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A DESIRE TO EXCEL

March 30, 1981
March 30, 1981

Table of Contents
March 30, 1981

NCAA Regionals
Johnny Bench
Mike Newlin
Darling
Hockey
Pro Basketball
Lacrosse
Extreme Skiing
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

A DESIRE TO EXCEL

Ronnie Darling, Yale All-America baseball player, personifies the values that A. Bartlett Giamatti, school president and fan, extols

Once I decided not to go into the draft out of high school, that really made up my mind for Yale, too. I mean, if I was going to get a college education, why not go for the best? Of course, Yale doesn't give athletic scholarships, so I was going to have to work to get through, and my father would have to pay part of the tuition. He said, "Don't worry, Ronnie, we'll get the money somehow." I've never been sorry for my decision.
—RONNIE DARLING, YALE '82
ALL-AMERICA BASEBALL PLAYER

This is an article from the March 30, 1981 issue Original Layout

When the new president of Yale, a sometime sportswriter and devoted baseball fan (Red Sox division) named A. Bartlett Giamatti, addressed the Association of Yale Alumni last spring, he selected as his topic for this significant occasion the subject of sports. "Yale cares enough to assert that athletics plays a vital part in the education of its young people and in the ongoing life of everyone else," he said. "As a sign of its commitment to athletics, Yale will treat athletics according to the same central educational values and with the same desire for excellence that it brings to other essential parts [of the university].... Let it go forth that there is a strong spirit at Yale, a strong spirit compounded of respect for the glories of mind and body striving in harmony."

Notwithstanding these noble sentiments, the speech irritated a good many alumni because Giamatti also suggested that college athletics were getting out of whack, even in the Ivy League. Says Giamatti, "I was supposed to have called for our athletics to be de-emphasized, a word I never used, any more than I ever would employ that vile phrase 'student-athlete.' " Indeed, those old Bulldogs who were so upset by their president's words might reread this part of the speech:

"I don't want there to be any doubt about what I believe. I think that winning is important. Winning has a joy and discrete purity to it that cannot be replaced by anything else. Winning is important to any man's or woman's sense of satisfaction and well-being. Winning is not everything, but it is something powerful, indeed beautiful, in itself, something as necessary to the strong spirit as striving is necessary to the healthy character."

Nonetheless, Ivy League—pardon, Ivy Group—presidents tend to be a little naive about the real world of college sports; it's a jungle out there. Except for regular pilgrimages to Fenway Park and two years as a young instructor at Princeton, Giamatti has been ensconced in the athletic abbey at New Haven since he arrived there as an undergraduate in 1956. It might, then, come as something of a surprise to Giamatti to learn that Yale alumni have made illegal tenders to Ronnie Darling. "You know," says Ronnie Darling: " 'Need anything, Ronnie?' 'Can we help you out at all, Ronnie?' 'Just let us know, Ronnie.' "

Yale men have done this? Yale men? He nods shyly. Firm proof: the human race is indeed going to hell in a hand basket.

But why you, Ronnie Darling? You're just a baseball player. Possibly we could comprehend, even forgive, Yale men tipping their football players. The Elis have won 709 football games, more than anyone, and victory has become a pleasant habit. But baseball?

"Everybody wants to win," says Ronnie Darling.

Yes, there is that. There is a joy and discrete purity to it. But there is more. Ronnie Darling is the closest thing to an athletic miraculist extant. Before last season, when Yale went 21-11 and he became a starting pitcher—15 appearances, 12 starts, 12 complete games, an 11-2 record, two saves, 1.31 ERA—the Elis hadn't won that many baseball games since 1948, when the captain was George (Good Field, No Hit) Bush. In fact, until last season Yale had gone 16 years without a winning baseball team. And it wasn't just that Yale had Ronnie Darling to pitch last season. The Elis also had Ronnie Darling to hit: a school-record .384 average and a .589 slugging percentage.

