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Not A Television Darling? Perhaps He Should Be
Former N.Y. Mets All-Star pitcher Ron Darling, currently the television analyst for the Washington Nationals. Photo by John E. DeFreitas. WASHINGTON, D.C.–
Former N.Y. Mets All-Star pitcher Ron Darling, currently the television analyst for the Washington Nationals. Photo by John E. DeFreitas.
WASHINGTON, D.C.–Former Washington Post sports editor and current columnist-at-large George Solomon wrote an article a few weeks ago on Washington Nationals television analyst Ron Darling. The article was titled “He’s Not the Television Darling Just Yet For Nats Fans”. New to Washington and to his job as a baseball analyst, Darling has embraced this team and this city, and, he’s working his tail off to be good at this job. He’s succeeding. A graduate of Yale with a dual major in French and Southeast Asian history, the charismatic Darling is articulate, approachable, borderline brilliant.
Called upon just days before the start of the season and offered the job as the Nationals television analyst, Darling was as surprised as anyone.
“I had done a few games with Oakland, and I had done a lot of Fox TV. I had my own show on Fox, “Baseball Today” where I was one of three guys on the show. It started when Hank Siegel, who’s now with the Altitude Network in Denver called me in 2000 and said, ‘Hey, I need you for TV’. I said what do you mean you need me for TV? So I decided to see if I liked it or not. I ended up working with Steve Sax and John Kelly who’s now on Extra. We had so much fun that summer talking about baseball, being irreverent, and it was fun. I really enjoyed it and I got a taste for it. So I ended up doing a lot of Fox stuff locally and nationally. I did the 2000 World Series, and I did the ‘Best Damn Sports Show.
Fast forward a few years.
“I got a call on Saturday from Bob Whitelaw who asked if I wanted to do Washington Nationals games. My first question was why would you want me doing them? I don’t have any ties to Washington, but they needed someone at the last minute. They made the deal on Saturday and they needed someone on Monday and I was open this summer to take it. I was originally only going to do 80 games, and then about a third of the way through the season, Bob Whitelaw asked me to do all the games.”
“I knew I was getting criticized (largely for having no ties to Washington) and that’s part of the business. It helps me a lot that I played in New York, so I have thicker skin. And I decided to do it because I wanted to see it through, and see if I could be an everyday player.”
Remarkably candid and funny, Darling put his on-air performance into baseball terms, giving his batting average, home run and RBI totals as an analyst.
“Some days I’m really good. Some days, I’m not so good”, he said honestly.
“I work as hard as I can. I work really hard with Mel, and I’ve been seeing a voice coach to help with my delivery. I’m doing whatever I can to get better. I also read as much as I can about Washington baseball history. Some of the greatest history has to do with the Homestead Grays. The Senators are interesting in that they were here and then they were gone, but the Homestead Grays are the ones that really thrill me”, said Darling.
National’s play-by-play man Mel Proctor, a respected veteran in the business, has nothing but praise for Darling.
“Working with Ron has been a great experience”, said Mel Proctor of his broadcast partner.
“We were kind of thrown together at the last minute. We actually met the day of our first game in a cab going to the ballpark. So, you never know how the chemistry’s going to be. But we’ve just hit it off and we’ve become good friends. It’s been a lot of fun. Working with him has been great. He didn’t have a whole lot of experience coming into this thing, but he’s very smart, he works hard at it, has gotten better, and has a chance to be very good”, Proctor added.
As for the criticism, Proctor shakes his head as he compliments Darling’s work.
“His work is fine. But that always happens when you go into a new market, when you’re unknown. It’s happened to me. When I first came to Washington years ago to do Bullets basketball people said I could never replace Frank Herzog. But it’s just a matter of time. People accept you if you do a good job and you build your own reputation and it’ll happen for him, too. Hopefully we’ve made an impact on the market, hopefully people like our work and we’ll back for many years”, he added.
It’s safe to say this team and this city has had a strong impact on Darling.
“The National’s fans are so excited. They’re so fervent and so hungry and so happy just to have a team in their neighborhood again. It’s evident by how many people are coming out to the games. (Nationals attendance topped the 2-million mark the last week in August). When I see them, they’re so complimentary and I love it.”
“The people that are my age (Darling turned 45 on August 19th) are bringing their kids back out. There’s a whole new generation of fans that are wearing their hats like (Chad) Cordero, fixing their gloves like (Brad) Wilkerson and to me that’s the most attractive thing about this summer.”
Just as he was during his pitching days, when he was occasionally criticized for ‘thinking too much’, Darling is meticulous in his preparation and his approach to his job.
