"The Complete Game" by Ron Darling. Illustration by Nathan Gelgud, 2012.
The playoffs are underway, and what playoffs they’ve been so far. It was the first season of an extra wild card team, all the series in the first round went to the maximum five games, and ex-Phillie Raul Ibanez was the most beloved man in New York for a few days, where extra innings (and rain delays) have been keeping baseball fans up past their bedtimes for three weeks now.
Former Mets pitcher Ron Darling has been calling lots of the action, analyzing the game and kidding around during broadcasts. That insightful and conversational tone is captured in his memoir “The Complete Game,” which makes for great October reading. Each of its chapters covers an inning from his career as an up-and-comer at Yale, a key member in the Mets rotation, or as the pro in the broadcast booth. It should be mentioned here that the wonderful work that Darling, Gary Cohen, and the wily Keith Hernandez do in the SNY booth for the Mets all season has been giving fans of the Queens underdogs something to live for during the past few unfortunate seasons.
Darling also uses his memoir to treat a major aspect of the sport that wouldn’t find a comfortable home in the broadcast booth: the inevitable disappointments and sadness that come with being involved in the great game. There’s a melancholy that runs through the book, to which any baseball fan can relate. No matter how great the success, failure is always around the corner. Great player performances might take place in otherwise meaningless games. Divisions are won only to give way to disappointing outings in the playoffs. This might be best expressed in a chapter near the end of the book, where Darling describes a game he pitched when he was at Yale. Playing St. John’s, Darling took a no-hitter through eleven innings, a record for college pitchers. But the pitcher for St. John’s, Frank Viola (himself a future Met), was on his game too, and Yale couldn’t rack up a single run. Darling lost the game even though he says it was the best of his career.
Read on for more of Nathan's take on the game and the book.
How has baseball broken your heart?
Oh man, how hasn’t it? I became a big Mets fan after moving to New York, and that should tell you enough about baseball and heartbreak, but as a kid I jumped around a lot. I never picked the right teams. My most vivid childhood sports memory is of Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers, who could barely walk, winning Game One of the World Series with a pinch hit home run against the best relief pitcher in the game, Dennis Eckersley of the A’s. Trouble was, I was a huge Oakland fan. (My neighbor was too, and when I went over to his house to play the next day, I saw his bedroom door was smashed to smithereens. He’d taken his little league bat to it after the homer.)
Later, when I adopted the Pittsburgh Pirates, they went to the playoffs three years in a row (’90-’92) and lost every time to the despicable Atlanta Braves. Incidentally, I grew up in North Carolina, where the Braves were the team of choice for everyone around me. Now that I’m thinking about it, the first World Series I watched was in 1987, one year after the glorious and notorious ’86 Mets. So I just missed watching the team I love now win it all back then—it seems to be my destiny to miss out on success with my baseball fanship.
Why did you choose to illustrate this aspect of book?
The melancholy strain that runs throughout the book really jumped out at me. I probably identify more with losers in general, so the way Darling routinely touches notes of sadness, even in moments of victory, spoke to me. There’s a chapter in the book where he wins a big game, but the thing he’s most interested in is this brief moment where he almost lost all control. He came close to having a meltdown: he says he couldn’t even feel the seams on the ball, that it felt like a cue ball. I should say, too, that he never says “I’m going to tell you about sadness in this book.” It’s totally organic, just the way he looks at the game.