Yale has produced two Heisman Trophy winners and more football All-Americas than any other college. Almost 4% of all U.S. Olympians who have won gold medals have been Yale graduates. Walter Camp competed for Yale, as did Pudge Heffelfinger, Calvin Hill, Frank Merriwell, Tony Lavelli and Don Schollander. B.D. of Doonesbury played there. But this also is true: last spring Ronnie Darling had one of the greatest seasons a Yale athlete has ever had.

And with that name, too. Imagine being named Ronnie Darling and having a real good chance to live up to it. Imagine being 20 years old and a Yale man in the spring named Ronnie Darling. Imagine being 20 years old and a Yale man in the spring standing 6'3", shaped and tapered. 205 pounds worth, with dark eyes that dance and fix on curveballs and people alike and olive skin tinted just enough never to pale. Imagine.

"This will probably sound egotistical," says Ronnie Darling, sounding in fact, very thoughtful, "but when I'm playing well, I think I can decide any game—my pitching, my hitting, you know, something."

Imagine being named Ronnie Darling and being half Irish and half Chinese-Hawaiian. It's last summer and your first time up at Yankee Stadium, in an amateur All-Star Game: 450-foot home run, leftfield bullpen. Now it's the ninth inning, you're 3 for 5, your team is ahead 10-9, but the other side has men on first and second, nobody out, meat of the order coming up. The call goes out to the outfield to bring Ronnie Darling in to pitch. You come to the mound. Strike out the first guy on fastballs. Strike out the second guy on fastballs. 90 to 95 mph. Third guy is looking for fastballs. Throw him a curve. Easy pop-up. Game's over. Oh, you Ronnie Darling. Imagine that.

What will Ronnie Darling do now? "This is the time for him." says Phillie Scout Dick Lawlor. "So much will depend on how well he plays this spring." Some major league bird dogs think that Ronnie Darling may well go No. 1 in June's draft, for which he will be eligible for the first time in three years. So it's time to step out now. There's not much more time to be a student or even a student-athlete.

Wherever he goes in baseball, Ronnie Darling will return to Yale to get his degree. He'll finish his junior year both academically and athletically this June. A C+ student majoring in history, Darling readily acknowledges that he's no intellectual, that he has had to put in long hours to get his grades. In the process he has come to understand that the value of an education at a school such as Yale transcends what one learns from books and professors. "When I came here, sometimes I thought I'd just play baseball and go through the motions of getting a degree," he says, "but the place is so competitive, it pushes you. And whatever your special ability, you can see it juxtaposed. I'm a baseball player, but I'll go into some class and there may be somebody sitting next to me who can play the piano better than I can play baseball. That's humbling, and it has been good for me. I can go out now and play in the pros, and whatever happens, I won't be lost."

Giamatti: "People talk of a scandal in athletics, but it seems to me that the real scandal is implicit: the very fraudulence of the college athletic enterprise, its acceptance as a mere ornament in the academic process. Too often, in too many institutions, athletics are self-contained. They must be made part of the whole educational process.

"To exploit our students as a source of revenue is a scandal and a shame. It also is foolish because anybody who thinks that by filling a football stadium you are going to even start to balance the budget is either kidding himself or trying to kid the rest of us.

"The point of college athletics is not to make money. The point is to provide another and very real opportunity in which people might be challenged, in which they might learn more about themselves and how to work with others."

Last summer Ronnie Darling was chosen MVP of the Cape Cod (Mass.) League, a very tough amateur circuit made up of college players. Ronnie Darling's teammates would often bring the weightiest volumes they could lay their hands on—"Karl Marx, stuff like that"—and leave them in the dugout, screaming suggestions at him that the books would give him something to do while he awaited his turn at bat.

At first many players doubted Ronnie Darling because he was a Yalie and all that. "What is this All-America?" one of them asked him. "Is this Ivy League All-America?" And then, as Ronnie Darling showed he was the best, he became more an object of frustration than of curiosity. Nobody else was Ronnie Darling, All-America of Yale.

