Monday, October 27, 1986, was a crowning moment for the New York Mets organization and the start of 30 years of inner torment for Ron Darling.
Darling, the Mets’ then-26-year-old right-hander, was the scheduled starter in the decisive seventh game of the 1986 World Series against the Boston Red Sox. All the elements were there: Darling, born in Honolulu, Hawaii, grew up a Red Sox fan in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, and hadn’t allowed an earned run in two previous World Series starts; and he was coming off a regular season in which he went 15-6 with a 2.81 ERA, finishing fifth in the National League Cy Young award voting.
However, with rain threatening his start, everything in Darling’s life was a source of irritation. His visiting family crammed in his tiny Manhattan apartment; a car ride in his 1966 Mercedes 220 convertible with New York Times reporter Ira Berkow on the day of his start went against his mantra of staying secluded on gameday; Jay Horowitz, the Mets’ longtime press secretary, informed Darling that his presence was required at a press conference – causing Darling to snap at Horowitz in the Mets’ clubhouse.
Still, Darling had a job to prepare for, and the next day – after the rainout postponed Game 7 to Monday night – he didn’t perform up to his standards.
“The way my brain works, and everyone’s brain works different, is, you know, I was presented with an incredible opportunity and didn’t really come through with it,” Darling said in a phone interview about his outing. “It stuck in my craw, and I was a little angry by it and a little perplexed by it.”
The 55,032 fans at Shea Stadium on the cold Monday night were perplexed, too. After keeping the Red Sox scoreless in the first inning, Darling was victimized by the heart of Boston’s lineup in the second inning. Right fielder Dwight Evans and catcher Rich Gedman hit back-to-back home runs, and three batters later, third baseman Wade Boggs contributed an RBI single, giving Boston a commanding 3-0 lead.
After a scoreless third, Darling once again ran into trouble, hitting the leadoff batter Dave Henderson to start the fourth. Two batters later, manager Davey Johnson, with the Mets’ season on the line, pulled Darling from the game and brought in fellow Hawaiian Sid Fernandez. Darling’s final line was not pretty.
3.2 innings, 6 hits, 3 earned runs, 1 walk, 0 strikeouts.
All these years later, Darling continues to joke that the wrong Hawaiian-Born pitcher started the game.
“After I got pulled out of the game… my whole walk of shame… and not doing my job that particular day was replaced by the team winning, and no one was more joyous or happy or [more] ecstatic of the result,” Darling said of his teammates rallying to an 8-5 win to capture the team’s second World Series crown. “A day later, when we were in the parade, no one felt prouder or more part of the ballclub – despite my pitching – than I did.”
But the high of championship glory wore off and was replaced by self-loathing and second-guessing. In his Manhattan apartment on 33rd Street, Darling had a “sit in your apartment by yourself moment.” It was the formation of a 30-year dark cloud hovering over his head – much like the one that hovered over Shea Stadium the night he was supposed to start before the rain ruined it.
It’s natural for an athlete to feel down after failure, especially when it happens on baseball’s grandest stage. But at 55 years old, Darling is an accomplished major league pitcher, 21 years removed as an active player, and is a well-regarded color commentator on the Mets’ television home, SportsNet New York (SNY).
He still couldn’t find solace.
“I had three options, I figured,” Darling said. “Spend $150 an hour to have someone walk me through it, write a book about it…which would be cathartic for me … I was hoping, or… I didn’t come up with this but someone told me scotch could be an answer.”
— Michael Baron (@michaelgbaron) February 29, 2016
Darling chose to author his second book, Game 7, 1986: Failure and Triumph in the Biggest Game of My Life. Unsure if he could fill an entire book about his outing, the Yale University product dissects everything before, on, and after the day of his start. Batter-to-batter, moment-to-moment, Darling’s book is a like a bible on how to see the worst in everything as his performance in Game 7 collapsed, much like the guardrail down the first baseline in the second inning of that game.
“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 writes in the book.
But Darling’s career is not defined by that one start.
