Boston Sports Day

Books: Ron Darling On The 1986 Mets

Ron Darling, with Daniel Paisner

Game 7, 1986: Failure and Triumph in the Biggest Game of My Life

St. Martin’s Press

Ron Darling, former star pitcher  and current broadcaster for the Mets, is out with a new book looking at his start in Game 7 of the 1986 World Series.

This is not a traditional sports book, in the sense that Darling did not pitch well in Game 7, and he is very revealing about how he thought that night as the Mets came back to win that game and the World Series over the Boston Red Sox.

Most athletes would not be so secure that they can write a book about a game they felt they failed in.

“Game 7, 1986” is very well constructed because Darling goes pitch-by-pitch in the game, based on his memory and watching it now, with his wealth of knowledge from his career as an analyst on television.

Darling also mixes in plenty of anecdotes on his teammates Keith Hernandez, who he broadcasts Mets games with on SNY, Gary Carter, Darryl Strawberry, Doc Gooden, Lenny Dykstra, Jesse Orosco, and Manager Davey Johnson.

Darling wrote of what Carter meant to the Mets in December 1984, “It was an all-in type moment for the Mets. We’d traded for the best first baseman in the game the year before, in Keith Hernandez; we’d had our first full season with the most exciting young player in the game, in Darryl Strawberry; and we’d just witnessed one of the most sparkling debut seasons by a rookie pitcher in a generation, in Dwight Gooden.

“We needed a big bat, and an experienced catcher to handle our young pitching staff and drive our team to the next level, and we needed these things right away.

“The feeling in the front office was that Gary Carter fit the bill on both fronts. And he did – absolutely, he did – only it took some of us players awhile to acknowledge this. You see, Gary Carter came with a reputation. his Montreal teammates called him Camera Carter – not the most flattering nickname, but he was a bit of a showboat. If he was still alive to defend himself, I don’t think Gary would even bother to argue this point. He loved the spotlight. As a catcher, as a cleanup hitter, he appeared to relish in the way the game ran through him. ”

In going through Game 7, there was a big play Keith Hernandez made where he made a great play on a throw from Ray Knight in the top of the seventh, and this is where he describes how good a player Hernandez was:

“I don’t think there was another first baseman in the game who could have scooped a ball like that so effortlessly, but we were all so used to Keith’s prowess by this point we didn’t think anything of it as he made the play. It takes watching the replay in slow motion to appreciate the enduring impact Keith had on this game, on both sides of the ball. He’d gotten the big hit in the bottom of the sixth to set the stadium rocking, and here he made this sweet pick in the top of the seventh to keep the energy on our side, but he did it so efficiently, so gracefully it was easy not to notice.

“This is as good a spot as any to reflect on the many gifts of my friend and uniquely talented teammate Keith Hernandez – Mex, to his teammates. Just so you know, no one else in baseball would have made this play  – at least, not with any regularity or certainty. But Keith was cut a whole different way from other first basemen of his generation. He was separate and apart, above and beyond. He was, hands down, the single best all-around player I ever played with or against. He wasn’t especially fast, but there was a quickness about him, a fluidity in the way he covered all that ground around first base that made his movements appear almost balletic. He had such perfect control of his body that when he dove for a ball he’d not only make the play but he’d be in a position to spring back to his feet and be ready to throw, or charge toward second, or perform whatever follow-up movement was required.

“He was just one of those guys you knew would find a way to execute. Big plays always seemed to find his glove – and, more than that, he changed the way the game was played. He was the most aggressive defensive player I’ve ever seen, in all my years in the game.”

Darling wrote of his motivation to put this together for the 30th anniversary of the championship season, “Like a lot of former ballplayers’ time in the sun, mine was marked by a moment, a game, a streak, a season. For me, those sun-drenched benchmarks found me as a member of the 1986 New York Mets, a championship team that stamped my time in the game, and yet I was never much interested in writing about that one wondrous season, mainly because I wasn’t much interested in telling the wild stories people seemed to want to hear.

