When Ron Darling made his first start for the New York Mets on September 6, 1983 (a well-pitched 2-0 loss to the Phillies), he became the first Yale University alum in 23 years to reach the major leagues. His 13-year tenure also included stints in Montreal and Oakland, a Gold Glove Award in 1989 and, of course, a World Series ring from the Mets’ last championship in 1986. In 2006 Darling returned to the Mets as part of the Gary (Cohen), Keith (Hernandez) & Ron television broadcast team and won a “Best Sports Analyst” Emmy. Darling will be on the air for all three games of this weekend’s Subway Series and on August 19th, 15 years to the day of his release from the major leagues, he will celebrate his 50th birthday. As part of an ongoing book project, Voice contributor Rob Trucks has been interviewing 49-year-olds as they near their half-century birthdays, asking them to reflect on the milestone. What follows are Darling’s thoughts on reaching 50…
The big day itself
I’ve had to stop at least four different [people], from my wife to my mother to brothers, who are trying to set up a 50th birthday party. And I’m lucky. I have the excuse that I work in the summer. I tell everybody that I really don’t want to do anything, and the more I say, ‘No,’ the more I question that maybe there is some significance to this. Maybe turning 50 is more significant than I think. If I’m saying, ‘No,’ to everybody, then it has to be something different in my mind.
I think the countdown started, for me, two seasons ago, because Gary Cohen turned 50. And his wife got T-shirts and [it] was really sweet how big of a deal she made about it, and how excited he was that she had made a big deal about it, and that was the first time I was like, ‘Wow. They’re spending a lot of time on this. They’re very happy about this event that’s happening.’ And I know for myself, my own personality that I certainly wouldn’t want to spend it like that. I don’t want the hoopla. Like I told my kids about 10 years ago — they’re 23 and 16 — I said, ‘You know what? Let’s just have dinner together. You guys don’t have to get anything for my birthday.’ Well, they listened. They never get anything for my birthday (laughs).
We’ll see what happens this year. For a lot of people it’s a real significant time. I guess it is for me, too. Maybe when the season’s over. For baseball players — I’m not one anymore, but I live the life of a baseball player still — a lot of times you say, ‘Well, as soon as November comes, I’ll make sure I celebrate that.’ And that’ll probably be what it is for me.
Looking back at a life’s milestones
My oldest son was born six weeks premature, so we almost lost him a couple of times. And the best day was taking him home, back to New York from Florida. That was by far the best day. You have this little thing, and he was lying all yellow like babies that are born early . . . And bringing him home was the best day of my life.
35 is when I retired [from baseball] and for the next five years I felt old because I had gone, in a young man’s sport, from someone who was really good to someone who wasn’t very good anymore, so from 35 to 40 baseball left me with a feeling that I was an older person because I was too old for the game.
Every ballplayer I know does the same thing: they go to the golf course. They take vacations. July 4th becomes a day you can celebrate. So I did what every ballplayer did, and it was boring. Incredibly boring. It was like, ‘I don’t know how long I can do this.’ Having fun sucks, you know what I mean? (laughs) I mean, doing nothing, after a while, sucks. It really does.
Then around 40 I was rejuvenated…
I started working in this business in Los Angeles, living in LA, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is great. I have a young soul. I’m ready. Let’s go. I have more energy than people that are half my age.’ But the problem is that in TV, I’m always the oldest person. By far. Always. So when I started TV, at 40, was the first time they went, ‘Wow, you’re kind of old.’ Because in this room I’m the oldest person. I mean, in this building I’m the oldest person with our group. When I go do the games, everyone in the truck is like 28, 29, 30. They look at me like I’m ancient.
The early years
When I was a kid my grandmother had a cat and it’s favorite thing to do was to jump from the bureau onto your face in the middle of the night. Horrible. Lucky the cat made it. I don’t know how the cat made it. It’s funny. I’ve developed an allergy to cats. I don’t know if it’s psychosomatic or what.
I wanted to be an astronaut. Anyone my age — I’m from Boston — wanted to be one of two things, either an astronaut or Bobby Orr. Those were the only two things that everyone wanted to do where I grew up. Bobby Orr, because he fit the stereotype of what your Dad liked. You know, he was a gentleman, great athlete, girls loved him, and then for my generation, 7, 8, 9 years old, [men] went to the moon. Those guys were rock stars. It’s like, ‘Boy, I’d love to do that.’ So my father was in the Air Force and he said, ‘You know, son, you’re going to be about 6′ 4″. You can’t be an astronaut.’ I said, ‘What do you mean I can’t be an astronaut?’ He said, ‘Those guys are all like 5′ 8″. You can’t be any taller than that. You can’t fit in the capsule.’ Another dream gone.
