Day 24: 30 baseball books in 30 days of April, ’09: It’s a somewhat daring title for Darling, but he delivers, right on Media Column Friday

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The book: “The Complete Game: Reflections on Baseball, Pitching and Life on the Mound”

The author: Ron Darling

How to find it: Knopf, 288 pages, $24.95

Where we’d go looking for it: Amazon has it (linked here)

The scoop: I got my first hint of Darling’s ability to recall detail last October, when I talked to him about the 1988 Dodgers-Mets National League Championship Series — where, as the ace of the New York staff, he was pinch running in the 12th inning of Game 4, then getting knocked around by the Dodger lineup in the decisive Game 7, where Orel Hershiser again grabbed the headlines, and Darling was left taking the loss.

“It was my total and utter disaster,” Darling recalled. “You think that all athletes want to do is recount great moments in their careers, and the older we are the better we were.

“I’m haunted by that seventh game to this day. It’s like a golfer who just had to hit a three-foot putt to make it to the U.S Open. Every pitcher wants to pitch in the seventh game of a series. But since I’m a guy who has spent much more of my life thinking about my struggles and failures than any great moments, this one won’t go away.


“The last thing I remember from that Game 7 loss was getting on the team bus in L.A., and my family was sitting in the front row waiting for me. I went straight to the back row. My wife had to yell at me to come up to see them. I walked right past them and never saw them.”

On page 219 of his book, he spends only a paragraph recalling that series at the end of a chapter that he recalls beating Philadelphia on Sept. 22 to clinch the NL East:

“As sweet as this moment was … it tourned sour on me soon enough, and I suppose that’s the great lesson of the game. We couldn’t fight our way past the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, and I was no help at all. I had the ball for a deciding Game 7 at Dodger Stadium but I couldn’t get out of the second inning. Hell, I couldn’t even get an out in the second inning. I left with the Mets down 6-0 and that’s how it ended. So when I reach back to that 1988 season, I rarely catch myself thinking of that clinching game against Philadelphia. I think instead about the series that got away from us as a result of my bad outing. I think about what might have been. What had been a moment to behold might have been a championship in the making — but in true baseball fashion, it evaporated in no time at all.”

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The Yale grad with a 13-year MLB career that produced 136 victories now does his talking for the local New York market, as well as TBS. Now he’s got a chance to clear his throat with a number of subjects: Pitching through adversity, the fear and doubt a hurler can have when he loses focus, pregame rituals, retaliation against opposing hitters, respect for teammates.

Maybe the essence of the book comes with the 20 pages he dedicates to a Mets-Angels game he covered in June, 2008 — when Mets manager Willie Randolph’s job was hanging by a thread. Here’s the game recap (linked here) Darling focuses on the events of the bottom of the seventh, New York leading 8-3, and Mets starter Mike Pelfrey is facing the 7-8-9 hitters. Darling goes through Randolph’s decision to go righty-lefty-righty with his pitchers as the Angels start chipping away at the lead, but ends with Aaron Heilman striking out Vlad Guerrero and Torii Hunter to end the threat with the Mets hanging into an 8-6 lead.

“It wouldn’t be enough to save Willie Randolph’s job,” Darling writes, “but it was enough to keep the Mets in the game. I don’t think any inning like this would have played out in quite the same way back when I was pitching, but the game has changed. Relief pitchers are asked to do less, but at the same time, what they’re asked to do matters more. This particular seventh inning, which took place in the swirl of all kinds of controversy and uncertainty, stands as a case in point and a full-on reminder that results on the field don’t always match our expectations in the dugout — or the front office.”

Another painful memory at Dodger Stadium: Darling writes about a game he pitched for the Mets in August, 1990, when he’d been banished to the bullpen — less than two years after he was the team ace. It’s the 14th inning, the Mets are still trying to make the playoffs. Jose Gonzalez tagged him for a walk-off home run.
“Just like that, we were done. More to the point, I was done,” Darling wrote.
Soon, it was 9:30 p.m., about four hours after he’d given up the home run, and he was still in the Dodger Stadium visiting clubhouse, drinking beer after beer.

How it goes down in the scorebook: A mind-opening experience, from an Ivy League thinker. It’s the kind of book you’ll expect to see Greg Maddux write in about five years.

Darling’s appearance on April 14 on “The Daily Show” with big Mets fan Jon Stewart:

Q from Stewart: “Should a ballpark have great food? That’s a delimina in my mind. My experience at the ballpark: You go there, the food was cheap, not good and it made you feel bad and that added, to me, to the experience.”
A from Darling: “I’m from the school, a beer and hot dog, that’s is all I need at a ballgame. Now they have everything at Citi Field and I think it’s just a distraction. … If the Mets lose, What happened at the game? I don’t know, I’m full.”

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