“We made a lot of headlines that year, and in all the years since. Some of the noise we made had to do with baseball, but a lot of it was just noise. When you’re young and stupid and on top of your game, you find ways of convincing yourself you’ll always be young and stupid and on top of your game. You stick your chest out, you strut, because you’ve been conditioned to stick your chest out, to strut. You move without thinking, make a lot of decisions you’d like to take back, tell yourself the baseball part can be switched to autopilot while you and your teammates find a bunch of new ways to enjoy the ride.

“And so the ‘bad boy’ image that attached to that team wasn’t something I cared to perpetuate. I’d lived it – I didn’t need to revisit it. Whatever happened outside the lines that year was for me and my teammates – youthful misadventures to file away and maybe even forget – but what happened inside the lines was certainly something special, something to be cherished and considered.”

Darling writes about growing up in Massachusetts and being a huge Red Sox fan. He fell in love with baseball because of the 1967 “Impossilble Dream” season and stars like Carl Yastrzemski. He was a fan of the 1975 team that went to the World Series and lost that classic series to the Cincinnati Reds, and how players on that team like Jim Rice were still around in 1986.

Darling gives insight into the mindset of baseball fans based on which team they root for and how that related to him being a Red Sox fan growing up: “Baseball touches you in fundamental ways. it does. Your first taste of the game becomes an abiding memory, meaning, the way you’re wired as a kid becomes the way you’re hard-wired ever after. A lifelong Cubs fan looks out at the world in a certain way, always hoping for the best while somehow bracing for the worst. A lifelong Yankees fan takes an inverse approach, expecting the best and never quite accepting anything less. A Cardinals fan, say, might go through life doing just enough to get and keep ahead, in ever-changing ways – and, he’ll love his Cardinals players, no matter what.

“For the longest time – indeed, for the whole of my growing up – the lot of the card-carrying Red Sox fan was to fall in line somewhere toward the back. We didn’t tempt fate, we accepted it. We were good enough to dream, but not nearly good enough to get it done. Not even close. And we loved our players, too, just enough to overlook their flaws, their missteps. It was okay for one of us to ride one of our own, but God help the enemy fan who talked trash about our beloved Sox.

“Consider: the Red Sox hadn’t had a winning season since 1958, hadn’t been to the World Series since 1946, hadn’t won the World Series since 1918, and by the time I came along they were in the cellar. Every year, they’d finished last, or next to last, or damn near next to last; every year the diehards would drift from the stadium, attendance dropping in lockstep with the Red Sox in the standings – the law of diminishing returns on full display. There were no pink baseball caps dotting the Fenway crowd, the way you’ll see today, no full family outings, no Neil Diamond anthems pulsing on the stadium sound system – just a bunch of guys names Sully, swigging a bunch of beers and cheering on their Sawx.

The running theme in the whole book, which Darling rounds back to, is all the thoughts he has had about his Game 7 performance, and even gives the line score to emphasize it: 3.2 innings, 6 hits, 3 runs, 3 earned runs, 1 walk, no strikeouts.

This is one of his best passages Darling writes, a kind-of “what if” therapy session, “Now, as I write this, I’ve had thirty years to deal with the disappointment of my Game 7 performance. From time to time, I’ve caught myself wondering if, in an alternate universe, my life and career might have played out differently had this game played out in some other way. if we ended up losing that game on the back of my performance, I have to think it would have shortened my time in New York. Mets fans wouldn’t remember my tenure with quite the same levels of warmth and good cheer. And then, on the flip side of that, if I’d managed to put together another dominant start and set us up to win the series going away, then maybe my career would have taken on a whole new flavor. Maybe it would have elevated me to the kind of platform Madison Bumgarner now occupies in the minds of San Francisco Giants fans, after giving up just one run in twenty-one innings against the Kansas City Royals in the 2014 World Series – a postseason performance for all time. Maybe I would have supplanted Doc Gooden as the ace of our staff, and gotten Davey Johnson to stop riding me once and for all.

“All I know is I’ve had thirty years to rethink my approach and kick myself in the ass. Thirty years to chase the dogged nightmare of what might have been and focus instead on the beautiful dream of what there was instead. Thirty years to turn the memory of that World Series from bittersweet to just plain sweet. And I’m still working on it.”

This is a must-read for any Mets fan who was around to witness Darling and his teammates win the World Series in 1986, or younger fans that know him from his great work with Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez on SNY. Darling has a brilliant baseball mind, and it shines in this work.

 

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