In one Cape Cod game, after he had banged out a couple of hits, he came up again, and the catcher started chatting him up, ragging him. The kid behind the plate was mad; his club was getting whipped, and this Ivy Leaguer was largely responsible. Ronnie Darling got mad at himself for listening. "The guy was trying to get to me and, well, obviously he was." he says. But forcing himself to concentrate. Ronnie Darling lashed a double and then glared at the catcher from second base.

The next batter lined a hard single, a hit so solid the leftfielder came up with it on one bounce. The third-base coach called for Ronnie Darling to hold up at third, but he ran right through the sign and zeroed in on the catcher, who took the throw long before the baserunner arrived. Ronnie Darling slammed into the catcher, jarring the ball loose. As the two players lay in the dirt staring at each other, the catcher finally broke a smile. "I knew he admired me then," Ronnie Darling says.

Ronnie Darling comes from circumstances that are modest, both financially and academically. Ron Sr., for many years an enlisted man in the Air Force, is now foreman of a machine shop in Worcester. Massachusetts, which Ronnie and everybody else who has ever lived there always refer to as Wustermass, as if it were some obscure church holiday. The Darlings have lived in Wustermass since Ronnie Darling was six. He'd been born and raised to that age in Hawaii, where the Air Force had sent Ron Sr. and where he'd met and married Luciana Mikina Aikala.

Neither Ron nor Luciana was reared by natural parents. He grew up in several foster homes in northeastern Vermont, being shifted from farm to farm to help out at harvesttime. A superb athlete, Ron was offered two college scholarships. But he "knew it all" and joined the service instead. Mrs. Aikala died while delivering Luciana. Her father, unable to care for the baby himself, left her to the rather desultory upbringing of relatives. As soon as she fell in love, Luciana married the haole from far-off" New England. When she bore Ronnie, she was only 18.

Luciana stands but 5'3", and one can imagine her as a Lorna Doone, blocked out from the sun by her giant kinsmen. Not only are both her Rons 6'3", but Eddie, 19, is 6'5", 230; Brian, 14, stands nearly 6'4": and Charlie, at 12, bears all the earmarks of good size.

The Darling brothers are all fine athletes. Eddie, a first baseman with a fast bat, left St. Leo's College in Florida and was selected in the second round by the Yankees in the draft this January. So far Brian and Charlie look more like basketball prospects.

Yale plays 33 intercollegiate sports, more than any other college in America. However, for all practical purposes, the Eli athletic program amounts to football and 32 other activities in which the score is kept. Consequently, a great deal of effort was made to woo Ronnie Darling away from the diamond and over to the gridiron, where he had been a high school star. As a freshman, he was a quarterback and a monster back, whatever that is, but it doesn't matter, because he abandoned football altogether at the end of the season.

Baseball had been Ronnie Darling's great love, starting when he was five or six. Every night, no matter how tired Ron Sr. was, he'd hit Ronnie Darling 100 ground balls and throw him 100 pitches. Of course, this could easily have led to an unhealthy emphasis on sports, had the father also not urged his son to apply himself in other ways. "All I want to do when I sign is give my father something." Ronnie Darling says. "I know he won't take any money, but I have to give him something."

When it came time for Ronnie Darling to decide on a college, the sun-kissed baseball universities of the South and Southwest couldn't turn his head. "When you got down to it, it just seemed as if they were all dormitories," he says. "Then, when I first visited New Haven, it was a rainy, dreary day, and I thought, this must be sort of what London's like. It reminded me of Sherlock Holmes, and I wanted to be a part of that. Until last summer, when I played on the Cape, I had gotten well-paid construction jobs in the summer, so I won't have too big a loan to pay off when I leave Yale. You can do it if it matters to you."

Giamatti: "I believe a kid suffers if he's brought to any institution as an athlete. If the initial contact is athletic—especially, of course, if it involves depredatory alumni—then the fundamental reason for the student to be at the university is obscured. It is so crucial to shape the primary identification with a place. We always come back to the basic question: Why give scholarships to athletes at all? To me, the business of setting up quotas—and that's exactly what athletic scholarships are, quotas—is bizarre."

