In one Cape Cod game, after he had banged out a couple of hits, he came up again, and the catcher started chatting him up, ragging him. The kid behind the plate was mad; his club was getting whipped, and this Ivy Leaguer was largely responsible. Ronnie Darling got mad at himself for listening. "The guy was trying to get to me and, well, obviously he was." he says. But forcing himself to concentrate. Ronnie Darling lashed a double and then glared at the catcher from second base.
The next batter lined a hard single, a hit so solid the leftfielder came up with it on one bounce. The third-base coach called for Ronnie Darling to hold up at third, but he ran right through the sign and zeroed in on the catcher, who took the throw long before the baserunner arrived. Ronnie Darling slammed into the catcher, jarring the ball loose. As the two players lay in the dirt staring at each other, the catcher finally broke a smile. "I knew he admired me then," Ronnie Darling says.
Ronnie Darling comes from circumstances that are modest, both financially and academically. Ron Sr., for many years an enlisted man in the Air Force, is now foreman of a machine shop in Worcester. Massachusetts, which Ronnie and everybody else who has ever lived there always refer to as Wustermass, as if it were some obscure church holiday. The Darlings have lived in Wustermass since Ronnie Darling was six. He'd been born and raised to that age in Hawaii, where the Air Force had sent Ron Sr. and where he'd met and married Luciana Mikina Aikala.
Neither Ron nor Luciana was reared by natural parents. He grew up in several foster homes in northeastern Vermont, being shifted from farm to farm to help out at harvesttime. A superb athlete, Ron was offered two college scholarships. But he "knew it all" and joined the service instead. Mrs. Aikala died while delivering Luciana. Her father, unable to care for the baby himself, left her to the rather desultory upbringing of relatives. As soon as she fell in love, Luciana married the haole from far-off" New England. When she bore Ronnie, she was only 18.
Luciana stands but 5'3", and one can imagine her as a Lorna Doone, blocked out from the sun by her giant kinsmen. Not only are both her Rons 6'3", but Eddie, 19, is 6'5", 230; Brian, 14, stands nearly 6'4": and Charlie, at 12, bears all the earmarks of good size.
The Darling brothers are all fine athletes. Eddie, a first baseman with a fast bat, left St. Leo's College in Florida and was selected in the second round by the Yankees in the draft this January. So far Brian and Charlie look more like basketball prospects.
Yale plays 33 intercollegiate sports, more than any other college in America. However, for all practical purposes, the Eli athletic program amounts to football and 32 other activities in which the score is kept. Consequently, a great deal of effort was made to woo Ronnie Darling away from the diamond and over to the gridiron, where he had been a high school star. As a freshman, he was a quarterback and a monster back, whatever that is, but it doesn't matter, because he abandoned football altogether at the end of the season.
Baseball had been Ronnie Darling's great love, starting when he was five or six. Every night, no matter how tired Ron Sr. was, he'd hit Ronnie Darling 100 ground balls and throw him 100 pitches. Of course, this could easily have led to an unhealthy emphasis on sports, had the father also not urged his son to apply himself in other ways. "All I want to do when I sign is give my father something." Ronnie Darling says. "I know he won't take any money, but I have to give him something."
When it came time for Ronnie Darling to decide on a college, the sun-kissed baseball universities of the South and Southwest couldn't turn his head. "When you got down to it, it just seemed as if they were all dormitories," he says. "Then, when I first visited New Haven, it was a rainy, dreary day, and I thought, this must be sort of what London's like. It reminded me of Sherlock Holmes, and I wanted to be a part of that. Until last summer, when I played on the Cape, I had gotten well-paid construction jobs in the summer, so I won't have too big a loan to pay off when I leave Yale. You can do it if it matters to you."
Giamatti: "I believe a kid suffers if he's brought to any institution as an athlete. If the initial contact is athletic—especially, of course, if it involves depredatory alumni—then the fundamental reason for the student to be at the university is obscured. It is so crucial to shape the primary identification with a place. We always come back to the basic question: Why give scholarships to athletes at all? To me, the business of setting up quotas—and that's exactly what athletic scholarships are, quotas—is bizarre."