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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Pitching With Mister P

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

In the mid-80s, while I was off at boarding school, I got a letter from my mother. That wasn’t odd, but what was inside was. My mother had sent me a folded-up article she’d cut out of Cosmopolitan, and amended it with a sentiment more typical of her: Typical Cosmo bullshit, but thought you’d enjoy.

When I unfolded it, I understood — it was about Ron Darling. Darling was a mainstay of such magazines then, and why not? He was a young and handsome star pitcher for the Mets. To those qualities he added a handful of ineffable somethings — style, glamour, and ease with the bright lights. And he had an intriguing background, one not exactly standard for a professional ballplayer. For openers, he was the son of a Chinese-Hawaiian mother and a French-Canadian father, a proto-Benetton ethnic mix that made vaguely cringy references to “exotic good looks” de rigueur when he was written about outside of the sports pages. He spoke French and Chinese, and he’d studied French and Southeastern Asian history at Yale. If I’d told you back then that George Plimpton — he of the Paris Review bylines and the good-schools accent — was going to invent a fictional Mets ballplayer, you’d have expected a creation a lot more like Darling than Sidd Finch. Gary Carter gave Darling the nickname Mister P, short for Mister Perfect, and writers for Cosmo, GQ and other publications fell over themselves to agree.

Darling SI coverTwo baseball generations later, Darling is part of the mighty SNY triumvirate with Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez and a mainstay of postseason broadcasts. But something funny happened along the way. When you think of Hernandez, you draw a straight line between the mustachioed, vaguely piratical first baseman of the mid-80s and the raffish color guy he’s become. But that straight line isn’t as easy to draw with Darling. He’s thicker and grayer, true, but hey, aren’t we all? I think it’s that Darling invokes his career less frequently than Hernandez, typically discussing pitching mechanics and grips without grounding them in his own experiences. And when he does reference his own playing days, he’s generally self-deprecating about himself and his accomplishments. The odd effect is a Mets icon whose triumphant second act has somehow diminished his career instead of enhancing it.

But the Yale pedigree and the Mister P nickname led to a lot of mistaken assumptions to go with that typical Cosmo bullshit. Darling’s father, Ron Sr., was a foster kid who’d spent his childhood being passed around New England farm families. (The nickname R.J. is a back formation of “Ron Jr.”) He served with the Air Force and was stationed in Honolulu, where he met Luciana Mikini Aikala, a teenaged girl being raised by her grandmother because her mother had died in childbirth and her father had left home. Their son would call his parents “stray dogs,” adding that they were “perfect for each other.” When Darling was three, his father was discharged and a former foster family offered him a job in a machine shop in a mill town outside of Worcester. Darling grew up in Millbury, in a development of ranch houses built for servicemen returning from World War II. One of his favorite childhood memories was collecting garbage with his father and taking it to a pig farm — not exactly the stuff of Skull & Bones confessions.

Athletic prowess helped get him to Yale: The Darlings’ Millbury ranch house sat on an acre of land, where Ron Sr. built a baseball diamond. But that also required a lot of hard work, and not just Darling’s. His parents took extra jobs to send four boys to college, and expected that the results would meet their family’s high standards. Darling had been a standout high-school quarterback, but at Yale the job went to someone else and he was put in the secondary, which he disliked. He turned to baseball, where his coach saw his arm at shortstop and turned him into a pitcher. He went 11-2 as a sophomore; the next year, he faced Frank Viola of St. John’s in the NCAA regionals, pitching 11 no-hit innings before losing 1-0 in the 12th on a flurry of small but fatal misfortunes. Among those watching the game were Red Sox legend Smoky Joe Wood and New Yorker legend Roger Angell, who chronicled the Darling-Viola duel in 1981’s “The Web of the Game.”

