Best First-Round Picks – #8

A reminder, here’s our methodology.

Best First-round Picks — #8

1981 – Ron Darling

Everyone has that girl (or guy—but I can’t keep changing pronouns, so I’m going with that girl, and just saying I believe you can be and love anyone who fulfills you. So anyways.).

Anyways, everyone has that girl. Probably the first one. The one that you saw, and your jaw dropped. You prayed, every night, if she’d just say yes to a date to you, you’d never sin again. You’d go to church every day. Twice a day. Uphill. Both ways. With the cross. The works.

You’re asking friends about her. Maybe driving by her house (but not in a stalker-ish way). Just for when she’s outside and sees you and wants to talk. Because that always happens, right?

Ok, so we’re talkin’ some major attention here.

Now pretend she’s the most popular girl in school. Honor roll. Lacrosse team. Class president. Voted “Best smile” and “Most likely to succeed” … all three years. And she volunteers in her spare time.

You finally ask her out. And she’s interested. And you’re floored because you’re … you. And she’s HER. But you have a date, and another date, and finally you’re going steady. You meet friends, have connections beyond connection, and can spend hours together just talking. You have a drawer at her place. You start to see all the flaws but the sparks and positives are so great, you could care less that she cuts to the punchline before you get the story out, and she could care less you’ve never seen a toothpick you won’t chew.

Then she meets your parents, and there’s a disconnect there that’s just so big that it’s one or the other.

And you’re from one of those families where Romeo and Juliet just doesn’t work, unless it ends like the play. The family is family. That’s how you were raised.

So off she goes. You both meet wonderful people. Have wonderful flings, full of passion and fun. Find love, get married, have kids.

You see her again, here and there, down through the years. You hug, maybe a kiss on the cheek. You glow a little when she does well, but also ache a bit too.

She always sparkles, but you never truly regret it because of the roads you might not have taken and all the girls you’d never have known—including the ONE—if you’d had her.

So that was Ron Darling and the Rangers.

To understand why, we have to understand who we’re talking about. At Yale, Darling began his college career for the Yale Bulldogs in the Ivy League as a position player, and did not pitch regularly until his sophomore season.

Once he began to pith, he became a different player—an ascendant one.

The Game

On May 21, 1981, Darling faced future Mets teammate Frank Viola, then of St. John’s University in an NCAA post-season game.

“It was the first time I’d ever seen this team deflated before we even got started,” Viola later told the New York Times.

Both had shutouts through 11. People were sprinting from seats to payphones (a novel concept, indeed), to let friends know what was happening).

“We would call some of the former players,” said (writer Jim) O’Connell, then a young AP reporter and recent St. John’s grad. “They were sitting in their offices in Manhattan working, and we’re telling them what’s going on.”

As Angell famously described it, the stands “hummed with ceaseless, nervous sounds of conversation and speculation—an impatience for the dénouement, and a fear of it, too.” Darling had a no-hitter through 11.

As the Times recap noted, though both pitchers’ counts were estimated to be nearing 170, neither viola nor Darling was slowing. “He didn’t get weak as the game went on,” Giordano said of Darling. “That was probably the most remarkable thing about that day.

As a side note, I have read many stories about the youthful college outings of the likes of such greats as Gooden, Koufax, Gibson, Seaver, and Ryan. They all have one thing in common, a constant refrain: “He had easily as good of stuff in the 9th as he did in the 1st.”

As the Times article said of the St. John’s game, one of the pitches that made him so alluring, beyond speed and control, was a nasty righthanded slider.

“St. John’s catcher Dan Giordano had faced Darling in the Cape Cod league the previous summer, and players had heard reports about him. But nothing truly prepared them.

“An unbelievable slider that broke like nothing any of us were accustomed to seeing.

Every inning I had to check the scoreboard to make sure it was still zero-zero,” Viola said. “Even though I was pitching well in my own right, it was like I was doing nothing.”

In the 12th inning, St. John’s broke up the no-hitter on a handle-hit single.

Fans and St. Johns players in the dugout rose, as one, and applauded. “I’ll never forget this as long as I live,” Darling recounted to SNY in 2010 during an anniversary special on the game. “The St. John’s team came up to the top step of the dugout and they gave me a standing ovation.”

They never managed another hit, then scored on a double-steal later that top half of 12 to beat Darling 1–0, as St. John’s reliever Eric Stampfl tagged in for an exhausted Viola and shut down Yale in the bottom of 12.

Darling’s performance remains the longest no-hitter in NCAA history. It is among the most storied college games in history, largely because of the two pitchers future profiles and real-time talent; it was the subject of a notable New Yorker story by Roger Angell, who attended the game with legendary Red Sox pitcher and longtime Yale coach “Smokey Joe” Wood.

 

“For 42 years I’ve been involved in baseball,” said Viola in 2012, “I’ve never seen a better-pitched game.”

