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Mudville: June 23, 2024 2:52 pm PDT

The ABC’s Of Pitching Life

Ron Darling is living an outstanding baseball life.

One of the game’s smartest pitchers during his 13-year major league career that included winning a World Series with the 1986 Mets, Darling is one of the game’s best broadcasters.

Darling also is one of my favorite people to talk with about baseball and our many conversations through the years in spring training in Port St. Lucie and during Mets seasons enabled me to gain tremendous insights into the game.

With that in mind, Darling told BallNine about one of the best training routines he had in his pitching career, a routine once followed by most of the Mets pitchers, going back to Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, a routine you never hear anything about now as pitchers continue to fall to injuries in this new age.

It’s fascinating in its simplicity and strength, and could help many pitchers today.

If you are a pitcher on any level or a coach, pay close attention to Darling’s words. Here at BallNine, The Story offers baseball solutions to a complex game.

This is as simple as reciting the alphabet, yet in this era of baseball technology to the 10th degree, the genius of this drill has been lost in this world of high-speed video, spin-rate and over-coaching.

Learn your ABCs.

Listen carefully. Before we go any further this is something that was gifted to Darling and those Mets pitchers during the Tommy McKenna training era.

McKenna came to the Mets as athletic trainer (back then they were just called trainers) from the Washington Senators in 1970, brought to the team by Gil Hodges. It was yet another brilliant move by Hodges – who, by the way, should be in the Hall of Fame for his playing career with the Dodgers, his managerial career, leading those ’69 Mets to the Promised Land, and his overall integrity.

McKenna, who died in 2006 at the age of 88, began his training career in 1948 with Jersey City of the International League. He also spent 13 years with Minneapolis of the American Association, before moving onto the expansion Washington Senators in 1961.

From there it was to the Mets as the head trainer for a decade.

Darling, 60, told me McKenna had an incredible impact on his career, nine years with the Mets, posting a 99-70 mark with a 3.50 ERA over that time. Overall, Darling finished with a 136-116 record and a 3.87 ERA over his 2,360 major league innings after an outstanding career at Yale. At Yale he locked horns against future teammate Frank Viola in the greatest college pitching matchup of all-time in 1981 when Yale hosted St. John’s in an NCAA Tournament game, much more on that later.

I first became interested in this drill when Darling mentioned it in passing in the press room at Citi Field a number of years ago. Darling recently was able to go into great detail with me about the Alphabet Drill.

The drill is done with a weighted baseball.

“Tom McKenna was one of the most amazing trainers that I was ever around,’’ Darling told me. “He had a sixth sense on how to treat ballplayers.

“You would stand in an athletic position with your arm extended in front of you and then just as slowly as you could do it, trace the alphabet,’’ Darling said of McKenna’s Magic. “It’s amazing. At the end of doing two alphabets, you are sweating bullets.

“You would think with a one-pound or two-pound weighted ball it certainly wouldn’t be that way, but it was. The thing that made him special was that in 1987 I hurt my arm in spring training for the first time and Tom went to Davey Johnson and – just imagine this happening now – he said, ‘Davey, just let him stay with me, I will take care of him and I will get him back on the field by the time the season starts.’

Ron Darling pitching for the Mets

Ron Darling - pitching for the New York Mets - lets one fly.

“That’s how much gravitas as a trainer he had and every day I would get there early and he would dig in. He had the strongest hands of anyone I ever knew, and his massages of your arm, they were not comfortable and they were the most painful things you would ever go through but at the end of the two weeks or three weeks, he would repair you,’’ Darling said of McKenna’s treatments. “It was something out of the Karate Kid, it really was. There was something mystical about his ability to heal and holistic about the way he healed. It was almost like he could feel – remember that movie The Green Mile – where the guy would take all the sickness in on him, it was almost like he would take all of these pains that you would have and take them right out of your body. It was the most amazing out of body experience I’ve ever had as an athlete.’’

“He was like a crusty, wonderful Irishman who was a healing Asian doctor.’’