Darling passed up his last year at Yale to sign with the Rangers; he became a Met, along with Walt Terrell, in an April 1982 trade for Lee Mazzilli. He was called up in September 1983, facing Joe Morgan, Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt as his first three enemy hitters. (Darling loves telling that story, but it’s usually Gary who notes that he struck out Morgan and Rose and got Schmidt to ground out.) The next year, he arrived for keeps, as did the Mets and their instant ace Dwight Gooden.

Gooden is one of the reasons Darling has been able to poor-mouth his career without getting called on it. When you’re pitching behind the best pitcher in baseball, it’s tough to get noticed, but cover Gooden’s blinding numbers and Darling’s shine pretty brightly. In ’85, he was 16-6 with a 2.90 ERA, and threw nine shutout innings in the fabled “clock game” against St. Louis, the one that turned when Darryl Strawberry homered off the Busch Stadium clock in the 11th. In ’86 he was 15-6 with a 2.81 ERA and a 1.53 ERA in three World Series starts, earning his ring by vanquishing the team he grew up rooting for — he’d been at Fenway for Carlton Fisk‘s legendary Game 6 walkoff. He had a deadly pickoff move (particularly for a right-hander) and was a superb fielder, winning a well-deserved Gold Glove in ’89. In all, Darling went 99-70 with a 3.50 ERA as a Met, which are pretty good numbers to plug into any rotation.

Darling GQ coverNot being mid-80s Gooden shouldn’t be a sin, but Darling also carried the perception that he could have achieved more than he did. Davey Johnson groused that he walked too many guys; fans groused that he got himself into trouble and wound up with too many no-decisions. Pro and amateur critics saw a common thread — that Darling was too smart and too much of a perfectionist for his own good.

Which was probably true. Darling’s combination of plus fastball, slider and curve was good enough to let him shove hitters around, but he wanted more than that. He wanted to befuddle them, working to arrange at-bats so they’d culminate in the perfect pitch put in the perfect location. Sometimes he’d make that pitch; other times, he’d outthink the hitter so thoroughly that he’d also outthink himself, or miss that perfect location by a fraction of an inch on a three-ball count. Later in his career, he added a split-fingered fastball to his repertoire, and arguably fell too in love with the new pitch, to the detriment of his secondary pitches. Darling wasn’t gifted with Noah Syndergaard‘s firepower, but he strikes me as a forerunner of Noah in one respect: He might have had a higher W-L percentage if he’d had a lower IQ.

Darling represents 1989 in our A Met for All Seasons series, which probably wouldn’t be his pick — he was 14-14 that year and stuck in a clubhouse undergoing a transition it wouldn’t survive, as the baton got fumbled in the handoff between the heroes of ’86 and a new generation of Mets. (Darling did become teammates with Viola, uniting the college adversaries from the game immortalized by Angell.) The next year he wound up in the bullpen and then under the knife, and as the 1991 season cratered the Mets traded him to the Expos for Tim Burke. Darling spent two weeks looking miserable in tricolor motley before being shipped to Oakland, where he won the 100th game that had cruelly eluded him as a Met. He started the final game before the ’94 strike and was released the next year, on his 35th birthday.

The upside of that was Darling avoided his first-ever trip to the disabled list, which was a point of pride for him; the downside was his career was over, and he had to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. He likes to tell a revealing story about coming home hoping to celebrate his newfound freedom with his family, only to find everyone was busy with play dates, tennis matches and other daily routines he knew nothing about. It was a surreal experience that showed him he’d spent years on scholarship while others made daily life work around him. Darling spent a few years decompressing from baseball, then came back to it as a broadcaster for the Nationals’ inaugural 2005 season. A year later, he moved to SNY. His early reviews as a broadcaster weren’t kind, but he worked doggedly at his new profession and was soon hailed as one of the best in the business.

