Ron Darling was a pretty good pitcher, although you might never know that listening to him work color commentary for the New York Mets. He sustains a level of modesty that would lead one to think he was a mere journeyman. He was not a great pitcher, although he did pitch some great games. He is, however, simply the best color commentator working baseball today. While he may not be a future hall-of-famer as an athlete, I expect he will make it to Cooperstown for his work covering the game.
In The Complete Game, Darling combines his experience as a player, his factual knowledge of the game and just enough personal, emotional content to give the narrative zest well beyond mere “information.” He lets all us non-pitchers know what it is all about up there on that hill, sixty feet six inches away from home plate, both physically, psychologically, and emotionally. His format is to sequence his chapters into innings, a bit of a cliché for baseball books. He uses specific innings from both his career as a pitcher and as a commentator to illustrate various aspects of pitching. In the chapter “First Inning: Getting Started,” for example, he writes about his first major league start.
There is plenty of information in the book, as one would expect. It was news to me (although, as a baseball fan for over 50 years, I suppose it should not have been) that pitchers were considered non-athletes by baseball people. Darling offers diverse examples of how pitchers prepare for their starts. One in particular naps! It was informative to learn how different baseball organizations go about training their pitchers, some trying to stamp all their mound talent with the same cookie cutter, others allowing for more individuality. It was enlightening to see how one encounter with the right coach could turn a career entirely around. And there is plenty more.
In addition to knowledge and observation, Darling offers some of himself as well. He does a great job of describing the experience of coming up to the majors for the first time, and the not-so-inviting demeanor of some of his teammates. Ron Hodges’ reaction stands out. He offers insight into both the jitters that pitchers must overcome and the experience of getting into a zone where everything works just as desired, and offers excellent examples of how that degree of focus can vanish in an instant. He tells moving personal tales in small doses. I was much taken with a story he relates of encountering his father on the field at the beginning of a crucial game. The best chapter, for me, was of his experience of an epic college game against Saint John’s, one that was immortalized by Roger Angell as perhaps the greatest college game ever played.
I wish Darling would write a true memoir. I would love to hear more about his childhood, his family, how he came to go to Yale, what it was like off the field being a major leaguer. I would like to hear more of his take on teammates, other baseball professionals, sports media, the impact of foreign substances on the game, and what he might have seen of that, how he went from being a player to becoming a top-level commentator. You won’t find that here. Maybe in some future work.
Each chapter ends with a summary of what happened in the focus-inning of that chapter. It seemed gratuitous and uninformative. Some editor must have though it was slick. It was annoying. But that is a very minor quibble.
I believe that Darling’s best written work lies ahead. He is an extraordinarily articulate and knowledgeable pro. That said, this is a good book, with solid, grounded information and insight, mixed with a bit of heart. A must, I would say, for any aspiring pitcher.