STILL AN IDOL
SNY colleague and fellow former Mets pitcher Nelson Figueroa was one of many New Yorker’s who grew up idolizing Darling. Growing up on the 16th floor at the O’Dwyer Gardens housing project in Coney Island, Brooklyn, Figueroa was a diehard Mets fan. He watched the 1986 World Series with his father Nelson Figueroa Sr. screaming at the television in frustration as Darling nearly blew the World Series.
However, Figueroa was nothing like this dad.
“I idolized him, so it was different [for me],” Figueroa said while describing his father as a typical, diehard New York sports fan. “For my dad, it was like ‘oh my god, he blew it! he blew it!’
Figueroa was so happy to see his favorite team win, he rushed to Macy’s on 151 W 34th Street in Manhattan – a surprise from his aunt — for a signing a few days later to meet Darling and catcher Gary Carter. He still has the ball – with the leather and stitching nearly disintegrated — Darling and Carter signed with their signatures still intact.
“He says it jokingly,” Figueroa said of Darling mentioning his Game 7 start in conversation. “You can always hear, when Ron talks about that moment, you can tell he feels that way as well. He blew his chance, his opportunity. But they were able to come back and win it all, he was a part of them winning that World Series.”
Figueroa joined SNY last year as a pre and postgame analyst, using his 20 years of professional experience to contribute a unique viewpoint. But Darling has been doing so for over a decade and has become just as much a mentor as he was an idol to Figueroa.
It came full-circle for Figueroa; 29 years after he watched Darling in the World Series, he was watching the Mets face the Kansas City Royals in last year’s World Series with Darling
“He’s so well-read and so verbose, he constantly pushes me,” Figueroa said of Darling’s influence on him as an announcer. “Much like his pitching, Darling’s announcing isn’t about being flashy; it’s not forcing yourself to throw a blazing fastball or throw out fancy words – it’s about being genuine. “It’s the way you come across in an interview, it’s the way you come across just talking with people – you can tell he was a smart baseball player.”
As a smart baseball player who despite a poor outing in the biggest game in his life resumed an above average career that translated over into the booth, that career change was the turning point for Darling to cope with failure.
Over the last decade-and-a-half, Darling’s seen a lot of individual and collective failures as an analyst. Perhaps no bigger than the Mets’ 8-1 loss to the Florida Marlins on September 30, 2007, and a 4-2 loss to Florida on September 28, 2008. Both of those losses came on the final day of the season, eliminating the Mets from playoff contention.
Seeing other athletes fail has shown Darling that bad outings aren’t limited to him – other athletes fail in big situations, too.
“Not only did that kind of help me with the incident [in Game 7], it helped me talk about athletes that struggle,” Darling said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, there’s a time you go through that. I think there’s two things you have to remember as an ex-ball player turned analyst; one, that you used to play and play at a high level and two, you can’t play anymore.
“I always try to preface my statements when a player is not playing well or struggling by saying that I know where he’s been, I’ve been in that dark place and this is the reason you’re in that dark place.”
The 1986 Mets are notorious for their drug use, partying, winning, and in some cases, tragic lives. Once heralded as the future of the team, guys like Lenny Dykstra, Dwight “Doc” Gooden, and Darryl Strawberry succumbed to drugs and life, compromising their careers. That makes Darling’s inner turmoil innocent by comparison, as it was an on-field demon that followed him for 30 years.
Earlier this season, the Mets celebrated the 30th anniversary of that championship squad, bringing back every living name for a grandiose ceremony. Darling’s catcher in Game 7 and Hall of Famer Gary Carter, coaches Bill Robinson and Vern Hoscheit, and general manager Frank Cashen are among 1986 Mets members that passed on.
Realizing those deaths was the only bitter part for Darling as he reconnected with former teammates. Some, like Wilson, whose groundball paved the way to Darling getting a third start, loved to overexaggerate the events of that season.
“Revisiting a lot of those lies, where every ball went a little farther and every hit was hit a little bit harder,” Wilson said about the ceremony.
But the meeting also had a sense of finality. For years, Darling talked ad nauseam about the team, its publicized party life, and his own shortcomings. Now, much like those who finish reading his book, he’s ready to close that chapter of his life.
“It’s done,” Darling said. “The 30 years are officially done, the memories are secure, they’re locked away and I think that to me is the greatest feeling.”
[Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images]