In reaching that level, perhaps Darling has figured out what sometimes eluded him on the mound — that it’s not all on him. He’s the calm axis of the SNY booth, a vital balance point between Cohen’s rock-solid play-by-play and teed-up inquiries and Hernandez’s vortex of fascinating, maddening chaos. It’s a role where he can work deftly and efficiently to make both his partners better — the equivalent, perhaps, of picking a pitch meant to yield a grounder to short rather than a hitter frozen in horror at the plate. Maybe Darling runs down his own career because he sees now what he wishes he had seen then. But I hope he also sees that the lesson was learned — and that his resume is one to be proud of. Even by Darling family standards.

1962: Richie Ashburn
1963: Ron Hunt
1964: Rod Kanehl
1965: Ron Swoboda
1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1967: Al Schmelz
1968: Cleon Jones
1969: Donn Clendenon
1970: Tommie Agee
1971: Tom Seaver
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1974: Tug McGraw
1975: Mike Vail
1976: Mike Phillips
1977: Lenny Randle
1978: Craig Swan
1980: Lee Mazzilli
1981: Mookie Wilson
1982: Rusty Staub
1983: Darryl Strawberry
1985: Dwight Gooden
1986: Keith Hernandez
1987: Lenny Dykstra
1988: Gary Carter
1990: Gregg Jefferies
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1993: Joe Orsulak
1994: Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
1996: Rey Ordoñez
1997: Edgardo Alfonzo
1998: Todd Pratt
2000: Melvin Mora
2001: Mike Piazza
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2004: Joe Hietpas
2005: Pedro Martinez
2007: Jose Reyes
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2010: Ike Davis
2011: David Wright
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Wilmer Flores
2014: Jacob deGrom
2015: Michael Conforto
2016: Matt Harvey
2017: Paul Sewald
2018: Noah Syndergaard
2019: Dom Smith
2020: Pete Alonso

12 comments to Pitching With Mister P

  • Dave

    Well put, Jason. Despite Darling’s working class roots, he often pitched as though relying on crude physical strength and vulgar fastballs was not worthy of his Yale pedigree. He was very good, but often just tried to be too cute. His control wasn’t great early in his career, and by the standards of his day, he was the King of the No Decisions, because in a typical year, he only had about 3 or 4 complete games (like I said, by the standards of his day). But in the 80’s, Mets fans were allowed to judge harshly; he was a near-elite pitcher, we were just frustrated because we thought he could have been elite and been a 1A instead of a 2. All-Star, ROY and CY votes, Gold Glove (although McDowell was an even better fielder)…we were lucky to have him.

    Very glad that despite some stops elsewhere along the way, he’s a Mets lifer. He was very good at his craft then and is very good at his craft now, very smart (although you would think someone with a degree from Yale wouldn’t say “could have went” as he often does), nice guy, and back in the day my wife had quite the crush on him (which was fine because I thought his wife at the time was quite an eyeful herself). He is way overdue for induction in the Mets Hall of Fame, something I hope new management revives from its frequent dormancy. We love ya, RJ.

    • Darling, Alfonzo and Matlack were all announced as Mets HOFers for 2020 in January. Ceremonies were understandably postponed.

      • Dave

        Oh, missed that somehow (or completely forgot), that’s good news. Also overdue though are 2 more from RJ’s era, Hojo and Orosco. And his current coworker Gary, along with Howie. Mets HOF is way behind.

        And to confirm, yes I completely forgot. Because I commented on that article. Age does this to you…(shrug emoji)…

  • open the gates

    While the Darling-Burke trade doesn’t rank Top 10 on the Mets Trades from Hell list (hey, you can’t trade Ryan for Fregosi every day), it ranks as one of my personal disfavorites. After all, Ronnie was one of the best pitchers in Mets history, an integral part of their most recent World Series championship team, and he was traded for the first in a long line of Former Closers Who Stunk As Soon As They Became Mets. Yeccchhhh.

    • Lenny65

      Tim Burke…shudder. One of those guys who immediately pops into my head whenever bad Mets relief pitchers are the topic.