Giamatti was a 40-year-old professor of English and comparative literature when Yale appointed him its 19th president on Oct. 14, 1978. He has never been an athlete, but like Ronnie Darling, he is a striking man, dark, with a beard that makes him resemble Shaikh Yamani, the oil minister of Saudi Arabia, if not quite the vintage Cornel Wilde. He smokes menthol cigarettes, which he waves about when animation or mimicry are called for, and he speaks so eloquently, in long embroidered sentences, that one has the impression he isn't so much talking extemporaneously as he is reading something he had earlier jotted down in his mind.

The irony of Giamatti's being castigated for calling for a re-evaluation of college athletics is that he's a true sports fan. "All I ever wanted to be president of was the American League," he quipped when Yale tapped him. And for all the cool logic and erudition he can apply to the broad subject of sport, he speaks in an intimate, wistful way when recalling his own college days, remembering his roommates who were athletes, their returning from practice and telling him of plays and games, camaraderie and coaches. "It's not without envy that I recall those things," he says, smiling at himself.

Indeed few of us, no matter how sane, no matter how successful in non-athletic endeavors, are ever totally free of such envy. The truth is that, above all, Ronnie Darling wants to be Ronnie Darling. He chose Yale, chose to be a genome college student, and has worked at it diligently, mingling with piano players and scholars and would-be lawyers. He's a Yale man through and through. He's even in love with a Yale senior who plans to attend law school this fall. Her name is Cathy Bui, and she's of Vietnamese descent, although she hails from Bethesda, Md.

But for all that Yale has meant to Ronnie Darling and for all that it might have changed him, he's still, foremost, a baseball player. In one way, Yale has changed nothing of him, and, that, perhaps, is all the more to Yale's credit.

Here's a vignette. Here's Ronnie Darling, in centerfield, frozen for a moment. It's the middle of February, but a freak warm-weather system has made it possible for the Yale varsity to practice outside on the frosted brown grass. No one can remember such a thing ever happening before. The Elis play a real intrasquad game. Ronnie Darling goes two innings on the mound, throwing about three-quarters speed. Now he's back in center, and finally, in at least some obeisance to the calendar, the late-afternoon air turns chilly and misty and a cold rain begins to drift upon the winter earth. "All right," Joe Benanto, the Yale coach, cries out, "last half inning."

An irritated voice comes in from center. "Hey!" it bellows. "Last inning! Last inning!" Ronnie Darling wants his ups, and never mind that it's February and you can hardly see through the lowering clouds. "Last inning! They were up first!"

"I've never seen anybody who wanted to play baseball as much as Ronnie," Benanto says. "Two years ago, one catcher quit and the other one got hurt, and all of a sudden we didn't have a catcher. So he comes running up to me. 'Hey, Coach, I've caught before,' he says. 'Let me catch.' Him! Behind the plate!"

This passion for playing is not good, either. "He can't do everything," says Lawlor of the Phillies. "I think he got real tired in the Cape League last summer, doing everything. If he'd just DH this spring when he isn't pitching...."

But Ronnie Darling can't stay in the dugout. He swears he won't have to throw that much from the outfield. And he says he has to work more on moving out there—"gliding, with my head up"—in case the team that drafts him wants him to be an outfielder.

He'd rarely pitched until Benanto turned to him as a freshman. Ronnie Darling had used his gun of an arm mostly from shortstop and center, but it appears that he's a natural on the mound. That first season at Yale, 1979, he worked mainly in relief. But in the finale Benanto started Ronnie Darling against Yale's major local rival, the University of New Haven, a perennial Division II playoff team.

As Ronnie Darling was warming up, Benanto showed him how to throw a slider. They had decided that New Haven was too good for him to beat with just his heat. By the end of the game, Ronnie Darling was using the slider as his out pitch. He won 4-1 and went the distance, the first of 15 straight complete games he has thrown.

He can throw the slider at close to 90 mph. It's really a cut fastball, the kind Ron Guidry uses so effectively from the left side. Ronnie Darling also has learned to throw a curve, and now he's working on a changeup, too.

