In 108 Stitches, Ron Darling offers his own take on the "six degrees of separation" game and knits together a collection of wild, wise, and wistful stories reflecting the full arc of a life in and around our national pastime.
Darling has played with or reported on just about everybody who has put on a uniform since 1983, and they in turn have played with or reported on just about everybody who put on a uniform in a previous generation. Through relationships with baseball legends on and off the field, like Yale coach Smoky Joe Wood, Willie Mays, Bart Giamatti, Tom Seaver and Mickey Mantle, Darling's reminiscences reach all the way back to Babe Ruth and other turn-of-the-century greats.
Like the 108 stitches on a baseball, Darling's experiences are interwoven with every athlete who has ever played, every coach or manager who ever sat in a dugout, and with every fan who ever played hooky from work or school to sit in the bleachers for a day game.
Darling's anecdotes come together to tell the story of his time in the game, and the story of the game itself.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.48(w) x 8.33(h) x 0.79(d)|
About the Author
Daniel Paisner has collaborated with dozens of public figures on their autobiographies and memoirs. He is also the author of A Single Happened Thing and the acclaimed chronicle of the 1998 baseball season, The Ball.
Read an Excerpt
Drop and Drive
How far does this through-line stretch?
Well, for me, it reaches all the way back to 1883, when a journeyman catcher named Dell Darling had a cup of coffee with the Buffalo Bisons of the National League, alongside future Hall of Famers Dan Brouthers, Deacon White, Pud Galvin, and player-manager Jim O'Rourke. Darling collected three hits in 18 at-bats, over six games, although if you described his short tenure in this caffeinated way he wouldn't have had any idea what you were talking about.
A cup of coffee? What the hell was that?
This particular Darling would come back a couple years later and stick with Cap Anson's Chicago White Stockings, establishing himself as a reliable utility man, and he rates a mention here because of his name, which in a sidelong way also happens to be mine. See, like a lot of baseball-mad kids, I was in the habit of losing myself in the statistics and ephemera on the backs of the baseball cards I used to flip and trade with my brothers. I was a sucker for baseball history, and with a name like Darling it was only a matter of time before I started scouring the pages of the Baseball Encyclopedia to see if there were any other Darlings who'd played the game. I suppose I would have done the same thing if my name had been Smith, or Jones, or Molina. These days, of course, I could do a search online and see if I shared not only a name but a birthday with any of the all-time greats, or a hometown, or a hobby, but when I was a kid our search engines were pretty much confined to alphabetical order — a familiar crutch I'll lean on as these pages develop.
What's worth remarking on Dell Darling's otherwise unremarkable career, which spanned a total of 175 games over parts of six seasons, was how it ended — and, relatedly, how it bumped against a story that made an indelible mark on what was left of my childhood.
Here's the front end of that tale:
About a year after his final big league game, Darling married a woman from his hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, named Anna Crum. The couple wound up having seven children, but before all those kids started piling up my namesake made a whole new name for himself, when he was connected to a series of railroad heists that seemed to borrow a page from the stagecoach robberies that had once been a sad fact of life in the Wild, Wild West. Allegedly, Darling and the other suspects would hide out on these passenger trains, and while everyone slept or drank or stared at the passing scenery they'd toss luggage and other belongings from the moving cars. Then they'd hop off the train and double back to assess and collect their ill-gotten gains.
Quite a legacy, huh? No, it's not like we were related or anything, but I had enough trouble wearing a name like Darling when I was growing up, so it's not like this black mark would have done me any favors if I thought to mention this loose connection to any of my friends.
It turned out Darling's role in these robberies might have been overstated, because he was released shortly after his arrest, together with several of his former teammates, including a somewhat more accomplished ballplayer from Erie named Lou Bierbauer. With that bit of unpleasantness behind him and the stain on "our" good name not as bad as it first appeared, Darling tried to latch on with another professional club, eventually retiring to Erie, where he found work doing odd jobs, mostly as a blacksmith and painter. He died just after the birth of his seventh child, at the age of forty-two — quite possibly from the long-term effects of an old baseball injury, according to some newspaper accounts. What was curious about Darling's passing was that he died around the time his purported accomplice Bierbauer was widowed as well, throwing the former Mrs. Darling into the arms of the suspected train robber. Anna Darling wound up marrying Bierbauer, and the couple went on to have two children of their own, who joined the Darling kids and Bierbauer's three children from his previous marriage to form a bustling Brady Bunch–type household.
Some story. And the bridge to the next story I want to tell is that it marked one of the first times in baseball history that teammates ended up sharing the same spouse, a rarity that would serve as the backdrop to one of the most sensational stories of my own baseball-aware childhood. As reaches go, this one's a bit of a stretch, I'll admit. But when you follow the bouncing ball you never know where it might land ...
