By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
With the New York Mets, Ron Darling was an all-star, a Gold Glove Award winner, a 1986 World Series champion and he’s scheduled to be inducted into their Hall of Fame this year.
Later in his playing career, he became a key member of the Oakland A’s starting rotation and today, he’s an award-winning analyst on TBS broadcasts.
But do you remember his three starts for the Montreal Expos in July 1991?
So I decided to do some research.
By the time Expos general manager Dave Dombrowski acquired Darling from the Mets, along with left-handed pitching prospect Mike Thomas, in exchange for struggling reliever Tim Burke, on July 15, 1991, Darling was a 30-year-old veteran battling inconsistency and trying to find his form following off-season elbow surgery.
With the Mets from 1983 to 1991, Darling won 12 or more games in a season six times and posted a 99-70 record and a 3.50 ERA in 257 appearances. He also made three starts and recorded a 1.53 ERA in the 1986 World Series.
His final two campaigns in The Big Apple, however, had been a struggle. Darling was being shuffled between the bullpen and the starting rotation. And with the July 31st trade deadline approaching in 1991, the Mets had left-hander Sid Fernandez returning from an injury and had committed to giving 27-year-old right-hander Wally Whitehurst an extended look in the rotation. Mets GM Frank Cashen had also made it known that he had no plans to re-sign Darling when his contract – which paid him close to $2 million in 1991 – expired at the end of the season.
So Darling knew his time with the Mets was ending, but he was surprised when he learned that he had been dealt to the Expos on July 15. He had heard that contending teams like the Boston Red Sox, Oakland A’s and Toronto Blue Jays were interested, but not the Expos, who at 41-49, were not going to the post-season.
But Darling didn’t mind heading to Montreal. Though he was born in Hawaii, he had grandparents that were French Canadian (Writer’s Note: They had adopted his father, so they weren’t his biological grandparents.) and lived in Montreal, and between the ages of 6 and 11, Darling had spent a portion of his summers at their place.
“I know there are players that don’t want to play in Montreal, but I’m not one of them,” said Darling to the Montreal Gazette after the trade. “It’s one of my favourite cities in the National League to travel to. It’s been that way since I’ve been in the league.”
Darling was also happy that the Expos planned to use him as a starting pitcher.
“No. 1, I’m lucky to be able to play this game,” he told the Montreal Gazette. “No. 2, I’m going to a team that wants me to pitch well for them as a starter. My philosophy has been that things work out the way they’re supposed to in this game.”
The veteran right-hander also said he would be willing to consider a long-term deal with the Expos.
“Really, I’m not adverse to anything. If they want to sit down and talk, then fine, I’ll listen,” said Darling. “But if they think they can use me to help better themselves with another trade, then that’s OK too.”
Dombrowski was frank when asked about his intentions with Darling. He told the media that the deal for the Mets righty was made primarily to rid them of Burke’s contract, which paid him more than $2 million in 1991 and around the same amount in 1992. The Expos GM was also excited to receive Thomas, a 21-year-old, left-handed pitching prospect in the transaction.
“There’s no sense in trying to fool anyone,” Dombrowski told the New York Daily News in an article published on July 21, 1991. “Darling could be traded and traded very soon. That’s one of the three options we have – and the most likely one considering the other two are either signing him to a big long-term deal or letting him walk as a free agent at the end of the season.”
So it was under this tenuous commitment that Darling reported to Montreal on July 18 and was told he would start against the San Francisco Giants two days later.
In that July 20th start, his only home appearance as an Expo, Darling struggled with his command and allowed four runs when he had two outs in an inning. Matt Williams and Robby Thompson socked back-to-back home runs off him in the fifth inning, and in the end, he lasted six innings and permitted eight hits and five runs (four of them earned).
“I didn’t pitch well,” he told the Associated Press. “I’m disappointed and I don’t have any excuses. My ball was up all night and I paid the price for it.”
Darling started again for the Expos five days later against the San Diego Padres at Jack Murphy Stadium. Jeff Blair, of the Montreal Gazette, reported that Darling battled control of his fork ball throughout the game and unleashed three wild pitches, but the veteran still left the game with a 5-4 lead after six innings and was in line for the win. Darling also contributed at the plate with a two-run double in the second inning.
Unfortunately, Expos reliever Barry Jones coughed up a two-run, walk-off home run to Padres second baseman Bip Roberts with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to give his club a 6-5 win.
With the sting of that defeat still fresh, Darling took the mound for the Expos again five days later – and one day before the trade deadline – against the Giants at Candlestick Park. The savvy vet was hit hard and became just the fifth Expos hurler to allow four home runs in a game when Will Clark and Matt Williams both took him deep twice in the Giants’ 10-3 romp. In all, Darling was lit up for seven runs in five innings.
“I pitched backwards,” Darling told the Montreal Gazette after the game. “I threw my breaking ball early for balls and then all I could do is come back with fastballs. This is very disappointing. I wanted to come in and pitch well for this team because they’ve made me feel very welcome. Today wasn’t the fault of [manager] Tom Runnells or anyone else. It was my fault. All mine.
“Right now, I don’t know if anyone would want me. I don’t know if the Expos would even want me.”
The day after that game, however, Darling found out that – despite his 7.41 ERA in three starts for the Expos – the Oakland A’s did, in fact, want him. The reigning American League pennant winners were desperate for starting pitching and just minutes began the trade deadline, they agreed to send pitching prospects Russ Cormier and Matt Grott to the Expos for Darling.
Though Darling didn’t lead the A’s to the post-season in 1991 (4.08 ERA in 12 starts), he resurrected his career with the club the following year, going 15-10 with a 3.66 ERA in 33 starts to help lead them to another division title. He held on to pitch parts of three more seasons with the A’s.
In all, Darling posted a 136-116 record and a 3.87 ERA in 382 games in 15 MLB seasons, before graduating to the broadcast booth.
In April 2019, the courageous ex-hurler underwent surgery to remove a mass from his chest and it was revealed that he had thyroid cancer. Less than a month later, he announced that the cancer had been stabilized and he returned to the broadcast booth.
That was great news.
I’m hoping for the best for this Mets legend, award-winning broadcaster and yes, former Montreal Expo.
Just one very obscure Ron Darling memory: I had read that he had learned some French as a boy, and had taken it at Yale. By then, most of the Expos games that I saw were on Radio-Canada, so after the trade I was hoping to see if they would interview him in French. Sure enough, on the first telecast, they did. As I recall, he wasn’t able to answer every question in French, but he did better than most major leaguers would. There were not many more opportunities after that, as you say.
That’s a great memory, David. Thanks for sharing this. I had read that Darling also spoke a little French at home when he lived in Shrewsbury, Mass., and took French classes in high school. I was going to include this, but I felt like I was already pushing it with my high word count on this article. Thanks for your support. Hope you are doing well.
Nice. So cool he had the Montreal connection. Thanks Kevin
Thanks for your support, Scott. Hope you are well.
At least he was in the dugout for Dennis Martinez perfect game juste before the trade… Right?
That is true. I probably should have mentioned that. Thanks for sharing this.
I think that picture is from that day. It’s clearly Dodger Stadium, and it looks like the daytime, and the perfect game was the only day game of that series.
Yes, that seems likely. Nice detective, David. Thank you for your help and support.