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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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Once I decided not to go into the draft out of high school, that really made up my mind for Yale, too. I mean, if I was going to get a college education, why not go for the best? Of course, Yale doesn't give athletic scholarships, so I was going to have to work to get through, and my father would have to pay part of the tuition. He said, "Don't worry, Ronnie, we'll get the money somehow." I've never been sorry for my decision.

When the new president of Yale, a sometime sportswriter and devoted baseball fan (Red Sox division) named A. Bartlett Giamatti, addressed the Association of Yale Alumni last spring, he selected as his topic for this significant occasion the subject of sports. "Yale cares enough to assert that athletics plays a vital part in the education of its young people and in the ongoing life of everyone else," he said. "As a sign of its commitment to athletics, Yale will treat athletics according to the same central educational values and with the same desire for excellence that it brings to other essential parts [of the university].... Let it go forth that there is a strong spirit at Yale, a strong spirit compounded of respect for the glories of mind and body striving in harmony."

Notwithstanding these noble sentiments, the speech irritated a good many alumni because Giamatti also suggested that college athletics were getting out of whack, even in the Ivy League. Says Giamatti, "I was supposed to have called for our athletics to be de-emphasized, a word I never used, any more than I ever would employ that vile phrase 'student-athlete.' " Indeed, those old Bulldogs who were so upset by their president's words might reread this part of the speech:

"I don't want there to be any doubt about what I believe. I think that winning is important. Winning has a joy and discrete purity to it that cannot be replaced by anything else. Winning is important to any man's or woman's sense of satisfaction and well-being. Winning is not everything, but it is something powerful, indeed beautiful, in itself, something as necessary to the strong spirit as striving is necessary to the healthy character."

Nonetheless, Ivy League—pardon, Ivy Group—presidents tend to be a little naive about the real world of college sports; it's a jungle out there. Except for regular pilgrimages to Fenway Park and two years as a young instructor at Princeton, Giamatti has been ensconced in the athletic abbey at New Haven since he arrived there as an undergraduate in 1956. It might, then, come as something of a surprise to Giamatti to learn that Yale alumni have made illegal tenders to Ronnie Darling. "You know," says Ronnie Darling: " 'Need anything, Ronnie?' 'Can we help you out at all, Ronnie?' 'Just let us know, Ronnie.' "

Yale men have done this? Yale men? He nods shyly. Firm proof: the human race is indeed going to hell in a hand basket.

But why you, Ronnie Darling? You're just a baseball player. Possibly we could comprehend, even forgive, Yale men tipping their football players. The Elis have won 709 football games, more than anyone, and victory has become a pleasant habit. But baseball?

"Everybody wants to win," says Ronnie Darling.

Yes, there is that. There is a joy and discrete purity to it. But there is more. Ronnie Darling is the closest thing to an athletic miraculist extant. Before last season, when Yale went 21-11 and he became a starting pitcher—15 appearances, 12 starts, 12 complete games, an 11-2 record, two saves, 1.31 ERA—the Elis hadn't won that many baseball games since 1948, when the captain was George (Good Field, No Hit) Bush. In fact, until last season Yale had gone 16 years without a winning baseball team. And it wasn't just that Yale had Ronnie Darling to pitch last season. The Elis also had Ronnie Darling to hit: a school-record .384 average and a .589 slugging percentage.

Yale has produced two Heisman Trophy winners and more football All-Americas than any other college. Almost 4% of all U.S. Olympians who have won gold medals have been Yale graduates. Walter Camp competed for Yale, as did Pudge Heffelfinger, Calvin Hill, Frank Merriwell, Tony Lavelli and Don Schollander. B.D. of Doonesbury played there. But this also is true: last spring Ronnie Darling had one of the greatest seasons a Yale athlete has ever had.

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