As soon as his eldest son was old enough for Little League, Ron Sr., now a supervisor in the machine shop, started coaching his baseball teams—and did so all the way through American Legion ball. Ron Sr. would give his namesake 100 ground balls and 100 swings every night. He was always there for his boys. He and Luciana never missed a practice, and even now they seldom miss one of Ron's starts at Shea Stadium or one of Charlie's at St. John's.
"Still," says Ron Jr., "the most important thing in my life, the thing that brought my family the most happiness, wasn't starting the first game of the World Series or winning the fourth game or being a first-round draft pick; it was the day that I was accepted at Yale."
It's hard to believe now, but Darling says of his undergraduate days, "I felt like a guy off the farm, without a social grace, who was always making a fool of himself. I was always one step behind in everything: Have you heard such and such a song? No. I was a year behind, unless they wanted to talk about Chuck Berry and The Coasters. How about this new film? I was a month behind. I was so shy, I didn't know how to ask a girl out on a date. I wanted to be a thespian, but I was too shy to go on stage. I'm still shy, only now people think that I'm snooty."
Darling had been a good quarterback, but at Yale they put him in the secondary. "I didn't want to be a defensive back, and my world was being opened to too many Other things. I didn't want to deny myself afternoon classes the entire year." He also began to grow physically with a little help from some weightlifting. "I went from 6 feet, 170, to 6'2½", 190, and when I went out for baseball that spring, I threw the hell out of the ball." Darling had mostly been a shortstop, but he became a pitcher as a sophomore and went 11-2 that year.
It was during his junior year at Yale that Darling lost an epic game to Frank Viola of St. John's University in the NCAA regionals, a game later immortalized by Roger Angell in The New Yorker. For 11 innings of the scoreless tie, Darling had a no-hitter, but he lost the game in the 12th on an error and a double steal. Darling probably would have been the very first pick in the 1981 amateur draft, but he wanted $150,000 to make it worth his while to leave Yale, which was too much for the pocketbook of the Seattle Mariners. The Rangers were willing, though, and took him as the No. 9 selection in the first round.
As a professional, Darling has had to cope with the Yalie label. "Immediately, there was the question of my dedication to baseball," he says. "People would say things like, 'Baseball isn't his priority.' Or 'He doesn't really like baseball.' That has always infuriated me. I love baseball. What was I taking those 100 ground balls and 100 swings for every night? Why was I in the bleachers, right where Carbo's homer went in that other sixth game? Why did I always stay up late when the Sox were on the Coast to watch Yaz bat against Nolan Ryan?"
That first professional summer, Darling made 13 appearances at Tulsa (4-2, 4.44 ERA). He went to the Rangers' camp the following spring. Manager Don Zimmer thought he needed only a couple of months of Triple A experience before he would be ready for the majors, but others in the organization ignored Zimmer. The Yalie was a disappointment to them. On April Fool's Day, 1982, in a trade the Rangers will long regret, Darling and pitcher Walt Terrell went to the Mets for Lee Mazzilli.
After two years at Tidewater, Darling made the club, and in 1984 he had a 12-9 record and a 3.81 ERA. But he was the other rookie on the club, because Dwight Gooden was 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA. In 1985 Darling went 16-6, and Gooden went 24-4 and won the Cy Young Award. Darling understood pitching in Gooden's shadow. What he didn't understand was that he was still the Yalie.
"What people didn't realize was that I had very little pitching experience. At first I thought I was a power pitcher, when I'm not at all. My biggest problem was throwing enough strikes. I was behind 2 and 0 too often. I walked too many and made the game too difficult. I didn't know how to pitch. I'm such a perfectionist that I let my temper get the best of me at times. It just took time."
Little doubt now remains about Darling's ability. Paparazzi flashbulbs and Gooden's presence can't obscure the fact that he is one of the premier pitchers in baseball. He has added a devastating split-finger to his moving 88-mph fastball, his curve and his slider. Not only was Darling picked to open the World Series for the Mets, but in Games 1 and 4 he did not allow an earned run. "We hadn't heard all that much about him," said Boston's Dwight Evans after Game 4, "but he's the Mets' best pitcher. A fearsome competitor."