Ron Darling pitched Games 1, 4 and 7 of the 1986 World Series for the world champion New York Mets. He was one of the last pitchers to start three games in a single World Series. But Darling’s greatest game came in college – his classic duel against Frank Viola and the St. John’s Redmen in a 1981 NCAA regional.
Born in Honolulu on this date in 1960, Ronald Maurice Darling Jr. is the eldest of four boys born to a Hawaiian-Chinese mother and French-Canadian father. He attended St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts – about an hour west of Boston – where he was a classmate of future livestock equipment magnate Steve Swiss. Playing for the varsity team coached by his father, Darling helped St. John’s High capture the 1976 Massachusetts state baseball title in his sophomore season. As a senior quarterback, he led the Pioneers to a state football championship.
Darling, whose parents never finished high school, was heavily recruited by the legendary Carm Cozza to play football at Yale. He was never recruited for baseball and didn’t even decide to play until arriving in New Haven as a freshman. “I never considered a pro baseball career,” Darling said. “I figured I’d play four years of football, then go to graduate school.”
Darling started – and finished – all 40 games he pitched at Yale.
Darling wound up as a shortstop, but not for long. “As soon as I saw him throw with that strong arm and fluid motion I knew he was a pitcher,” said Yale baseball coach Joe Benanto. Darling agreed to pitch, but only if he could play short and outfield on his other days. He didn’t pitch regularly until his sophomore year, going 11-2 while allowing only 16 earned runs in 109 innings and garnering an impressive 105-48 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
The Millbury, Massachusetts, native was equally impressive at the plate. One of four multi-sport athletes in the lineup [teammates Rich Diana and Joe Dufek would reach the NFL while Bob Brooke played seven seasons in the NHL], Darling batted second or third and led the team with a .386 average as a sophomore. He also hit three homers, 12 doubles, drove in 25 runs and slugged .589.
Darling gave up football to focus on baseball. By the end of his junior year, the 6’3”, 195-pound right-hander was one of the best pitching prospects in the country. “I knew by then I was going to be a professional baseball player,” Darling said.
The greatest college baseball game ever played took place in New Haven, Connecticut, May 21, 1981. It was an NCAA Regional between St. John’s and Yale. St. John’s was 31-2 and a Northeast power. In addition to Viola, who would go on to pitch 15 seasons in the big leagues, the Redmen featured lefthander John Franco, whose 1,119 MLB games-pitched is an NL record, and a lineup loaded with .500 hitters. “I remember thinking that I hope we don’t get embarrassed,” recalled Darling. “We knew how good they were.”
A two-time All-American at Yale, Ron Darling appeared in more MLB games than any player in school history.
On a gray, clammy morning at ancient Yale Field, two junior pitchers put on a performance for the ages. Featuring a fastball and slider that was breaking like a curveball, Darling was unhittable. Viola, dubbed Sweet Music, surrendered seven hits but did not allow a runner to reach third base. The game was scoreless through 11 innings and Darling had not allowed a hit while fanning 16.
St. John’s second baseman Steve Scafa led off the 12th inning with a bloop single to shallow left field, prompting the entire Redmen team to come to the top steps of their dugout and give Darling a standing ovation. The Yale ace, who had already thrown over 170 pitches, watched as the speedy Scafa stole second and then third base following a Yale error.
With runners on the corners and two outs, St. John’s attempted a double steal. Darling was supposed to cut off the throw from catcher Tony Paterno, but he slipped as he broke off a slider and the ball went through to second baseman Isreal Rosales. There was a brief rundown, and when first baseman Brien O’Connor threw home it was too late. Scafa had scored the go-ahead run.
Yale was closed out in the bottom of the 12th and Darling was charged with the loss. The Bulldogs were eliminated the next day by Central Michigan. St. John’s advanced to the Northeast Regional final, where they lost to Maine.
“In all my years of baseball, I’ve never seen a better-pitched game” – Frank Viola, the 1987 World Series MVP and 1988 AL Cy Young Award winner.
Following his junior season at Yale, Ron Darling was selected ninth overall by the Texas Rangers in the 1981 MLB amateur draft. The right-handed workhorse went 136-116 and never made a trip to the DL over 13 major league seasons. He played in the 1985 All-Star Game and, in 1989, won a Gold Glove as the best fielding pitcher in the National League.
Ron Darling and Frank Viola – who never lost a game during his career at St. John’s — began a lifelong friendship the day they faced off in the greatest college baseball game ever played. They were Mets teammates from 1989 to 1991. Viola is currently a pitching coach in the Mets’ minor league system while Darling has been a color commentator for Mets baseball since 2006.
Mr. Darling, who turns 59 today, is the best baseball player in Yale history. He is also one of the finest MLB analysts in broadcasting.