For years I had heard about it: A story called “The Web of the Game” by celebrated baseball writer Roger Angell, who wrote about a college pitchers’ duel in May of 1981 between future Met Ron Darling and future Twin Frank Viola. The story is included in a collection of Angell’s writing called “Game Time,” which I snapped up at a Port Townsend bookstore over the weekend.
Yale's Ron Darling and @StJohnU's @FrankViola16 locked horns in one of the greatest pitchers' duels of all time on this date in 1981. pic.twitter.com/SfXVZvciAS
— The Twins Almanac (@TwinsAlmanac) May 21, 2018
This Twins fan, though, must confess: I was disappointed. It is not a blow-by-blow account of the work Darling and Viola did that day. In fact, it’s less about the game and more about Angell, 91-year-old former pitcher Smoky Joe Wood and former New Haven mayor and Yale booster Richard Lee and their observations that afternoon of Yale University vs. St. John’s University.
It also suffers from what we might now call “New England bias.”
There’s plenty about Yale and Darling and Wood, who once won 34 games for the Boston Red Sox, and Lee and Angell’s delight in meeting Wood, who also later coached the Yale University baseball team after his playing days were over. A baseball game can’t be played without an opponent, so we finally learn that Darling will face Viola of working-class St. John’s University of Queens, New York.
The story gushes about Darling. Former mayor Lee compares him to Hall of Fame pitcher Carl Hubbell. Thankfully, Wood’s many years of baseball wisdom shoots down that comparison. Instead, he knocks him down a notch and compares him to Dennis Eckersley.
What do we learn about Viola? Not much. We know he was 9-0 with a 1.00 ERA, and while Darling has a Tom Seaver-like fastball, Viola has the “stuff and poise of a veteran relief pitcher.”
Angell on Viola:
“A lanky, sharp-shouldered lefty, he threw an assortment of speeds and spins, mostly sinkers and down-darting sliders, that had Yale batters swinging from their shoe tops and, for the most part, hammering the ball into the dirt.”
Darling, admittedly, pitches a whale of a game. He no-hits St. John’s for 11 innings, but Yale didn’t win that day. It’s not until the very end of the story that you learn that Viola and a reliever shut out Yale 1-0 in 12 innings. Viola struck out eight with four walks in 11 innings, while Darling went the distance, allowing one unearned run with five walks and 16 strikeouts.
From the point of view of a Twins fan, the story was disappointing, but it was still interesting and Angell clearly is a gifted writer. His story about former Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitcher Steve Blass, who essentially woke up one morning and could no longer throw strikes, is one of the best baseball stories I’ve ever read.
How would it end for Darling and Viola? Darling would be drafted ninth by the Texas Rangers, while Viola would be the 37th pick of the Twins.
-So much for the winning streak. It ended at five games Tuesday after the Twins lost 9-4 to the Royals. Let’s not get our hopes up just yet, Twins fans.