The prospect

From the Yale Herald in 1999, this is a decent summary of the Darling the Rangers and baseball saw in the summers of 1980 and 1981:

On March 30, 1981, the baseball team took the field in front of a larger-than usual crowd to open the season against Holy Cross. The crowd had come to see pitcher-infielder Ron Darling, who had been featured just the week before in Sports Illustrated as one of the nation’s top prospects. Darling treated the crowd to a two-run blast in the seventh to give the Bulldogs a 4-1 win.

The Holy Cross game was just the beginning of what would be a phenomenal junior year for Darling. That season, he extended his complete-game streak to 25—a Yale record he still holds—en route to an Eastern Intercollegiate Baseball League championship. But it was the star’s sophomore year that first compelled many to argue he was Yale’s best ballplayer ever.

“His season was probably the greatest a Yale player has ever had as far as both pitching and hitting go,” Coach Joe Benato said at the time. Drafted directly out of high school, Darling chose to attend Yale because he wanted to improve. “I just didn’t think I was good enough [for professional baseball],” Darling said. In only his second year as a Bulldog, Darling set the school record for single-season batting average, batting a whopping .386, and racking up an 11-2 record with an incredible 1.31 ERA.

The summer after his breakout season, Darling was invited to play in the Cape Cod League, a division that draws top college players from all over the U.S. Despite facing tough competition, Darling continued to dominate, particularly as a hitter, accumulating a .336 batting average while driving in 26 runs. For his stellar performance, Darling was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player by the scouts and coaches.

So back to our analogy. The girl. THE girl. Everyone knows she’s the consensus #1 out there.

But there’s one thing. And it’s a big thing. Her dad. Her dad is a piece of work. He’s sent guys back shaken, bruised and broken, who tried to court her before.

And those are just the ones he sent back AT ALL.

Well, Ron Darling had that daddy in 1981. An agent. BE STILL MY HEART!

But remember, this is 1981. Free agency is basically five years old. Owners only began accepting PROVEN major league players bringing agents into negotiations as the 70s dawned. Now, at the edge of the ‘80s, Ron Darling had one, and a Yale education to go along with it. That’ a costly bargain.

Who’s walkin’ up that porch step with flowers, an open elbow crook, a smile, and no watch?

Eddie Chiles is who.

Who was Eddie Chiles? Well, a Texas oilman, but come 1981, you could throw a cow patty and hit three of them before it came down. What made Eddie different? Let’s let our staid friends from the times start us out:

“As a businessman, he shared his views in the late 1970’s, usually about some government affront to business, through a series of radio commercials in which he proclaimed, ‘I’m Eddie Chiles, and I’m mad.” The commercials were broadcast on 650 stations in 14 states where Western had operations and spawned almost a million bumper stickers reading, “I’m mad too, Eddie.”

In baseball he proved no less outspoken. He publicly chastised Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for his handling of the 1981 baseball strike and the next year he cast a critical vote that brought the commissioner’s tenure to an end.

As a hands-on owner, he streamlined the Rangers’ front office, eventually turning a money-losing operation into a profitable enterprise, largely, perhaps, because the team had one of the lowest payrolls in baseball.

Mounting losses in his oil business led Chiles to sell his 58 percent interest in the Rangers to a group headed by George W. Bush Jr. in March 1989, but not before Mr. Chiles had signed Nolan Ryan to a one-year, $2 million contract.”

Be honest: how many of you thought Rusty Rose and George W. signed Nolan…come on…

Anyways, Here’s the Texas Standard on Eddie Chiles; this is probably a bit more spot-on:

Chiles was a cantankerous, colorful, hard-nosed business man. He was politically to the right of Attila the Hun and ironically inspired by the liberal Hollywood movie, “Network,” and the crazed anchorman prophet, Howard Beale. Every night Beale would scream at the cameras, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Chiles liked Beale’s message. Beales validated Chiles’ frustration with big government. So he took to the radio waves with a similar message. He said simply, “I’m Eddie Chiles and I’m mad.” And then he would go off on a rant complaining about his three favorite topics: big government, big government, and big government.

So how’s a man like that to deal with a “punk” like Ron Darling hiring an eastern, elitist, liberal agent? Directly.

Eddie Chiles knew he could deal with Darling. He’d get to the kid. To hell with the agent. He’d sell the kid on Eddie’s vision. And as for money? Well, as his famed ad slogan went, “If you don’t have an oil well, get one.”

It turns out, he and GM Eddie Robinson did.

With the 9th pick of the 1981 draft, about eight slots lower than his talent warranted, the Rangers swiped Ron Darling, then a Yale junior but also about to be rich. Despite some strong negotiations, Ron signed with the Rangers and was assigned to Tulsa, as well as branded a top prospect and future star in waiting. Given the national hype around him, Chiles wish to make a splash, and his overall talent, the Rangers expected returns on Darling quickly.

They’d get them, just not as expected.

For Tulsa in 1981, Darling put up respectable numbers for a college kid coming into the most prospect-laden of levels in most teams’ minor league systems.

