In my review of Ron Darling’s previous book, I wrote it would have been much, much better had he included more baseball stories like the one he told about finding himself drinking with Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Billy Martin. Well, apparently he took my advice because his new book, “108 Stitches” is all baseball stories. And it is a vast improvement on his prior disappointing literary effort.
The title refers to the number of stitches on a baseball, but it also meant to signify how baseball is one big tapestry, the threads stitched together by all of the stories that make the sport so great, and how each story leads to the next. That’s all well and good, but after Darling and co-author Daniel Paisner set up the premise, they continue to hit us over the head with it. Often writing things like, “this story is threaded to this one…” and “here’s the next story…” To me, it is indicative of writers who either are not confident in their abilities or are not confident readers will understand what they are trying to do. But the end result is that I knew I was reading a book; I could not get fully engrossed. For an example of how to do this right, check out Bill Bryson’s “One Summer: America, 1927.” He starts out telling a story about Babe Ruth, goes off on one tangent after the next and comes full circle to Ruth again. He does it seamlessly; you are so fully engrossed in the story, you don’t even realize he has gone off on many tangents. Just superb writing.
Now, having said that, this is a very enjoyable book. Darling takes us inside the clubhouse and into the mind of a baseball player — two places fans rarely get to glimpse. It is often not a flattering view. After being reserved in his previous book, Darling pulls no punches here, even when he is the one who comes off as the jerk. Ballplayers are often not the nicest people.
We all know about the Lenny Dykstra allegations, as well as the passages perceived as negative about Gary Carter and Bob Murphy. But Darling saves his harshest words for two unlikely targets — Frank Howard and Ron Hodges.
Howard is generally known as a gentle giant, but in Darling’s opinion, Howard was a first-class ass, as well as a terrible manager. Desperate to hold onto his job late in the 1983 season, for example, Howard chose to pinch hit for Jose Oquendo in the third inning in an attempt to win a meaningless game. Instead of trying to cultivate a young talent, Howard chose to destroy his confidence instead.
As far as Hodges, the long-time Mets backup catcher walked over to Darling in the dugout on his very first day in the majors, spit a wad of tobacco juice on his pants leg, and sauntered away without saying a word. A humiliated Darling said he sat in the dugout all game, trying to hide the stain, not to mention the shame.
Speaking of backup catchers, Darling goes into detail about Mackey Sasser and his infamous yips. He said it was hard for teammates to sympathize with him because Sasser was unapologetic about the impact his condition had on the team. Darling got a measure of revenge when he helped set up Sasser with a transvestite!
Darling also is honest about people whom he might come in contact with in the future, such as TBS broadcasting partner Frank Thomas (a whiny baby as a player) and Michael Milken (he didn’t like what the notorious Wall Streeter stood for in the 80s). Milken is a yearly guest in the Mets booth to promote colon cancer awareness. Darling writes that he excuses himself from the booth during those half innings, ostensibly so Milken can have a place to sit.
There are plenty of stories about Darling’s days with the Mets — both as a player and a broadcaster. But you don’t have to be a Mets fan to enjoy this book. It helps to be a baseball fan, but you really don’t have to be that, either, to have a great time.