Darling said he would do the Alphabet Drill every day to keep his shoulder in shape. “It was the precursor to what guys do now with the bands, they would strengthen their shoulder but they didn’t have any bands when I first came up,’’ Darling said. “This was the exercise.’’

Mets director of Alumni Relations and Team Historian Jay Horwitz told me McKenna was one of Tom Seaver’s favorite people in the organization.

You can see why. Keeping pitchers healthy is the secret sauce in baseball.

“I don’t know what it says about me but the most famous game I ever pitched, I lost, 1-0. Myself, Harvey Haddix and maybe some others that will probably be on our gravestone.’’

“For all the guys that I pitched with from (David) Cone to (Dwight) Gooden to (Sid) Fernandez, no one had shoulder injuries, which is remarkable and the same if you look at the durability of the Mets pitchers before all of us,’’ Darling said.

From 1970 through 1980, McKenna did his work for the Mets and then was named Mets trainer emeritus and would work with the team during spring training. That’s when the foundation of the season is built.

“It wasn’t a very complicated thing,’’ Darling said of the Alphabet Drill, “but every pitcher from the last generation would pass it down to the next generation. Some guys wouldn’t do it, but you felt like you were passing down this incredible gift. You really did.’’

Then Darling added in his unique explanatory way, “You really felt like you were giving the gift of pitching life to your brethren. I know David Cone took to it religiously and I know that no one was any stronger than David.’’

I asked Darling if any pitchers are doing this drill today in 2021.

Manager Yogi Berra of the New York Mets looks on while Mets trainer Tom McKenna attends to Jerry Grote #15 during the World Series against the Oakland Athletics at the Oakland Coliseum on October 1973 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images)

“I think they have taken it to a new art form with the bands and a lot of the new technology they have,’’ he said. “But it’s kind of like the jumping jack or the pushup. It doesn’t matter how many weight machines that you get or how many Peletons you have, if you do pushups and some sit-ups you are still going to be in pretty good shape.’’

Old school works.

Darling would never push what worked for him on to this generation of pitchers. “I think in today’s game you stay in your own lane,’’ he said. “Gone are the days when I (as a Mets pitcher) would play bridge with Bob Murphy and Ralph Kiner on the flight. It’s more of a ‘stay in your own lane’. The ballplayers are the ballplayers and the announcers are the announcers.’’

No one broadcasts a baseball game like Ron, Keith and Gary as Mets fan know and love. Darling is not only heard on Mets broadcasts and MLB Network, he just re-upped with TBS as well.

Tom McKenna

Former Mets Trainer Tom McKenna

May 21st will mark the 40th anniversary of the St. John’s Redmen (back then they were the Redmen) vs. Yale Bulldogs at Yale Field in the first round of the 1981 NCAA Northeast Regional tournament. Darling not only threw 176 pitches that day for Yale, he pitched a no-hitter through 11 innings, only to lose 1-0 in 12 innings.

In Darling’s terrific book from 12 years ago: The Complete Game (Reflections on Baseball, Pitching and Life on the Mound), Darling goes into wonderful detail of that classic game against Viola and writes of that pitching performance “I offer it here as a textbook example of the beautiful cruelty of our national pastime.’’

Those 16 words say it all. Darling and Viola delivered the perfect pitcher’s duel and that game is, according to the NCAA’s own website, “widely considered to be the greatest college baseball game ever played.’’

The game was not only 22 combined innings of shutout baseball by two future major league pitchers and teammates, but St. John’s was 31-2. Darling struck out 16 batters and fired those 11 innings of no-hit baseball.

The game was the perfect storm of baseball history at storied Yale Field and was chronicled by Hall of Fame baseball writer Roger Angell for The New Yorker, making it even more famous. Angell watched the game alongside Hall of Famer Smoky Joe Wood, 91, who once won 34 games in a season for the Red Sox, carrying the Red Sox to the 1912 World Championship, winning another three games in the World Series. He eventually went on to manage the Yale baseball team. Wood was a fixture at the ballfield for decades and attended this game. Oh yes, Yale’s president was at the game as well, a fellow named Bart Giamatti, who would go on to be MLB’s Commissioner.