Here are his Tulsa key stats:

ERA IP WHIP H9 HR9 SO9 SO/W
4.44 71 1.479 9.1 0.5 6.7 1.61

As was more common for the time, he did finish two of his 13 starts, both shutouts.

Besides control struggles, he still handled himself as you’d expect of a 20-year old first-year minor-leaguer, facing players—on average—3 years older than he. There was nothing to indicate he wouldn’t advance fast in the system.

The Rangers didn’t see it this way. As this look back shows, they made the kind of move new owners often make to win now; they sold their future:

After the Rangers had posted the second-highest winning percentage in franchise history in the strike-shortened 1981 season, Robinson decided to shake up the offense, including a complete renovation of the outfield. Rookie George Wright took advantage of Mickey Rivers‘ knee injury a week into Spring Training play and won the center-field job. Robinson traded Al Oliver to Montreal on March 31 for rookie Dave Hostetler and third baseman Larry Parrish, whom Texas converted to a right fielder. The following day Robinson made the deal for Lee Mazzilli, a center fielder whom the Rangers intended to shift to left field.

Not all in the Rangers system were as blinded as Chiles to the allure of what Mazzilli had been. As Tom Grieve, then Klein’s assistant and a Mazzilli Mets’ teammate (and considered friend) four years earlier, recalled, he was skeptical. “Lee was a New York kid to the core,” said Grieve. “I thought he would be a productive player for us, but at the same time I knew right away he wasn’t going to like coming to Texas.”

Grieve had the right read. Mazzilli displayed flashes of his Met prime that spring in Florida, but he never got things right come the starting bell, hitting .241 with no power and looking lost in left field, which he was quick to label “an idiot’s position.” Four months after he’d arrived, Texas traded Mazzilli, who had been just a part-timer for Texas, to the Yankees for Bucky Dent.

Darling went the other direction.

Darling reached New York in 1983 and won 10 or more for the Mets every year from 1984 through 1989, going 86-52 with a 3.40 ERA through the end of the decade. Appropriately, he peaked in the Mets amazing 1986 run to the World Series, which led more than a few to label them the best team since at least World War II, on overall talent and depth.

Darling went 15–6 with a career-best 2.81 ERA (good for third in the NL) an finished fifth in NL Cy Young voting, which followed his breakout 1984 campaign (where he made his first and only All-Star team).

In the 1986 World Series, Darling anchored the Mets staff. Opening at Fenway against the Boston Red Sox, he allowed only a single unearned run in Game 1 but lost a hard-luck effort to Bruce Hurst. With the Mets in danger of falling into a 3–1 series deficit, Darling started Game 4 and extended his 0.00 ERA to 14 innings as the Mets won easily, 6–2. His worst start turned out to cost him the Series MVP to Ray Knight, but was enough to get him a ring. He was shaky into the fourth inning, giving up three runs on six hits without a strike out before being relieved. The Mets rallied to win their second World Championship. But his final World Series numbers were impressive:

ERA IP WHIP H9 HR9 SO9 SO/W
1.53 17.2 1.302 6.6 1 6.1 1.2

His peak was also the start of his downfall, although it was a gradual decline that never truly bottomed out despite some minor league assignments in the 1990s.

Darling went 136-116 in 14 years for three teams across 364 Major League starts. He put up the following career key stats:

ERA IP WHIP H9 HR9 SO9 SO/W
3.87 2360.1 1.335 8.6 0.9 6.1 1.76

At times, Darling struggled with control (leading the National League in walks in 1985) but he kept solid hits down enough that runs off him were generally still hard to come by. He was a smooth fielder, winning a Gold Glove in 1989, and a solid athlete and hitter, once hitting back to back home runs. Also, a badge of honor he held throughout his career: he always took the ball, and never had a trip to the disabled list.

Darling remains the only Ranger first-rounder to have won a World Series contest in the team’s near 50-year history. He was the one that we had, and let slip away.

Going deep for value

Besides Darling, only two first-rounders picked in ’81 became All-Stars: future A’s All-Star Mike Moore, selected first by Seattle out of Oral Roberts, and future Blue Jay World Series hero and team icon Joe Carter, selected second out of Wichita State.

Other notable picks include a Hall of Famer, Tony Gwynn, in baseball; and one in football, John Elway. Hall of Fame contenders and All-Stars included David Cone, Fred McGriff, Viola, Paul O’Neill, John Franco, Lenny Dykstra, and future Ranger great Mickey Tettleton.

 

Chris Connor
As a lifelong DFW resident, Chris Connor is a diehard Rangers fan, and worships at the altar of Arlington. Along with John Manaloor, he co-owns Shutdown Inning, and serves as Editor in Chief for SDI.
He holds a Bachelors of Science in Management and an MBA, both from UT-Dallas.
As a writer, he acknowledges that he’s never had a brilliance for brevity, but tries to meander to a meaningful point as he channels Faulkner. He believes the only things more beautiful than Ted Williams’ swing are Yosemite Valley at sunrise and his wife.
He lives with the latter, along with their beloved dog and quite tolerable cat, in Allen, Texas.

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