“I keep a diary of the day. It takes me an hour, sometimes two hours to go through all the little things, the people I’ve met, stories that I’ve been told. Then I go into the computer and I try to get as much as I can on every player, and I try to get it into my head. I print it out, I read it at lunch, but I don’t bring it here (to the ballpark). My job is to analyze the game. My strengths are that I know pitching as well as anyone knows pitching. My weaknesses are that I know hitting, but I can’t really comment on hitting. I think it seems silly to guys that play everyday for a former pitcher to criticize them as hitters.
“What I’ll say is that a guy has changed his stance, and that maybe that’s unusual, and I’ll describe what he’s doing differently. What I won’t say that he’s not hitting because he’s changed his stance”, he said.
Fluent in French and Chinese, Darling, whose mother is Hawaiian-Chinese and whose father is French-Canadian, is also possessed with a remarkable understanding and a rare affinity for the game’s Latin players.
“A lot of the pride they have comes from leaving their families at such a young age, and living here in the states with a family that may not speak Spanish, and a guy’s still expected to go out and hit .330. With a lot of the Latin players, there’s such a pride there because they’ve gone so far, so much more than a kid right here in the U.S. American kids are playing for themselves and maybe their families. Some of these Latin kids are playing for their towns, their countries. There was no better evidence of that than during that home run derby (in this year’s all-star game). That was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. When Pedro Martinez takes the hill, people in the Dominican Republic aren’t doing anything but watching that game.”
Not content with being fluent in three languages, Darling is currently learning a fourth, Spanish.
“I don’t think it’s fair for me to have this job and not be able to speak Spanish. The team is full of Latin players. Baseball is full of Latin players and if I can’t speak their language, why the hell should we ever talk about things?” he said, that remarkable candor of his coming across.
“I think the guys appreciate it if we can say even the simplest things to them in their language. Hey, how’s it going, how are you feeling, great job last night, good luck with your next start”, he added. He’s even got his Spanish teacher watching baseball games in order to help him out with baseball phrases.
He’s also developed a strong camaraderie with the National’s players, and despite the efforts of many of the mainstream media to bury this team before it’s time, Darling’s positive attitude is refreshing. And despite the National’s second half struggles, Darling still likes what he sees from this team.
“If any team can come back from this, they can. They’re still playing the same game that they did in the first half of the season. Instead of heaping on the negative, I try to look at the positives. If this team can right itself, they can have another magical month in September like they had in June.
“If I talked to the team, I would say ‘Hey, I’m not in your clubhouse, but from afar, I like what I see. You guys like who you are. This is a time, the dog days of summer, when it’s very easy to get down and start pointing fingers. They say you win as a team and you lose as a team, and it’s such a cliché, but good teams believe that. Championship teams believe that. And they demand excellence, both on and off the field. That’s what you have to do. Demand excellence every day’.
“But I’m also old”, he added jokingly. But not that old.
Darling’s pedigree as a former major league pitcher should be well known to sports fans – a thirteen year playing career, including nine years with the New York Mets, during which he was part of the 1986 World Series Championship team. His career record is 136-116, with a lifetime ERA of 3.87, and he won a Gold Glove in 1989.
Finally, we took a trip down memory lane to discuss the 1986 Mets, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, and his favorite memory of his playing days.
“Dwight Gooden was the most amazing pitcher I’ve ever seen. Better that Pedro (Martinez), better than Clemens (Roger) for one year. Maybe two years. The brightest star I’ve ever seen as a pitcher. Un-hittable. Tiger Woods like. That’s how special he was. It’s hard to describe it, you just had to watch it.”
“They robbed themselves of immortality”, he said of Gooden and Strawberry. If you had told me that someone was going to hit 700 home runs and steal all those bases, I would have thought Darryl Strawberry, not Barry Bonds. Darryl Strawberry could have had Barry Bonds career. And Dwight Gooden could have had Roger Clemens career.”
As for his favorite story of all time? A Disney script writer couldn’t have done better.
“I’m pitching in Boston where I’m from in the fourth game of the World Series. We’re down 2-1, so we have to win it. I’m warming up in the bullpen and I have nothing. I’m bouncing pitches, I can’t throw strikes, I’m all over the place. I can’t calm down. I’m nervous. For the first time, I’m nervous to where it’s affecting my pitching. So, I cut it loose to go in the clubhouse. I can’t throw anymore, and I figure I’ll try and get it when I’m on the mound.
“So I’m walking across the field and the National Anthem is about to start. I look over and I see my dad, who was with the Air Force National Guard, and he’s holding the flag that day. So I went over, and stood there with him and held his arm during the National Anthem. After that, I thought, that’s it. Game over. It was the greatest gift I ever got.”
And yes folks, Ron Darling won game four of the 1986 World Series.