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Jim Murray

He's the Darling, Not Sweetheart, of the Big Apple

May 18, 1986|JIM MURRAY

There used to be axioms in Hollywood: Never make a picture with a dog. Never tap dance with Shirley Temple. Don't do a scene with Bette Davis if she's smoking, or Betty Grable in tights, or Spencer Tracy playing a priest.

It was not too good to play an Indian in a John Wayne movie, either, or a Japanese admiral in one of Errol Flynn's.

The world of sports had its don'ts, too. It was not advisable to play third base in the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance combination. It was not too felicitous to play in the same outfield with Babe Ruth or the same infield with Jackie Robinson.

Nobody should be heavyweight champion between the eras of Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey, or be in a backfield with Red Grange.

It's like being the woman who gets sawed in half by the magician, the guy who holds the rope for the high-wire act. The guy who washes the elephants. It's better to be the hero's horse. Lincoln's vice president.

Many years ago, I had a friend who had a chance to fly to Texas on a private jet with Bob Hope and a planeload of pals. He declined, saying, "If it crashes, the headline will be, 'Bob and 20 Friends Die in Crash.' "

Which explains why pitcher Ron Darling of the Mets must feel as if he's riding in an open car with the Pope these days.

The new commandment is: Don't be No. 2 on a pitching staff Dwight Gooden is on. It's the deepest No. 2 there is. It's like being Cinderella's slipper, Blackbeard's third wife. Judge Crater.

Ronald Maurice Darling is an outstanding major league baseball pitcher. He would be the star on 24 of the 26 big league franchises. But on the Mets, he's the other pitcher. Tonto. The second banana. Not the guy who gets the girl in this movie.

There's plenty of precedent for his role in baseball. Don Drysdale was one of the best pitchers who ever lived. He once pitched 58 consecutive scoreless innings. He threw 49 shutouts. But it took him 10 years to get into the Hall of Fame. Because he pitched on the same staff with Sandy Koufax.

Name two pitchers who pitched with Walter Johnson. Remember anybody who pitched with Grover Cleveland Alexander, do you? There were some pretty good ones. Eppa Rixey, who made the Hall of Fame, too. Chief Bender, who also did. Anybody make any movies about them?

Dizzy Dean had some pretty good pitchers around him in his great years and not only his brother Paul. He had Bill Hallahan and Tex Carleton. Paul Derringer. Ever hear of them?

Bob Gibson had Curt Simmons, Roger Craig, Ray Sadecki and Mike Cuellar one year. Tom Seaver was Tom Terrific, but he had Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack, Gary Gentry and Tug McGraw around him at various times.

Sometimes a pitcher has to get out from under the star glow to find his fame.

Steve Carlton pitched with Bob Gibson, but for all anyone noticed he needn't have bothered.

Nolan Ryan was on the staff with Tom Seaver. They thought he was a relief pitcher, Goose Ryan. He started 10 games and relieved in 15 and got only 89 innings in the Mets' big year, '69. He pitched two innings in the World Series. In relief.

You wonder what would have happened to his five no-hitters if he had stayed with the Mets. Seaver's caddie. Late-inning relief. The short man.

That happens. On any other staff, Ron Darling would be on a magazine cover a week. Half-French, half-Chinese, all Ivy League, he has the dark-eyed, dark-haired good looks of the Count of Monte Cristo or the hero of a Dumas opera. There are 2 million women in New York who think his last name is a description.

He went to Yale, which is supposed to fit you for the World Court, not the World Series, and Darling has always had trouble convincing the hard-bitten baseball types that the ballpark wasn't just a stop on a fraternity scavenger hunt, that he really wanted to be Burleigh Grimes. He probably doesn't even know how to spit, they spit.

Ron Darling has proved that he can come inside on a plate-crowder with the best of them. He came of age last October when the Mets came into St. Louis needing a sweep to tie up the pennant in their division. Darling pitched the first game, threw nine gritty innings and shut out the Cardinals. The Mets won the game on a home run by Darryl Strawberry in the 11th.

He won 16 games last year. He is already 4-0 this year.

But, if the Mets get into the World Series this year, which seems quite likely, don't look for Ron Darling in the opening game. He's not Dr. K. He might be Shea Stadium's Darling, but Dwight Gooden is its sweetheart. America's pitcher.

Does this bother the guy who isn't Dwight Gooden?

Well, he went into arbitration last year seeking a modest $175,000 raise to $615,000. (Gooden got $1.32 million and didn't even have to go to arbitration for it.) Darling lost.

He can live on $440,000, but the turndown seemed symptomatic of his role, doomed to be a trivia answer some day. "Who was the pitcher who always pitched the day after Dwight Gooden?"

Ron Darling is well aware of his spot on the bill.

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