch. The reader learns a ton from this analysis, and not just about Darling, who despite completing his third full season in the majors with a 15-6 record and a 2.81 ERA, lacked a deep confidence in his ability. Most vivid is his sharing of the emotional roller-coaster of the starting pitcher--how one missed call in the first inning can topple his game plan, how a lucky bounce or a great defensive play can restore his resolve. The pitcher--the loneliest figure in a team sport--can talk himself onto and off the ledge and back and forth, and we feel Darling's anguish as this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity falls apart early.

The measure of Darling's sense of aloneness was his admitted estrangement from his team's success. It began in an odd way during Game 6, when pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre told him to go home in the ninth inning. Stottlemyre, confident the Mets would win, wanted Darling to avoid the post-game traffic jam, get home early, and get sufficient rest before Game 7. Darling started homeward in his 1966 Mercedes, which had no radio, but he soon sensed that something was going on back at Shea Stadium. He hurried back to the ballpark, sneaked into the clubhouse, heard the television going in clubhouse attendant Charles Samuels' office, and watched on the tiny screen as the Mets rallied to win. While the packed stadium went nuts during the rally, he remained glued to his seat, following the player's tradition of not moving as long as things are going well.

Of course, if Stottlemyre had known that rain would delay Game 7 for a day, he wouldn't have sent Darling anywhere, and that sense of estrangement would not have been triggered. By the time Game 7 rolled around two nights later, Darling was deep in his "game-day" mode, the insular, surly mood a starting pitcher has to get himself into after waiting around and doing little between starts. His routine disrupted by family members staying at his home and by sharing the drive to Shea with reporter Ira Berkow, Darling felt his delicate self-image out of kilter before he even took the mound.

Once he was derricked, Darling remained in a remote corner of the dugout, stewing in his sense of failure and letting down his teammates. When the Mets, still down 3-0, rallied in the sixth inning, Darling tells us, "This was my one thought just then, to get back to even. To get me off the hook. The thought of actually winning the game was still paramount, but I was prioritizing here. The one would follow from the other, so as the crowd went crazy I offered up a silent prayer: give me one more run--please, please, please." He got the run and no longer could be the losing pitcher.

Still, he was unable to join in his teammates' excitement at taking the lead in the seventh inning. "Oh, how I wished I could have turned my cap in on itself and joined in the rally cap silliness, in the jumping around. . .but I was still yoked to those dismal early innings and ever-mindful that it was me who'd made these late-inning runs so damn meaningful. It wouldn't do for me to be whooping it up and celebrating at these twists and turns." Thirty years later, and he still feels guilty about that performance. It has taken him this long to accept his temporary insanity on that historic night.

I wish that Darling had been able to avoid overusing cliches in this otherwise gripping account. Perhaps it would be too much to expect the sustained erudition of a Yale man--certainly his capsule portraits of his teammate are vivid and shrewd--but there are too many sentences and paragraphs with strings of cliches, baseball and otherwise. It's like a "waste pitch" on an 0-2 count, when the pitcher feels obligated to throw the ball so far from the heart of the matter that no batter would pay attention.

Even with the portraits of teammates, Darling nibbles around the edges of the truth. Several times he assures us that he's not going to throw his teammates "under the bus" even when they have gone public with their own accounts of their excesses and addictions. Only once, when discussing Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, does he offer what he calls a "mini-swipe" at Strawberry, explaining why Strawberry wasn't a good teammate while Gooden remained popular: "The further away I am from my playing days, the more I resent how they squandered their gifts--but hey, they were their gifts to squander, not mine; their choices to make, not mine. At the time, I suppose I resented it a little more in Darryl, because Doc had that sweetness about him. Doc was like a lost kid. Darryl, at times, didn't seem to give a shit."

Although Darling is candid about drinking and gives a lively account of punching out a policeman in Texas, he dances around the subject of cocaine and steroids and gives the impression that he has never seen them. He's more forthcoming about amphetamines; though he doesn't tell us  who used them, he provides plenty of details about how they were used. Still, he's reluctant to come in with the high hard one, assuring us that "if you weren't 'in the jar' [taking amphetamines], some of the language and some of the routines were elusive."

The most perplexing thing about Darling's account of Game 7 is that even though he admits overthinking things, his thinking did not go deep enough. Mainly, he says, he decided that even though he hadn't allowed the Red Sox an earned run in his first two starts in the Series, he needed to do something different in Game 7. He assumed that the Red Sox would be expected the same stuff that had stymied them twice. But he didn't take that logic one step further by realizing that Boston's Bruce Hurst, having won two Series games already, would face the same over-exposure in Game 7. He conceded that the Mets would continue to have trouble with Hurst, while assuming that the Red Sox would see through him. That's how he accounts for getting rocked early, while it took the Mets six innings to get to Hurst.

Yet in his final analysis of his failure, he declares, "In the first two games, I probably got them out on a lot of balls down in the strike zone, a lot of fastballs, and I stupidly, haughtily assumed I could do the same in this Game 7." Well, which was it, Ronnie? That revelation comes on Page 139, after we've spent more than half the book listening to him assert that his lack of confidence made him believe he had to do something different. Now I don't know what he did wrong. I know it was something awful because he's still indulging in self-laceration three decades later, admitting that he couldn't even enjoy the post-Series celebrations because he hadn't contributed enough to the victory. But he has left me back where he started with his analysis. Either he tried to do things differently from what had worked, or he didn't get away with doing things the same way. Take your pick.

It might be unfair of me, but my biggest disappointment concerns something that isn't in the book. Experience is the best teacher, and certainly an intelligent man like Darling must have learned something from this flawed approach to the biggest game of his life. He had a chance to apply that lesson just two years later, when he got the call to pitch Game 7 of the NLCS at Dodger Stadium. He had pitched well in Game 3, facing super-hot Orel Hershiser and battling him to a 3-3 tie before leaving after six innings. Now they squared off again in Game 7.

Darling's final chapter here is a general summation of his post-1986 career, but he doesn't say a word about how he fared in nearly the same situation two years later. It wouldn't have taken much space, since it lasted just ten batters. The first two Dodgers smacked a single and a double, and Kirk Gibson's sacrifice fly scored a run. Darling struck out the next two batters, and that was the end of the good news. His second inning went: single, single, single (on a bunt to Darling), error, single. That was it; the inherited runners scored, Darling was saddled with six runs (four earned) in one-plus innings, and this time his teammates didn't get him off the hook.

I witnessed that debacle first-hand. It's still painful to me, and it's surely painful to Darling. If it took him thirty years to write about the time the team bailed him out, will he live long enough to tell us how he screwed up that one? I hope he does tell us; I look forward to reading all about it. I enjoy his analysis on television, and for the most part I enjoy his writing voice, especially when he's willing to zoom in on the truths underlying what we fans see only on the surface.