  • Bruce From Forest Hills

    Great. article. Some younger readers may not know some of the reasons that the Darling-Viola Yale-St John’s game is, perhaps, the most famous college baseball game in history. Not only was the game itself compelling. Not only was Roger Angell the best baseball writer ever (Sorry. You’re an excellent writer, but…). The game was played during the 1981 Major League Baseball strike. It was an oasis in a baseball desert.

  • eric1973

    Best thing during that strike was seeing Gary Rajsich make that Swoboda-style catch in LF.

  • APV

    I am a big fan of Ron’s these days, but I wasn’t during his playing days and to be honest, there was real personal animosity toward him. In 1986, 11-year-old me was down near the field for batting practice before a game against the Expos in August. Ray Knight flipped me a ball, which was awesome and made me an even bigger fan of him than I already was. Later in the BP session, I asked Ron nicely for an autograph and he refused in a somewhat rude way. Upset, I walked away and I heard him apologize, but I turned around, told him forget it, and kept walking. Two years later, after he got knocked out of the second inning of Game 7 against the Dodgers, I basically started screaming that he needed to be traded. I got my wish, but two-plus years later than I would have liked. And frankly, I thought good riddance to a POS.

    Fast-forward to early 2006. I was aware that SNY brought him on to join Gary and Keith, and based on hearsay about his work with the Nationals a year earlier thought this hiring was a potential disaster. Boy could I have not been more wrong. As the season went along, I found him to be very knowledgeable and pleasant, but willing to drop the hammer if need be (was still more of a Keith fan though). Then in September, I believe during the Dodger game where Jose Reyes hit an inside the park homer, the booth starts talking about the 1988 NLCS and I’m getting to ready to call Ron every expletive in the book. And then he talked about how much Game 7 bothered him to that very day and that he would probably never get over it. From that day on, Ron Darling the man was aye-okay in my book. And it enabled me to view his playing career in a better light too.

    The point about my interaction with Ron, or Ronnie as we all affectionately call him now, is that is more than ok to not forget a bad thing that has happened to you. But it’s also important to forgive. If I ever meet Ron Darling again, I will gladly tell him how big a fan I am of him now, and gently chide him about the road it took to get there. :)

    Thanks for this Jason. Been away from posting here for a while and basically took the season off after the Cespedes kerfluffle that coincided with the start of the Islanders’ playoff run. Here’s hoping that 20-plus MLB owners do the right thing tomorrow and approve Steve Cohen. It’s time for the Mets to have a run of real success again.

  • Steve

    I’ve been fortunate to meet Ron a few times now, though I doubt he would recognize me. I do have a favorite story from one meeting though…

    I was at PBI during spring training a bunch of years ago and Ron sat down next to me at a bar in the airport. I introduced myself and actually was planning to go to an event he was hosting at American Cut in Tribeca so asked him about it. This led to a short conversation about steakhouses and one of our mutual favorites on South Beach, Prime 112, as well as some other things we both enjoyed about the area.

  • open the gates

    Sorry to (briefly) change the subject. Just pointing out that Bill de Blasio is already one of the most despised NYC mayors of the last hundred years – there’s no need for him to cement that reputation by messing around with the Steve Cohen deal. One would think he has more important stuff on his plate now. Hey Mr. Mayor – hands off my Metsies, you jerk.

    Rant over, and my apologies to Mr. Darling.

  • eric1973

    Regarding Hojo being a candidate for the Mets HOF:

    I would nominate the fans sitting in the stands behind the First Base dugout who had to duck and dodge all his errant throws.

    We won nothing when he played 3B. In ’86, it was Knight at Third, and in ’88, it was Magadan, who had the smoothest hands and most accurate throws from 3B that I have ever seen.

    I always thought Magadan got the short shrift from the Mets. And what a pure hitter as well. Always thought he deserved more playing time, even over the great Mex sometimes in ’88.

  • Steve D

    Let’s please mark one of the greatest off the field moments in Mets history which just occurred. We are free of Mr. Fred Wilpon and the prospect of his son ruining 90% of our summers ad infinitum. I feel like Jimmy Stewart when he got his life back.