Tell Me When It's Over is an interview series in which we ask former athletes about the moment they knew their playing days were over. Today: Pitcher Ron Darling, one of 37 major leaguers in history born in Hawaii and the record holder, by far, for most major league seasons by a Yale University alum with 13: 8 1/2 with the Mets, 4 1/2 with the A's, and about two weeks with the Expos sandwiched in between.
Darling was a 1985 National League All-Star and a 1989 Gold Glove winner, though he also led the National League in errors by a pitcher in both 1986 and 1991. And he led the National League in walks in 1985 and the American League in starts in 1994, less than one full season before he was released by Oakland on Aug. 19, 1995, his 35th birthday.
But Darling is best known as a member of the 1986 New York Mets. He pitched 237 innings in the regular season, posting a 15-6 record with a 2.81 ERA, and started World Series Games 1, 4, and 7, walking away with a 1-1 record, a 1.53 ERA, and his only World Series ring. He is the author of The Complete Game: Reflections on Baseball and the Art of Pitching and raises money for diabetes research through the Ron Darling Foundation. He is an Emmy-winning television color analyst for SNY, working alongside broadcast partners Gary Cohen and 1986 Mets teammate Keith Hernandez.
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When I was 11 years old, I made the all-star team, which was only for 12-year-olds. And I remember that there was going to be a big brouhaha, not only with Little League Baseball but with the parents on the team who didn't want an 11-year-old to take the place of a 12-year-old. Then the other part of it is that when you're 11 playing with 12-year-olds, some want you to be there and some don't want you to be there. So that's the first time that I felt like, Wait a minute. I'm causing a lot of ruckus for just wanting to play shortstop on an all-star team. That was the first time that I felt like I was being singled out. Not in a great way, unfortunately.
If you grew up where I grew up—blue collar, working-class, Worcester, Massachusetts—Robert Gordon Orr was your hero. He did everything that your mom wanted you to be. He seemed smart, he was really good in athletics, and he was really kind to people. Now, not everyone can play hockey because of the cost of the gear. It was considered, when I was a kid, the expensive sport, because you had to pay for ice time, as opposed to just getting on a court and shooting. You had to buy equipment as opposed to having a glove. So I wouldn't say it was for kids of means, because it wasn't, but certainly the Darlings didn't have the means to outfit four boys in hockey gear.
For baseball I was a frontrunner when it came to role models. The first team that I fell in love with was the '67 Red Sox team, the Impossible Dream year, and anyone who followed that team loved Carl Yastrzemski. He had a September that very few people in the history of the game have had.
Carl played the outfield; I played the infield. He hit left-handed; I hit right-handed. During those days he was a chain smoker; I certainly wasn't [laughs]. And so he was just a different role model. Bobby Orr came from a small town and then he played for a Boston team. That made more sense to me than the potato farmer's son from Long Island with the funny batting stance.
I had heard so much noise about playing in the Ivy League: That's not the same as playing real baseball; once I got with the pros, I'd understand that my skills were not up to that level. And when you hear enough of that, even if you believe in yourself 99 percent, there's that one percent that creeps in a little bit. I think it's just human nature.
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October 1, 1985. It was a game that the Mets had to win. It was against St. Louis. We ended up winning 1-0. I pitched a good game against John Tudor. But I remember the next day when I came to the ballpark, Jay Horwitz, who's still the PR man of the Mets, came to me and said, "Listen, all the newspaper reporters want to speak to you." I said, "About what?" He said, "About last night."
That was the first time anyone wanted to speak to me the day after I pitched. They always wanted to speak to me after the game, but not the day after I pitched. So I sat down and they were like, "What's it feel like to be a major leaguer today?" I said, "Well, I thought I was a major leaguer yesterday." It was so overwhelming how everyone there just thought that now I was the cat's meow, that for some reason this one game would turn the switch to where now I was legitimate.
I think that's when the switch went off and I said, Boy, you know, I'm going to make a living with this.
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My best friend when I first came up was Ed Lynch, and they traded him to the Cubs during the '86 season, which he always equates to waking up on Christmas morning and going downstairs and it's not your family. So that was the light-bulb moment for me, when I went, Oh, I get it. I'm not going to be real friends. I'll be baseball friends, I'll be "let's go have a beer" friends, but I'm not investing myself in friendships here because you're just going to be disappointed over and over.