How is that for a setup to a big college game?

The years flowed quickly.

“You never know when an event in your life is going to be something that stays with you,’’ Darling told me of that day. “Here was a simple college game in a regional playoff and it ended up being one of the most famous games in the history of the sport, in college baseball.

“The things I always remember from that game, I remember when I gave up the hit to Steve Scafa, who broke it up and eventually scored the winning run, that the entire St. John’s bench stood up and gave me a standing ovation in the dugout. I will never forget that as long as I live.’’

What a moment of sportsmanship

“That showed you how classy that St. John’s team, their coach (Joe Russo) and everybody was, it was a special moment that I will never forget.’’

Darling added, “I don’t know what it says about me but the most famous game I ever pitched, I lost, 1-0. Myself, Harvey Haddix and maybe some others that will probably be on our gravestone.’’

For Darling, all things considered, it was a surprise that he was even on the mound that season. He did not play baseball at Yale to become a pitcher even though he had an angry slider and an overpowering fastball.

“I was kind of new to pitching,’’ he said. “I was pitching because they wanted me to. I wasn’t pitching because I wanted to. I wanted to be the next Cal Ripken Jr. The talent stopped that but that’s who I wanted to be. I pitched because our team needed me to pitch. So some of the parts of the game for those who had pitched their entire life, did not come as easy to me.’’

Holding runners was a challenge, and after that bloop hit that day cost Darling. Eventually, he would turn himself into a Gold Glove pitcher through hard work.

Darling could hit, too. In the 1980 Cape Cod League All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, he singled, doubled and homered to win MVP honors. “I remember after the game Gene Michael handed out the award for the Most Valuable Player of the game and I just remember being so smitten. In those days if Stick Michael felt like you could play, that was your entrée to baseball. That was a sign of approval, so to get it from Stick really meant something to me.’’

Darling was the ninth pick of the 1981 draft by the Texas Rangers. Ten months later he was traded to the Mets. His Mets career took off with the help of McKenna.

Ron Darling At Bat

Ron Darling at bat. (Photo: Yale Athletics / New Haven Register)

Now he has high hopes for the 2021 Mets with new owner Steve Cohen and the additions of catcher James McCann and All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor.

“You can’t abandon your pitching staff by putting a poor defense out there,’’ Darling said of the Mets’ upgrades. “People in charge certainly know that. That old adage of being strong up the middle offensively and defensively still works. So all the new ideas are old ideas that have been around forever.

“That being said, I think for the Mets, you just have a Perfect Storm. You’ve got a real accomplished baseball man in Sandy Alderson that this just might be his last hurrah, so anyone who has their last hurrah wants to make sure that it is a successful one. You’ve got a new owner that’s excited about his team. For Mets fans, whether it’s true or not, they just always wanted to feel as though they had an owner that cared as much as they do and I think they feel that way with Steve Cohen. So they’re in a good place. The key is how do you get the analytics to work to put together a ballclub, 26 men who all have a purpose, all have a role, all pulling on the same rope that gives you the chance to have a championship season.

“That’s the analytics I want to see and I think they are on their way to doing that.’’

That is the template to success.

Darling also has high praise for his former World Series teammate Darryl Strawberry, now a pastor, and has written a fascinating new book called Turn Your Season Around.

Darling offered these encouraging words regarding how a person can change during a lifetime.

“It doesn’t make any sense to judge people by what used to be,’’ Darling said. “Very few people went through the experience that Darryl had to go through, having a whole city on his back to rescue an entire organization. I’m sure there are a thousand things that he would like to take back, but all of us would. Not only ballplayers but just regular folks. There’s a lot of things that we would like to change but all we can do is move forward and get better.’’

Wise words from a wise baseball man, who had the good sense to listen to the ABCs of pitching health from a veteran trainer.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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