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Saturday Book Review: The Complete Game

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The thinking in the clubhouse when a position player is struggling is that he's giving it his all. Pitchers, on the other hand, are held to an entirely different standard; we might be ballplayers, but we're not necessarily athletes. At least, we're not the same kind of athlete as our position-playing teammates. When we struggle, the perception is that we're doing something wrong. We don't get beat; we beat ourselves.

Mets fans are already plenty familiar with Ron Darling. He pitched for parts of nine seasons in New York from 1983 through 1991, including outstanding campaigns in 1985 and 1986. He famously appeared -- albeit briefly -- in the Farrelly Brothers' 2001 "hit" "comedy" Shallow Hal. More recently, Darling has provided color commentary -- along with former teammate Keith Hernandez -- for Mets telecasts on SNY. Now, Darling, who long ago tired of playing a literary second fiddle to the twice published (now thrice) Hernandez, has put pen to paper for The Complete Game, a collection of ten chapters cleverly assembled to mimic the progression of a baseball game inning-by-inning. Alright, it isn't that clever, but it's a hook and it works.

The gist is this: each chapter represents an inning of "the complete game", with Darling selecting specific innings -- mostly his own, but a couple from recent Mets teams that he has broadcast -- to correspond with each of those innings. For example, the opening inning of his first big league start against the Phillies was fittingly chosen for his chapter on the first inning, "Getting Starter". The content of the chapter, then, represents Darling's memoir of that actual inning, including:

  • His mental and physical preparation prior to the inning
  • His thought process during the inning
  • An actual account of the baseball game
  • What went right, wrong, otherwise
  • Other random insights, anecdotes, and musings

The narrative is dry and formulaic at times, and Darling will occasionally lapse into TBP (Tired Baseball Platitude) mode, but overall The Complete Game is really quite enjoyable. Long-time Mets fans will remember most of the games -- and even the innings -- to which Darling refers in meticulous detail, and while the author claims this isn't a "traditional baseball memoir" -- the chronology of biographical coverage is neither linear nor complete -- the book does leave the reader with a pretty good snapshot of Darling's career as a ballplayer.

As with his work in the booth, Darling is at his best here when he's providing details and stories from within the game that someone outside the game couldn't otherwise know. Some highlights:

  • Darling's first big league paycheck, and how it was so small Tom Seaver offered to cash it with money he had on hand.
  • Pitchers who make a mess of the mound.
  • Sharing an on-field moment with his dad at Fenway Park before Game 4 of the 1986 World Series.
  • The Emerson Fittipaldi Brazilian Rib Machine ('nuff said).
  • How the modern baseball "quality start" is a joke.
  • Reinventing himself as a veteran pitcher with the A's (with the help of Dave Duncan).
  • Tony La Russa's nickname for him -- "Load" -- the meaning of which he still hasn't figured out.
  • When he knew it was all over.

If you're a fan of the Mets, or of Darling, you'd have a tough time not enjoying this book. Fans of the game should appreciate Darling's "pitcher's-eye-view" of his career (and of baseball in general), and the inning-by-inning format of the book is unique and compelling.

For more coverage, check out Alex Nelson's review at MetsGeek.