As far as guys getting released, yeah, there's absolutely that, when you can feel that the Grim Reaper's in the room. You can see the stars align. One of the guys is coming back. He's a second baseman. The aging second baseman is not playing. Well, you just know what's going to happen. Everyone knows it in the room, but it doesn't make it any better. And yeah, you don't want to talk to them. It's like a guy who has a no-hitter. Just leave him alone. Let him deal with this the way he wants to. If he comes to me, I certainly will be more than happy to put an arm around him, but I'm not going over there.
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This is the best way to illustrate what a ballplayer's life is like, late: I get released from the team. Called into the office with Tony La Russa on my birthday. He said, "I'm sorry to tell you we're going to let you go. We want you to stay on the DL, hang out with the team, but you're not going to pitch for the rest of the season." I said, "Well, one, I'm not going to go on the DL, because I've never been on the disabled list my whole career. I thought that was a badge of honor in this game." And then I said, "The other thing you can do is wish me a happy birthday." And he said, "Don't tell me it's your birthday." I said, "It is."
As I was leaving, the players were out at batting practice, so I dressed quickly. There was some shame in it for me, that here I am released and these guys are going to go out to battle again and I'm going to go home.
I didn't want to face anyone. I didn't want to shake hands. I didn't want to have the moment that I see all the great players have—and I certainly wasn't a great player—but where they break down emotionally. I didn't want to have that.
And so I kind of did my own walk of shame as I left the locker room and drove home. And on the way home I stopped. I got one of those tall-boy Bud Light beers, and I said, You know what? I'm going to celebrate this. I'm going to have a beer as I'm driving home. Sip the beer, relax, put the sun roof down, enjoy the sun. I'm going to get to my house, which is five minutes away, I'm going to see my family, and I'm going to be able to tell them, Hey, Daddy's home, and he's going to be home for good. In those days we used to celebrate by going to Benihana. My kids loved Benihana.
And when I got there, one of my sons was on his way to a sleepover, my other son was going to a play date, and my wife, who was a tennis player, a very competitive tennis player, was going to a weekend tennis match [laughs]. We had not planned anything for my birthday because ballplayers don't celebrate their birthday if they're summer birthdays, because you're playing that night.
So nothing had been planned for my birthday. The kids are doing their thing. My wife was doing her thing. And I just thought it was very funny that I had these notions of coming home and getting everyone together and going to Benihana and celebrating that I was going to be home.
And really no one cared [laughs] because they had their own life going on already because they had been used to a father, an absentee kind of guy, playing ball.
There's a Twilight Zone episode where there's a character who just cannot stand that people love to talk in the library. He's got to shush them all day long. I think the character's played by Burgess Meredith. And he wishes that everyone was gone so he could be free with his books to read and just be by himself because people just drive him nuts. And there's a calamitous kind of earthquake or something, and everyone falls through the crevices, and he is left by himself on the front steps of the library. And a big smile comes onto his face because he's surrounded by books, there's no people left and he's going to be able to read in silence. And an aftershock comes and knocks his glasses off and they break, which means he can't read, he can't see.
It certainly wasn't that, but you know what I'm getting at.
So everyone was gone, and it just wasn't going to be an event. This is just another day to everyone except me. And then the next day, I did what everyone does when it gets to the end of their career: They start to envision being home, swimming with the kids, barbecuing on July 4. I mean, simple, simple stuff.
And we had a big home in Danville, California, and the next day people were coming to the house, from the pool man to the lawn man to someone to fix the cabinets. And I just went, What the hell is going on here? Where did all these fucking people come from? I was like, This is a joke. I mean, I had this beautiful house, and I can't enjoy it because every room I go into someone's fixing something or mowing something or putting chlorine in something.
It was a good wake-up call.
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I think it was denial. I thought that my position on the ballclub was secure enough, despite a bad year. Who would release someone in August? I mean, how's that going to make a difference?
But now that I know baseball a little better, it certainly makes a difference. The whole thing is number of people, roster spots, who you can have and who you can take a look at. And now, in retrospect, I should've been a little more on top of it, but I wasn't.
I just thought that despite my poor record, I did everything you were supposed to do as a veteran pitcher as far as my due diligence about being ready to go, being mentally ready to go, competing. I just did not have what it took to compete on a winning level. In retrospect, it had to be just denial. I just didn't prepare for it. I'd seen it happen before, but I didn't think it was going to happen to me.
