The last time Ron Darling covered the National League playoffs as a Turner Sports analyst, the Mets came along for the ride through the NLCS in 2015.
Two years later, it is Turner’s turn on the NL again, starting with the wild-card game on Oct. 4, but while Darling will be there the team whose games he calls all season on SNY will not.
What would late March Ron Darling have said if late September Darling had traveled back in time to tell him that?
“I would’ve said you were crazy,” he said during a lunch in Manhattan on Tuesday to promote Turner’s coverage. “In March someone asked me about the Mets this year, and I guess you have to watch out what you say, because I said, ‘It’s going to be a historic year for the pitching staff.’
“And it has been! So I think I should have been a little more specific.”
Darling referenced historic expectations in more than one interview before the season, including in Newsday, saying, “If they pitch the way they’re capable of, they could have one of those seasons that people will talk about for a long time in the history of the game.”
“I think that this just goes to show you that that eternal optimism you always have as an athlete doesn’t change, even as a broadcaster,” he said Tuesday. “So I just always think that this is going to be it . . . It was kind of a perfect storm of guys having to prove themselves. And then it didn’t come close to that, and I was completely wrong.
“So, am I surprised? I’m surprised. Ninety losses after the first game [Monday] night, right? Hard to even imagine . . . Yes, I’m completely surprised that at some point I’m not following the Mets around in October like I did two years ago.”
Having the Mets involved makes things easier on Darling when it comes to things such as travel and preparation, but it also brings with it “an added level of vitriol from [fans of] the team that’s playing them,” as he put it.
But he said Mets fans also complain during the playoffs about him not sounding sufficiently Mets-centric. “Mets fans thought that they weren’t getting their SNY guy,” he said.
As an analyst, Darling will not be involved in Yankees playoff games, with the American League set for Fox, FS1, ESPN and MLB Network. But as a fan of the game and someone who has been based in New York for 35 years, he is duly impressed with the team from the Bronx.
“I think it’s remarkable,” he said. “If we could read their minds or think about what it was at the end of July last year, when [Aroldis] Chapman and [Andrew] Miller left, it was, OK, this is the proper move, but it’s going to take two or three years to rebound, to come back to the playoffs.
“For them to rebound this quickly – now, you didn’t know that [Aaron] Judge was going to be Ruthian, so you can’t always account for that. But I think it’s remarkable that they’re in the playoffs. Not only in the playoffs, but they have a chance to pull off like a 2011 Cardinals, where their starters go 4 1/3 [innings] and the bullpen takes over.
“They have a chance to do that, and we’ve seen Joe [Girardi], how he manages in the regular season. He’s not afraid. He knows how to manage that kind of game. So I think it’s not only remarkable that they’re in it, but don’t be surprised if they go a little further than you think.”
Like everyone else, Darling has been impressed by Judge’s historic – there’s that word again – rookie year.
“To walk as a young player as much as he’s walked is a real transformation,” Darling said. “If you said he struck out 200 times, hit 40 home runs and his on-base was .320, you wouldn’t be surprised, right? You would say, well, that’s kind of what you expected from him: a lot of strikeouts, a lot of home runs.
“But he’s a complete player. He can defend, he can throw, he can run. Now, he hasn’t mastered the strike zone, because we saw what happened in the middle of the summer. But he’s on his way. I think it’s just amazing how quickly he’s come, because big hitters are kind of like lefthanded, tall pitchers. They seem to come slowly because there are a lot of moving parts.
“I don’t know this for a fact, if he worked at all with A-Rod, but at times his swing looks very Alex Rodriguez-like, just on a bigger level.”
Still, Darling said his pick for AL MVP would be the Astros’ Jose Altuve. “I just don’t think it’s [Judge’s] time now,” he said. “I think he’ll win one. I just don’t think it’s his time.”
Darling has been with Turner for a decade now, a job for which he is grateful but which does not include a chance to work the World Series. Fox has rights to that event through 2021.
“I think that when you first start doing this job and you think that you can be good at it, you want to have a chance to do the World Series,” he said. “But one of the reasons I don’t do the World Series is because I am a loyal kind of guy, and I feel like Turner has been so loyal to me. So I think we’re symbiotically perfect for each other, and perfect in this moment.
“Now, would I be unhappy if Turner, next time they divvy up, can get the World Series? No, I would not be unhappy . . . But I do know there’s horses for courses, and I’m so happy with the gig I’ve got, sometimes you have to watch out what you wish for. I’m here, where I belong, and that’s how I feel, 100 percent.”
Darling grew up in Massachusetts, but after spending a majority of his life in New York, he has come to appreciate the fact it remains a baseball town, and remains devoted to him and his fellow 1986 Mets.
“I feel that, because to this day, even as a lowly announcer, people still treat me like I was treated when I was 25 years old,” he said. “I know that doesn’t come from any other reason than that I’ve been associated with baseball in this town for my entire life . . . I do feel it all the time, and I’m lucky.”