2005-03-04 / Sports

Ron Darling, Shea Gladiator, Returns to His Arena

By Joe McDonald Sports Columnist

By Joe McDonald
Sports Columnist

RON DARLING
RON DARLING FLUSHING, NY - When Shea Stadium was designed in the early 1960’s, Robert Moses was the New York City park commissioner and head of the Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority. He envisioned a modern day Roman Coliseum and hoped that it would be the template for future ballparks.

It didn’t work out as the “Master Builder” envisioned and the blue edifice in Flushing has become an out of date relic from the 1960’s.

But for former Mets pitcher Ron Darling, Shea did have one quality of the ancient landmark.

“I was telling [former teammate] Sid [Fernandez] that walking the hallway from the bullpen to the dugout was always the longest walk because you’re going into the arena,” Darling said. “I love always being around here, because it brings back a lot of memories.”

The former Met was joined last Saturday by six of his 1986 Mets teammates at the “Arena” as they greeted the long lines of fans waiting to buy tickets for the 2005 season. Darling was pleased, but also shocked, at the resiliency of the ticket buyers.

“I was out there for a couple of hours and I’m freezing and there really is a buzz out there,” Darling marveled. “It’s pretty amazing that people waited all night.”

The large enthusiastic crowd came as no surprise based on the Mets off-season.

“You have Willie Randolph, who was a Met fan growing up and one of the greatest guys in baseball,” Darling said. “You probably have one of the best five tool players in baseball in Carlos Beltran; you have Mike Piazza hopefully healthy all year and a young infield with Wright, Reyes and Matsui.

“If you are not excited about this team, you are not a Met fan.”

Darling should know about fan enthusiasm. His ‘86 Mets were one of the most exciting teams to ever play in New York. They won on pitching, power and speed and were an attraction everywhere they went.

“That ‘1986 team will be a team that will be hard to match,” he said. “We were like Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus everywhere we went.”

It’s almost 20 years since that magic season, but Darling, 43, still looks the same as he did when he toed the rubber. The hair has a tint of gray now, but he’s enjoying his life away from the game.

“I have businesses in Northern California,” he explained. “I don’t do anything around baseball because I was kind of the natural athlete and I couldn’t teach anyone how to play.”

Even though the Yale graduate may not be a good teacher, many of his former mates have become success minor league and major league managers and coaches. And it’s something that he feels will help the 2005 version of the Amazins.

“If you asked me in ‘86 how many of those guys would be managers and coaches in the organization, I wouldn’t think as many as there are now,” Darling said. “Having Howard Johnson, Tim Teufel, Gary Carter and Darryl Strawberry back in camp this year is a positive karma.”

One former Met that will not be joining his mates is second baseman Wally Backman. A successful minor league manager, Backman was hired by Arizona Diamondback to fill their vacant managerial position, but was fired only a few days later when financial problems came to light. Darling stays in touch with his former teammate.

“I feel bad for Wally,” Darling said. “It’s one thing to get a managerial job and then to lose it. Do I understand both sides? Yes I do.

I played with Wally and anyone who watched him manage in the minors knows he could be a great manager. Will he get that chance again? Hopefully.”

But the baseball life is now in the past for Darling. He did have a role in the movie Shallow Hal , but, for the most part, is living his life away from the limelight.

Yet with the 20th anniversary of the 1986 Mets coming up next season, the former pitcher is planning on returning to Shea for any celebrations or reunions.

“It’s just great being around some of the guys,” Darling said. “I don’t know if the Mets are planning anything, but I do know we’ll look back on it as something really special.”

And possibly he will take the long walk to the “Arena” again.

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