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A DESIRE TO EXCEL
Frank Deford
March 30, 1981
Ronnie Darling, Yale All-America baseball player, personifies the values that A. Bartlett Giamatti, school president and fan, extols
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March 30, 1981

A Desire To Excel

Ronnie Darling, Yale All-America baseball player, personifies the values that A. Bartlett Giamatti, school president and fan, extols

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Giamatti was a 40-year-old professor of English and comparative literature when Yale appointed him its 19th president on Oct. 14, 1978. He has never been an athlete, but like Ronnie Darling, he is a striking man, dark, with a beard that makes him resemble Shaikh Yamani, the oil minister of Saudi Arabia, if not quite the vintage Cornel Wilde. He smokes menthol cigarettes, which he waves about when animation or mimicry are called for, and he speaks so eloquently, in long embroidered sentences, that one has the impression he isn't so much talking extemporaneously as he is reading something he had earlier jotted down in his mind.

The irony of Giamatti's being castigated for calling for a re-evaluation of college athletics is that he's a true sports fan. "All I ever wanted to be president of was the American League," he quipped when Yale tapped him. And for all the cool logic and erudition he can apply to the broad subject of sport, he speaks in an intimate, wistful way when recalling his own college days, remembering his roommates who were athletes, their returning from practice and telling him of plays and games, camaraderie and coaches. "It's not without envy that I recall those things," he says, smiling at himself.

Indeed few of us, no matter how sane, no matter how successful in non-athletic endeavors, are ever totally free of such envy. The truth is that, above all, Ronnie Darling wants to be Ronnie Darling. He chose Yale, chose to be a genome college student, and has worked at it diligently, mingling with piano players and scholars and would-be lawyers. He's a Yale man through and through. He's even in love with a Yale senior who plans to attend law school this fall. Her name is Cathy Bui, and she's of Vietnamese descent, although she hails from Bethesda, Md.

But for all that Yale has meant to Ronnie Darling and for all that it might have changed him, he's still, foremost, a baseball player. In one way, Yale has changed nothing of him, and, that, perhaps, is all the more to Yale's credit.

Here's a vignette. Here's Ronnie Darling, in centerfield, frozen for a moment. It's the middle of February, but a freak warm-weather system has made it possible for the Yale varsity to practice outside on the frosted brown grass. No one can remember such a thing ever happening before. The Elis play a real intrasquad game. Ronnie Darling goes two innings on the mound, throwing about three-quarters speed. Now he's back in center, and finally, in at least some obeisance to the calendar, the late-afternoon air turns chilly and misty and a cold rain begins to drift upon the winter earth. "All right," Joe Benanto, the Yale coach, cries out, "last half inning."

An irritated voice comes in from center. "Hey!" it bellows. "Last inning! Last inning!" Ronnie Darling wants his ups, and never mind that it's February and you can hardly see through the lowering clouds. "Last inning! They were up first!"

"I've never seen anybody who wanted to play baseball as much as Ronnie," Benanto says. "Two years ago, one catcher quit and the other one got hurt, and all of a sudden we didn't have a catcher. So he comes running up to me. 'Hey, Coach, I've caught before,' he says. 'Let me catch.' Him! Behind the plate!"

This passion for playing is not good, either. "He can't do everything," says Lawlor of the Phillies. "I think he got real tired in the Cape League last summer, doing everything. If he'd just DH this spring when he isn't pitching...."

But Ronnie Darling can't stay in the dugout. He swears he won't have to throw that much from the outfield. And he says he has to work more on moving out there—"gliding, with my head up"—in case the team that drafts him wants him to be an outfielder.

He'd rarely pitched until Benanto turned to him as a freshman. Ronnie Darling had used his gun of an arm mostly from shortstop and center, but it appears that he's a natural on the mound. That first season at Yale, 1979, he worked mainly in relief. But in the finale Benanto started Ronnie Darling against Yale's major local rival, the University of New Haven, a perennial Division II playoff team.

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