Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: “The Complete Game”

completegame.jpgMost jock memoirs are exercises in narcissism, which is to be expected. Athletes who reach the pinnacle of their chosen sport have, in all likelihood, been praised and coddled like little emperors their entire life. So they must be on top in everything. Even if they try to stress their humility, it’s to show that they are far more humble than you could ever be. Even if they talk about a fall from grace, like declining skills or drug addiction, it’s to show that only they could plunge to such depths and rise again.

That’s what makes The Complete Game by Ron Darling such a rare specimen. The book opens with the famous first paragraph from Bart Giamatti’s “The Green Fields of the Mind” (“It breaks your heart. It’s designed to break your heart…”), which should give you an idea of the tone employed in the book.

The book is divided into 10 “innings”, each of which chronicles an actual inning that Darling pitched in his career. A few of them are from triumphant outings, like game 4 of the 1986 World Series, or a complete game shutout he pitched against the Blue Jays while with the A’s. But far more of the book is dedicated to struggle: fighting your way through a game where you don’t have your best stuff, or failing miserably, or being done in by tide, time, and the affairs of man.

One chapter is devoted to a shellacking Darling took at the hands of the Cubs, giving up two homers and six runs before being yanked, and he delves deep into what it feels like to have a manager take the ball from you and tell you to hit the showers in front of an angry crowd. Another chapter covers a crucial late-season game against the Cardinals in 1987, where Darling pitched five hitless innings, then made the unwise decision to dive for a Vince Coleman bunt. In the attempt, he tore all the ligaments in his pitching thumb and was done for the season.

Even one the best performances of his career, recounted in the final chapter, was ultimately a failure. While at Yale, he pitched 11 no-hit innings against St. John’s in the college world series, the longest no-hitter in NCAA history. But he finally gave up a hit in the 12th inning, the runner came around to score, and his team’s anemic offense could not bail him out. So one of the best collegiate pitching performances ever went for nought.

The book is one long reminder of just how hard it is to pitch in the major leagues, and how thin the line is between success and failure. You could easily read it in one sitting, but that’s more a testament to how engaging it is, rather than indicative any lack of depth or insight.

In that way, it’s very similar to Darling’s personality as commentator on SNY. Whenever he sees a pitcher struggling on the mound, he always references his own bad outings. Because failure is much more instructive than triumph.

I don’t think I’ve read any other book about baseball (or any other sport) that traffics in so much failure, yet ultimately affirms everything there is to love about the sport. If you don’t want to pony up the dough for the hardcover edition, the paperback is due out in March. But in either case, read it.