Ron Darling prefers to blend in with the New York Mets, but with his Ivy League background, his celebrity life style, and his pitching exploits, the task is not an easy one. Darling, whose route to the major leagues included an undergraduate career at Yale, keeps finding himself in the baseball spotlight.
A stellar performance in the 1986 World Series finally lifted him out of the shadow of his more famous teammate, Dwight Gooden.
Last year after a slow start he won 10 of his final 12 decisions, sparking New York's too little, too late bid for another division title, until a late-September injury finished him for the season. And of course he's a key factor again this spring as the Mets launch their bid to regain the National League East championship they lost to St. Louis last year.
Darling's accomplishments are more than statistical, though. He has appeared on the cover of the chic magazine Gentleman's Quarterly; he is married to a former model and the father of a one-year-old son; he is finishing up a book; and he is part-owner of a New York City restaurant. He is handsome, well educated, and, with his $1 million salary, he is also rich.
``To a lot of people, I seem like a classy guy who wears good clothing, has a beautiful wife, goes to all these disco openings and parties, and just has everything under control,'' Darling says. ``But I have my days when I'm not under control, I don't attend disco openings, and I would rather eat at home.''
The image that follows him most relentlessly, though, is that of Ivy League intellectual.
``People have the perception of me as a clubhouse lawyer who stands around in his own little world, reads a book a day, and doesn't mix with anyone, but I've always felt proud of myself for adapting to whatever situation I'm in,'' he insists. ``Being bright doesn't mean you're arrogant and can't have a good time.''
Throughout his career, Darling has been accused of thinking too much on the mound and being too selective with his pitches.
During the pennant battles of the last two years, he was sometimes thought to be engaged in a war of the minds with Davey Johnson, his strategy-conscious manager.
``Davey has a computer, so that makes him a genius. I went to Yale, so I'm a genius. That's ridiculous,'' Darling protests.
Darling also plays down his emergence as a pitching star. ``I've improved a great deal, but I have a long way to go,'' he says. ``I didn't start pitching until a lot later than most of the other pitchers on the team.''
At Yale, where he majored in Asian and French history and is just short of his BA degree, Ron compiled a 25-8 pitching record. His most remembered moment, though, was a loss in May 1981, when he pitched 11 innings of no-hit ball against St. John's University in an NCAA playoff game, only to lose 1-0 in the 12th. It is still the longest no-hitter in NCAA history.
After college, Ron played one year in the Texas Rangers organization, then was traded to the Mets. He pitched two more years in the minors, moving up to the parent team at the tail end of the 1983 season.
Darling pitched well in his first full year of 1984 (12-9), but nobody paid much attention, because another young right-hander, Gooden, was launching his spectacular career by winning Rookie of the Year honors.
The next year Ron was even better (16-6), but so was Gooden, who won the Cy Young Award with a 24-4 season. And despite another fine performance in 1986 (15-6) he again took second billing to his teammate during the regular season.
Ron might have stayed relatively obscure, too, were it not for his role in the World Series. Called on to pitch the opening game because Gooden wasn't yet ready after the Mets' wild playoff victory over Houston, Darling dazzled the Boston Red Sox, although he lost 1-0 on an unearned run. In the fourth game he hurled seven shutout innings of a Mets victory. And with Gooden struggling, Darling returned to keep the Mets in Game 7, which they rallied to win.
``It was a good experience to pitch under that microscope,'' Darling notes. ``I've pitched in some important pressure situations, and that's bound to make you a better player.''
The playoff and World Series exposure along with Gooden's less than sensational 1986 performance (``only'' 17 regular-season victories and some tough outings in post-season play) combined to spread the spotlight around a bit among the other Met pitchers last season - which Darling says has been beneficial to them.
``When Dwight came down to earth, it helped all of us because we were already down here. It made him more human,'' Darling reflects. ``All of a sudden winning 15 games is a pretty good year, like it should be.''
Darling didn't even reach that total last year, due to a combination of his poor start and the thumb injury that sidelined him for the last two weeks. His 12 wins were still second on the team only to Gooden's 15, however - and of course the Mets are counting on even better production this season.
Despite his prominence, though, Ron doesn't consider himself a team leader - a role he thinks belongs more properly to everyday players like catcher Gary Carter and first baseman Keith Hernandez.
Darling has maintained a similar pragmatism over his entire career.
``I thought I'd have to go to graduate school and get a real job,'' he says with a smile as he reflects on his early days at Yale. By his sophomore year, though, his improving pitching skills and the promise of a lucrative living had already changed his outlook.
``I come from a family that has no money, and I had a chance to make a lot quickly,'' Darling says straightforwardly. He figures that he will earn at least $5 million in his remaining baseball days, and he estimates that by age 33 he will be retired from baseball and in law school.
For the present, Darling straddles two worlds.
``I like rapping with the guys and all the camaraderie and fraternity on the Mets,'' he says, but adds, ``What I do on my own time - the reading, studying, and expanding of my mind - has nothing to do with my work here.''
Of his academic plans, including the two courses he needs for his Yale degree (he left after his junior year), Darling admits, ``I can't wait to go back to school. I need to touch those people and have them touch me.''
At the same time, Darling is quick to recognize baseball's intellectual merits. ``I heard someone say `How can a guy that intelligent play baseball?' I say, `How can a guy that intelligent not want to play baseball?'
``I see a different kind of intelligence than at Yale - in the ways that pitchers set up hitters and hitters set up pitchers - but that doesn't make it any less appealing.''