In 1973, as many readers will surely recall, New York Yankee pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich ended up trading wives, a domestic shuffling that confused the hell out of this twelve-year-old Massachusetts kid. Oh, man ... this was a big, big deal, more Peyton Place than SportsCenter, about as far removed from a turn-of-the-century Brady Bunch scenario as you could get, and a sure sign to us Red Sox fans that the hated Yankees were in league with the devil. Actually, the two teammates didn't just trade wives — they swapped out their entire families, right down to the family dog. It was a weird, wild story, and a sign of the times, I guess, only at twelve years old I couldn't think what to make of it. It was exciting and lurid and a little bit creepy, and it had almost nothing to do with baseball other than the concomitant fact that the game just happened to be the place of business for these two friends and teammates. Still, whenever I heard the name of Fritz Peterson, who went on to pitch 11 seasons for the Yankees, Indians, and Rangers, or Mike Kekich, who pitched for the Dodgers, Yankees, Indians, Rangers, and Mariners over nine big league seasons, I was taken back to the Swingin' Seventies, where players wore shag hairdos and porn mustaches and wide-collared leisure suits that would have made their predecessors lift an eyebrow and wonder what the world was coming to.
Well, what it was coming to was ... this.
For years afterward my mind would flash back to the tabloid headlines that had attached to this story, and when I was chosen in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Texas Rangers, a team that had been Peterson's last stop in 1976, and one of Kekich's last stops in 1975, I thought about it yet again. Keep in mind, I didn't think about it a whole lot — it was just a fleeting thought, really, but once I learned what it was like to move about in the game, and to throw in with a group of twenty-four other guys in pursuit of a shared goal and our separate and hardly equal livelihoods, I began to look on this story in a whole new light. For some reason, I was dimly aware of this Texas connection, since I'd half-followed the career arcs of these two men with a kind of prurient interest, and in my own racing imagination at least it went from being a soap opera sideshow to an instructive lesson on what it meant to be part of a major league clubhouse. Surely, I thought, there would be players and coaches and front office personnel still active in the Rangers organization who had played with or coached or generally managed one or the other — and, I've got to be honest, I was wondering what it must have been like to hang around the locker room with these guys, when all of this was going down. Trouble was, I could never bring it up. When you're a rookie, you're expected to keep your head down and your mouth shut, so for me to have shown up in camp in 1981 asking all these Peeping Tom–ish questions about two players who had last pitched for the Rangers five and six years earlier would have been to call way more attention to myself than my plain station deserved.
Plus, it just wouldn't have been cool.
And yet every time I crossed paths with someone who might have played with one of these guys, I took note. Just to be clear, I still never said anything, or pressed for any details, basically because it still wouldn't have been cool, but a part of me was always dying to know what things were like in that Yankee clubhouse in that scandalous summer of 1973.
How do you look at your teammate after something like that goes down? What do you say to one of the "traded" wives, when she shows up at the team's spring training complex? Or, worse, when she brings her kids to one of those "family days" baseball teams are always hosting? Was it something you could razz a guy about, same way you'd throw it back at him if you caught him wearing women's underwear, or passing out after an epic bender, or was it off-limits?
Whatever it was that drew me to this Peterson-Kekich affair, I just couldn't shake it — hey, when you hear a story like this at twelve years old, you're stuck filtering it through the lens of an adolescent male child for the rest of your days. In fairness to me, I had no choice but to snicker.
One of the first times I encountered a former teammate of Peterson's and Kekich's was when I joined the Mets and was in the habit of taking my meals by myself at an Italian joint in my neighborhood — Pino's, run by a former Red Sox pitcher named Jerry Casale. A lot of ballplayers hung out at Jerry's place, I would soon learn, including Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Billy Martin, who just happened to be sitting at one of the tables one night having a big old time. I was maybe a couple years into my career, and this had become my routine, following a home game. I'd shower and dress at Shea Stadium, head back to the city, and stop in at Pino's for a nightcap and a bite to eat.
I've told this story before, most notably in my book Game 7, 1986, but I wasn't focused on the Peterson-Kekich connection in the previous telling. And it won't really make its way into this account, either, other than this bit of reaching and stretching in the setup. See, these three Yankee greats had all retired by the time of this notorious "wife-swap," but Mickey and Whitey had played with Peterson for a couple seasons before hanging up their cleats, and Billy ended up managing the Texas Rangers for part of Kekich's one and only season with the club, so these guys knew the deal. Plus, they'd been drinking — a lot — so it's not like they would have been in any position to judge me for trying to tease out this story.
But, regrettably, it never came up — and the reason it never came up (natch!) was because I was once again too chickenshit to bring it up. The thought ran right through my head, and left with the first round of drinks, after these Yankee greats invited me to their table. They knew who I was, I'd been in the papers, and they were baseball lifers at heart. One of them kicked a chair out for me and said, "Sit down, rook."
So I sat down — a baseball lifer in training.
We talked a little about the state of the game, about some of the Mets' young players, but mostly I just sat and listened as these old pals traded stories. Jerry Casale made sure the 7 and 7s kept coming. That's what they were all drinking. And drinking. I tried to keep up, in what ways I could, although there was no way I could match these guys drink for drink. I was drinking beers, as I recall, so I was able to hold my own for a good long while up against the three stiff drinkers.