However, it's his mind as much as his arm that suggests he could make it big as a pitcher. Last spring, when the Yalies exhibitioned (as Secretary of State Haig would say) some games against minor league teams in Florida, Ronnie Darling was astonished to notice how even touted pro pitchers kept challenging him at the plate, throwing to ego, not to spots. "I've seen too many pitchers more interested in where the ball might be hit than in how they might get people out," he says.

He learned all he had to know on this subject four years ago when he sat behind home plate at Fenway Park for a game in which Jim Palmer was pitching against the Red Sox.

President Giamatti's summary assessment of his poor dear Sox: "They will acquit themselves with their customary nobility and sense of despair.... They'll do very well, and paradise will always remain just beyond us."

"The Sox must've hit 10 fly balls to the warning track in center against the O's that day," Ronnie Darling recalls. Everyone about him was babbling about Boston's bad luck, about how the Sox would surely get to Palmer, if not this inning then the next one. Darling began to understand what Palmer was up to. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "Palmer didn't throw one strike over the inside half of the plate the whole game." He was throwing away, using all the ball park. Never mind that it looked as if the Bosox were pounding him. Out pitches. Ronnie Darling understands that out pitches don't have to break bats.

Yet Ronnie Darling is so strong and fast enough afoot that many teams still view him as an offensive prospect. Indeed, some clubs can't make up their minds whether he should be tried as an outfielder or sent back to short. And because he was a late developer and because spring comes late to Wustermass and New Haven, Ronnie Darling has had a relatively limited showcase, which has served to confuse scouts even more. Ronnie Darling has a suggestion on his score. "A lot of these Southern players play so much as kids that they peak while still in high school," he says. "If I were a scout, I'd keep that in mind and choose a comparable Northern player because I'd figure he could still develop."

Unfortunately, the kid can't be quite as calculating about himself. "Look," Lawlor says, "everybody knows, and I've told Ronnie, the quickest way to the majors for a college player is as a pitcher. He's crazy to play an inning in the field."

Ronnie Darling says, "I think I can make it as a pitcher, but my selfish side wants to play every day."

Some scouts remain suspicious. What is this, Ivy League All-America? Nobody can ever take last season away from Ronnie Darling—the .384, the 11-2, the 1.31—but do it back-to-back, Ivy, do it when they're watching with JUGS gun and checkbook.

Oh well, it doesn't really make that much difference, does it, Ronnie Darling? Whether you make it to the bigs or not, you'll always be a Yale man.

"No," Ronnie Darling says, shaking his head sadly. "No, I want to play. Even if I have the Yale degree, even then, if I didn't play...." His voice trails off, and he looks away for a moment.

"But never mind the degree," he continues. "If I could just make the majors! If I could play...10 years! Imagine that! I'd be the happiest."

The best thing about Ronnie Darling's Yale education is that the book learning hasn't confused him about what he is and what he must do now with his tools. Very few of us get a chance to be a Ronnie Darling, and those lucky ones who do would be fools to let the real world interfere with what is now the spring of life.

Giamatti, writing in the Yale Alumni Magazine and Journal about the summer of his 40th year: "Whatever the reason, it seemed to me that I was investing more and more in baseball, making the game do more of the work that keeps time fat and slow and lazy.... The real activity was done with the radio—not the all-seeing, all-falsifying television—and was the playing of the game in the only place it will last, the enclosed green field of the mind....

"Of course, there are those...who grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun."

PHOTODarling, who was 11-2 with a 1.31 ERA last year, could be the first pick in the major league draft.PHOTOTapped by Yale, Giamatti said, "All I ever wanted to be president of was the American League."PHOTOA .384 hitter last season, Darling performs in centerfield for the Elis when he isn't on the mound.PHOTOHistory major Darling reads in Sterling Library.PHOTORonnie and Cathy are an item in New Haven.PHOTOGiamatti's speech on the ills of collegiate sport upset many Old Blues.