Life outside the ballpark
Music is one of those things that I’ve started just because I wanted to be able to play guitar with my son. And because of the ravages of pitching 3,000 innings, my fingers don’t work the way they’re supposed to work, so my play is very pedestrian and that makes me sad. But that’s how it goes, you know. It’s not frustrating. I can’t be mad at my body. That’s what happened. I’m just sad because I would like to be able, as he improves, to keep up.
You know, there’s symmetry in life. My mother and father, neither of them graduated from high school. When I was in high school, my freshman year, I took freshman algebra. And my old man, without me knowing, took night classes in algebra so he’d be able to help me with my homework. So I guess that’s what I’m doing now with this music stuff is I just want to try to keep up so when he’s engaged in physically playing the guitar or talking about the guitar or writing songs that I’ll kind of understand what he’s doing.
The best ten years? Well, I’m hoping that they’re coming but right now I think from 10 to 20 were my favorite years. I had an idyllic family life, great parents, three younger brothers who adored me, thought I was the cat’s meow. Went to an amazing high school. Went to Yale between those years. Played in the Cape Cod League, which was the last time I had fun. Now we use that term loosely. The last time I had fun playing the sport, you know, because it was before I was a professional. Yeah, 10 to 20 was amazing, because it got real serious after that.
The big leagues
This is the honest to God’s truth, when I signed that contract, and I’ll never forget, it’s certainly not what they get now, but I was the number one pick for the Texas Rangers. The Seattle Mariners had come to me — they had the number one pick — and they said, ‘If you sign for $75,000 we’ll make you the number one pick.’ I said, ‘No, I know I can get more.’ Texas drafted me number nine, so I got more money and literally my thought was, ‘As soon as they find out I can’t play, this is going to pay for all the stuff I’m going to be able to do.’ That was the only thought that I had. And not that I didn’t have the chip on my shoulder to, you know, be an Ivy League guy who’s going to have a chance to make the major leagues. I had all that. But I also had the fall back plan.
I never felt like I had all the eggs in one basket until, you know, you swallow the pill. Once you swallow the pill you get that adrenaline feeling that you can only get from doing that. I know that I’ll never get that feeling again from anything I do. I will never get that. You don’t swallow it until you know you belong.
And I’ll tell you the exact date when I knew I belonged. ’84 I win a lot of games. ’85 I win 16 games but late in ’85 we had a game against the Cardinals. We were down three games. We had to play three games against them. We had to win the first game. I’m pitching. We win one to nothing. And after the game one of our players, Ray Knight, comes over and gives me a hug in the quiet moment after we’ve all been celebrating the first win. He gives me a hug and goes, ‘Welcome to the club.’ It was an interesting moment. You know, my first reaction was, ‘Boy, I thought I was already in the club,’ and my second was, ‘Wow, that’s good. That’s cool.’
Dealing with retirement
I think that what happens with athletes — almost all of them, except for a rare few — there’s a sense of entitlement that is given to you from such an early age. I remember Dennis Eckersley said to me once — and I didn’t get it when he first said it, but it’s so right — he goes, ‘I’ve been famous since I was 7.’ And when he said it, I kind of laughed, but it’s true. And so I think what happens is that, you know, I’ve had a life, and now I have to have another life. And in some ways, that’s what I think makes it difficult for former athletes.
We have to, at some point, not only redefine ourselves by who we’re going to be as we move into mid-life, but we also have to rediscover what kind of man we’ve become after the hiatus of being able to put it off.
You know, a guy when he’s 25, 28, he’s spending his time trying to buckle down and buy a house and make sure that things are taken care of. Well, all those things are put on the back burner if you’re an excellent athlete. You know, you worry about that later. So that, to me, is the hardest part of coming to 50 is that I’m working every day to try to redefine what I’m going to do. And I think I’ve found a nice niche.
I think I’m redefining who I am in the workplace, I think I’m redefining my relationships with people, and trying to rediscover what I’m going to be like as an older man. You know, what kind of person. Am I going to be kind? Am I going to be, you know, those kind of things which don’t come . . . I wouldn’t say they don’t come easy to me, but I want my next 20 years or 25 years to be an evolution in who I am, evolving into a more mature person so that when I’m 70 I’ll have so many things more to talk about other than my days playing with the Mets.
I think it’s easy to rest on your laurels, on what you used to be and what you used to do. That’s the easy road. The hard road is saying, ‘You know what? I’m more than that, and I’m going to show you.’ One important thing is that I used to play, but even more importantly is that I can’t play anymore so you have to keep that perspective. And the last thing I want to talk about are things that I used to do.