The Complete Game: Reflections on Baseball and the Art of Pitching by Ron Darling (Vintage Books 2010), 272 pages
TV companies are always quick to offer jobs to retired sportsmen and out-of-work managers, sometimes seemingly regardless of their ability to communicate with the viewers in an insightful and entertaining way. It’s a one question interview: “Were you a Big Leaguer? You’ve got the job”.
Amid the dross there are some players who make a seamless transition to the broadcasting booth. Virtually all broadcasters have their fans and their detractors, but for my money Ron Darling is one of the better analysts around today. His work with the Mets’ SNY channel convinced me that he could put together an interesting book about pitching and he certainly has with The Complete Game.
Darling is quick to assuage any fears that this is yet another long-winded, self-glorifying autobiography. As he puts it:
“This book is not a traditional baseball memoir. It’s not a wistful reflection on a workmanlike career. I haven’t set out to tell the story of my life or my time in the game. Rather, it’s an attempt to bring readers inside the mind of a major league pitcher – to break the game of baseball down to its component parts and to offer my take on each piece so that we might better understand the whole”.
Darling does this over ten main chapters, eight focusing on important games from his career and two from the Mets’ 2008 season. He uses an inning in each as a starting point to explore the craft of pitching and life as a Big Leaguer. The format works well as it adds a logical structure to the overall book, while giving Darling scope to cover plenty of ground without it seeming disjointed.
He does occasionally slip into those ‘in my day …’ asides that are so common from veterans, for example when bemoaning the fact that starting pitchers no longer going deep into games on a regular basis, but these moments are mercifully rare.
Darling proves to be an honest guide for the most part. While he has a quiet self-assurance that you would expect from someone who pitched for 13 years at the highest level, he doesn’t hide behind excuses or bravado. It’s refreshing to read him admit to losing his concentration on the mound when a pennant was on the line, or how he let the wind at Wrigley spook him into a poor performance.
Far from putting himself and fellow pitchers on a heroic pedestal, Darling reveals the worries and fears that even the best hurlers can be plagued by. “Let me tell you”, Darling explains, “that pitcher’s mound can be the loneliest, most vulnerable place on earth while you’re out there waiting for your manager or coach to arrive”.
Although it provides many insights into what it’s like to be a Big League pitcher, this isn’t a technical book with long sections on pitching mechanics. Darling concentrates more on the mental side of the game, such as how to deal with long offensive innings by your teammates, getting prepared for a start and learning how to pitch differently as you get older and don’t quite have the ‘stuff’ of your younger days.
It certainly gets you thinking about the “art of pitching”, as Darling puts it, but what you really take from The Complete Game is an appreciation for, and understanding of, what pitchers go through, not just on the field but off it as well.
The game is played by human beings. That’s something that can easily be lost when looking at stats and analysing the game to death, which we all can be guilty of at times. Darling’s ability to complete the New York Times crossword wouldn’t show up on Baseball-Reference.com (although it has almost everything else you could ever wish for), but it helped him to settle into the Mets’ clubhouse and things like that, difficult (impossible?) though they might be to quantify, do matter.
They matter partly because if you play sport at the highest level, you have to accept that your good days and bad days will all be played out in public: not a normal environment to work in. You also have to accept that however hard you try and however much you want to succeed, the person or team you’re competing against is in the exact same situation. And you can’t both win.
“That’s the great thing about pitching and hitting. Both sides are trying. Both sides are locked in. Both sides are bringing it. This was a World Series game, to be sure, but in one respect it was like any other game: you can do everything right and still get smacked around. Or you can do everything wrong and somehow come out on top. That’s baseball”.
Baseball is a confounding game at times, but that’s a large part of its appeal for both players and fans alike and the Complete Game reveals just why that is so.
Have you read “The Complete Game”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.