What happens is that the young guys start to look at you a little funny. And I don't know if they even know that they're doing it. But they start to look at you as an old person. And it doesn't matter if you're 22 or 42, if you're competing against me, well, we're even. But if you're not competing against me even, then what are you doing here? You're just standing in my way.
I took someone's job, and it looks like someone's going to take my job. And that hurts, but it's how the game goes. And if you're replaced by someone who's much better than you, then you can live with it. That's how it goes. But if you're replaced by someone who you think is marginal, then you know how more marginal you are. And that stings a little more.
You're an athlete your whole life, so you always trick yourself into believing that you're one start away, one at-bat away from getting it fixed again. And when you're in that position, I'm thinking, OK, I'm going to have five to seven more starts down the stretch. If I go on a little five-game winning streak, it changes my year, it changes my attitude. If I'm not going to be with Oakland next year, I'll be with someone else. I'll just catch on with someone else next year and figure it out.
There also was a part of me that had given some thought of going back to the Mets, because I had won 99 games there, and I thought it might be cool to win 100.
But I didn't see it. I just thought that somehow, someway I'd turn this around. And when they let me go, I was like, Well, wait a minute. This is a sign. They don't think I can turn it around. Maybe I don't belong in the uniform anymore.
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I could've gone to spring training with anyone the next season, and I chose not to, so that's a major decision. And I'm happy I made it, but I do feel jealous of those guys that the uniform kind of gets peeled off them. I get a little jealous of them, but I just don't have that in me. Just like those guys that stay in the minor leagues for 10, 12 years and then finally get their chance. I don't have that in me either. You have to have a certain kind of personality that I don't think I have.
I worked out that entire winter. At that point in my life, to tell you the truth, every year I was getting in better shape. Now, my arm wasn't responding, but as far as everything but my arm, as far as my body was concerned, I was in better shape when I was 35 than I was when I was 28. But I didn't have the arm left. So that whole winter I worked out like a maniac, and I was ready to go if I wanted to.
And I remember, my agent called and said, "Hey, listen. I'll make that call. I know there's a half dozen or so that—"
And I said, "I'll call you tomorrow," and never did. I'll call you tomorrow, and I never did [chuckles].
Then when teams went to camp, I thought I'd get the bug then and say, Listen, just get me somewhere March 1, and I'll figure it out. And February came, and I was like, Boy, this is great [laughs], I don't have to put the uniform on. Could I go win a job? Yeah, I could. Could I be in the major leagues? Yeah, I could, but the sting of being really inadequate was still there, and I think that's the hard part. Everyone but maybe Mike Mussina, Sandy Koufax, maybe a half dozen others, everyone leaves this game with a sour taste in his mouth, because at the end you're not good enough.
You're always trying to replace that feeling that you have as a professional athlete, and then you realize after two, three, four years that you're never going to replace it. There's nothing that's going to give you the same feeling you had jumping on the backs of your teammates or shaking hands after a win or any of those kinds of things. You're just not going to find it.
That's when I guess you say to yourself, OK, well, you know what? I've been blessed with a time. But now it's a new time. I think that's the hardest part for all ex-athletes is just figuring out, what can you do? What can you do other than play ball?
What happened to me is what happens to most guys: I wanted to be away from the game. The calendar had betrayed me. I thought the game betrayed me. It certainly didn't. The calendar did. So I didn't get that right. So I think what happens is that you go away from the game for two, three, four years, whatever it takes.
I mean, I'll hear stories when I'm doing the work I do now. I'll hear Gary say, "Well, in '96, you know, this and that," and I'm like, Holy shit. I have no idea what happened in '96. I did not follow a game. I did not watch a game. I would be hard-pressed to name any significant anything. The Colorado Rockies are a blur to me. I know they were great, but they're a blur to me because I wasn't paying attention.
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I always had this one mantra: that every time I step on the mound I give my team a better chance than the other team to win this game. And I always felt like, I don't care who I'm facing. I'm going to rise to the occasion. I'm going to give my team the best chance. Well, that was gone. And it's hard to live your life with a mantra when it goes, because now you become a bit of hypocrite if you decide to stick on. So suddenly, in the end, I couldn't look myself in the mirror and say, I gave my team the best chance. I gave them a chance, but not the best chance.
Rob Trucks spent 18 months talking to 49-year-olds, including Deadspin interviews with former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk and Dave Duerson. He will likely spend the rest of his life transcribing these conversations, while looking more and more like Burgess Meredith with each passing day. You may e-mail him at email@example.com. Theme music and video courtesy Steve Wynn.