For a moment in there, I told myself I belonged at this table with these Yankee legends, but this was just a foolish thought, and I was disabused of this notion almost immediately, as Mickey, Whitey, and Billy stood to leave, leaving me with the bill. The tab came to about $300 — including thirty-six 7 and 7s for the old-timers. I'd lost track of our rounds by the time the bill came around, but it was an astonishing thing for me to consider, that these guys had each put away a dozen drinks and were somehow able to saunter from the bar without a shuffle or a wobble or a stammer.
In those days, I'd max out at about $400 in my checking account, so there was no way I could cover the bill and pay my rent, and as I walked sheepishly over to Jerry to let him know I was short, he smiled — said, "Don't worry about it, kid. Those guys never pay for their drinks."
It was one of those nights you want to bottle and set aside. Think of it: me, a babe in these woods, whooping it up with these icons, fitting myself into the rhythms and trappings of the game as if I had been there all along.
* * *
Probably the closest I ever came to asking someone about the Peterson-Kekich affair was when Mel Stottlemyre became the Mets pitching coach during my first full year with the club. Mel had been part of that Yankee pitching staff for a bunch of years in the late 1960s, early 1970s, so if anyone had a front-row seat to how that wife-swapping bombshell went down it would have been Mel.
What a lot of people forget about Mel was that before he became one of the great pitching coaches in the game, before he became better known as the father of Todd and Mel Jr., he was a stud. He made the All-Star team five times in his first six seasons, when a shoulder injury changed the course of what might have been a Hall of Fame career. He continued to pitch effectively for another five or six years, the ace of the staff on a series of mediocre Yankee teams, but I went and looked at the back of his baseball card after he joined the Mets coaching staff and I was blown away by his stat line — over 250 innings pitched for nine straight years! A staggering 152 complete games! The numbers were super-human, compared to the pitching lines I'd see in my day.
My thing as a young player was to assume that all these former-players-turned-coaches, most of them All-Stars or Cy Young Award winners or MVPs, would be brimming with knowledge and hard-won wisdom. I was eager to soak up whatever they had to teach me ... but that's not exactly how it worked. The algorithm of the game was such that you never really made any money, so a lot of former ballplayers would hang on in what ways they could to keep that paycheck coming. These days, the stars of the game are so well paid, there's no reason for them to stick around, so you wind up with a lot of journeyman types in these roles. I suppose this can be seen as a kind of blessing in disguise, because most of the guys who fight to hang on to their big league careers are paying good and close attention. They're taking notes, studying the nooks and crannies of the game in a way that might make them better prepared for a coaching role.
When I was coming up, early 1980s, most managers filled out their coaching staffs with their buddies, and the coach's job was to drink with the manager, in a sycophantic kind of way. After they'd had a few, they'd sit around and not-so-quietly criticize their players. My very first major league pitching coach, when I was called up to the Mets to make five starts at the end of the 1983 season, was Bill Monbouquette. Naturally, as a lifelong Red Sox fan, I remembered Monbo, a twenty-game winner who'd pitched a no-hitter against the White Sox, so I was excited to learn at his feet. But Monbo's coaching advice was essentially limited to two words: drop and drive. That was the style of pitching mastered by the Mets' ace Tom Seaver, who was back with the team for a second tour, and Monbo was the sort of coach who figured that if it worked for one of the greatest pitchers of all time it would work for all — letting me know that if I had come to these major leagues expecting to find a group of caring, insightful coaches prepared to coach individual players individually I was bound to be disappointed.
"Drop and drive, son," Monbo would always say — always, as in always. It was his answer to every situation.
I'd want to talk to him about how I might get this guy out, how I'd pitch around that guy, but this was all he'd ever say to me.
"Drop and drive, son."
Apparently, it covered just about every situation a young pitcher might find himself in, because I'd hear him saying the same thing to the other young pitchers on the club. (To the veterans, too!)
Mel Stottlemyre wasn't like that — no, sir. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that I've had three father figures in my life: my own father, Mel, and Dave Duncan, my pitching coach in Oakland. As far as baseball went, my dad didn't really leave a mark on me. Don't get me wrong, he had a profound influence on my childhood, and he knew the game, but he didn't know it well enough to teach me, so at fourteen or so I graduated from his tutelage and started playing American Legion ball, where the rosters were filled with college players and our coaches knew a thing or two. Later on, in time to coach my brothers, my father became a student of the game, but with me his advice had mostly to do with instilling confidence and discipline, and nourishing my love of the game and my taste for competition. He couldn't help me with my arm angle or my approach, so he had no choice but to kind of hand me off to my coaches — first in high school, and then again in a more meaningful way when I went off to Yale — and hope like crazy these guys would take care of me.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "108 Stitches"
Copyright © 2019 Ron Darling.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
Warm-Up: The Ties That Bind
1. Drop and Drive
2. “A” Is for “Aase”
3. Coming Up
4. “H” Is for “Hodges”
5. Some Crying in Baseball
6. “Q” Is for “Quirk”
7. Head Games
8. “Z” Is for “Zimmer”
9. In the Booth
10. The Only Living Boy in New York
Cool-Down: The State of the Game