Ron Darling enjoyed the same glory as 24 other teammates on October 27, 1986, when the New York Mets completed an improbable comeback in the World Series. Following a 2-0 series deficit, the Mets rallied and triumphed over the Boston Red Sox in seven games.
However, as the Mets’ starting pitcher in a series-deciding Game 7, Darling was starting in the biggest game of his life on the most pressure-filled stage in baseball. And, despite the success he enjoyed throughout the year- and that series, going 1-1 with a 0.00 ERA in his first two outings — Darling wilted under the pressure. 30 years later, Darling’s self-frustration is detailed in his new book Game 7, 1986: Failure and Triumph in the Biggest Game of My Life.
As a Red Sox fan in his youth, growing up in Millbury, Massachusetts, Darling was ironically in a position to continue the World Series drought he hoped as a kid would end. After Mookie Wilson’s ground ball went through first baseman Bill Buckner’s glove, Darling’s journey to despair was set in motion.
— Michael Baron (@michaelgbaron) February 29, 2016
The agony of a disrupted routine is where Darling’s two-day adventure begins. Originally, Game 7 was scheduled for the night after Game 6, but a rainout put the Mets’ date with destiny on hold. For Darling, each minor detail of his life at the time is dissected and questioned; from him having to drive to the stadium for a rainout to his family sleeping on a futon that was delivered a year prior by Ray Romano.
Throughout the ordeal, Darling gives in-depth flashbacks of the Mets’ historic 1986 season. Darling was just 26 years old and self-admittedly naive to the culture of both the game and the Mets’ clubhouse. On a team full of talented but troubled players, addicted to the limelight of being an elite athlete in New York City, Darling’s main focus was growing as a pitcher. A then-career-best 15-6 record with a 2.81 ERA in the regular season endeared the right-hander to Mets fans.
However, Darling was not spared from the tabloids and he openly discusses the infamous fight with off-duty cops in Houston, resulting in him and teammates Bob Ojeda, Rick Aguilera, and Tim Teufel being arrested. Those punches and restraints were a physical embodiment of the emotions that went through Darling’s head as slowly but surely pitched the Mets out of a World Series crown.
— Joe Giglio (@JoeGiglioSports) April 4, 2016
Going through all 18 batters he faced, each at-bat was a fight for Darling. Whether it was the umpire not giving him close pitches or the inability to put away hitters with two strikes, Darling’s mind could not escape the doldrums of defeat. In particular, the Shea Stadium crowd with over 53,000 ravaging fans fell silent, which was the loudest effect a struggling pitcher could face.
When all was said and done, Darling tossed just 3.2 innings of six-hit, three-run ball with one walk and zero strikeouts.
“Where there was once joy and abandon and hope and infectious enthusiasm and all those good things, there was now gloom, doom, almost like somebody had died – and whoever it was, it felt like I’d killed him,” Darling wrote about his perception of the live crowd.
Those words are poetic since before the game, a somewhat paranoid Darling was notified of a death threat made against him. Yet, in his determination to overcome his lack of mental preparation, he blocked out a threat on his life to go pitch a game he considers the worst of his life.
What Darling offers in his book, however, is the mental journey of accepting defeat. While he felt like he let an entire organization down, in reality, he was a dramatic catalyst for one of New York’s most memorable championship victories.
Throughout the book, Darling offers his honest take on several of his ’86 teammates; from Darryl Strawberry to Dwight “Doc” Gooden. Even manager Davey Johnson, who Darling describes as somewhat cold and not sympathetic to the pitcher. The prevalence of drug use in the Mets’ clubhouse and it’s profound impact then and now is described and given justification as it was more of a way to pass the time than cheat the game.
It’s clear that it took Darling a long time to absorb his failure and process all the craziness surrounding the ’86 Mets. While the wound is still there, baseball immortality keeps the pain tolerable.
[Featured Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images]