We still can’t believe that 40 years ago this week, on March 22, 1972, the worst team in NCAA baseball history took on the best team in NCAA baseball history at the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. The result? The #3-seed and #1-seed Texas Longhorns and the #2-seed and eventual champion Houston Cougars, played for 38 innings. The game is still recounted to this day, but no story is quite as important as the lives of those involved.
The NCAA baseball season may be winding down, but there are still a few games left for the nation’s top college teams to play. One of them is on Friday, as the University of Miami takes on the Florida State University Seminoles in an elimination game. The teams are tied at one game each, with Miami’s best-of-three series against the Seminoles on the line. The Hurricanes have dominated the series so far, winning three of the games, but they’re facing a much stronger opponent this week. The Seminoles have a lot of well-known talent on it, including their captain, Frank Viola, an All-American pitcher in the 1970s, and the best pitcher in the nation this season, Ron Darling.
It was only a few years ago that the NCAA baseball championship was as exciting and unpredictable as the NFL playoffs. Remember the 1991 game between eventual champion Georgia-Georgia Tech in what became known as the “Miracle on Grass”?. Read more about the web of the game and let us know what you think.It’s the second half of the day, mid-May, and we’re waiting for the game to start.
Today, May 21, 1981, marked 40 years since Roger Angell, the greatest baseball writer who ever lived, spoke those first words. On this sunny Thursday afternoon, a New York magazine reporter sits with 2,500 baseball fans in the nearly empty stands of Yale Field, home of the Bulldogs.
The match we’ve been waiting for – Yale vs. The St. John’s University Baseball Classic is an important event because it is part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Northeast Regional Tournament, the winner of which qualifies for the College Baseball World Series in Omaha in June.
This memorable moment is now considered the best college baseball game ever played. It was a duel between two future Major League stars, both working their way to the extra innings like earth movers, saturating the score with zeros for three hours until the 1-0 finally appeared on the scoreboard as night fell at the old gray-green ballpark. Both pitchers left the field that night to thunderous applause. Every year on this date, the applause reverberates. Angell’s essay at the time, The Web of Play, perhaps considered the best baseball essay ever written, was retweeted. And people again look at these statistical lines in disbelief.
Ron Darling, Yale: 12 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 5 BB, 16 K, 190 pitches, no-hitter at 11
Frank Viola, St. John’s St. John’s: 11 IP, 7 H, 0 R, 4 BB, 8 K, 160+ pitches.
I’m a little surprised that the story of that match is still being told, Darling recalled when asked about the match last fall. On that day in 1981, he was a young man of 20. Because I think the last person to enjoy a sporting event is the one in the middle. Especially when that person is playing the game of their life, but has no way to calm down because the other person is doing the same thing.
I’m 61 years old, I’ve been playing baseball since I was a teenager, and it’s the greatest game I’ve ever seen, Viola recalled Wednesday, sitting in the dugout in High Point, N.C., where he is the pitching coach of the High Point Rockers, an independent minor league. I saw David Cone strike out 20 Phillies; I saw Chris Bozio throw a no-hitter against the Seattle Red Sox; Roger Clemens, Doc Gooden, yeah, you all know that. None of them were better than what I saw that day. And it wasn’t me. It was Ronnie.
The Bulldogs’ ace Darling was a two-time All-American, with a 9-3 record in 1981 and 89 strikeouts in 93 innings. The 6-foot-1 right-hander, born in Hawaii and raised in Massachusetts, was considered by many to be the first pick in the MLB draft with less than a month to go. Viola was a 21-year-old New York lefty who grew up in St. Louis. St. John’s, notched a 9-0 series with a 1.00 ERA, and generated plenty of news of its own about MLB prospects.
That’s why there were about 50 major league scouts among the 2,500 in attendance, and why New York and Boston newspapers had an unusual number of passes to cover college baseball, a sport largely ignored by those publications because it falls prey to the busy spring months of professional sports.
I think there were about 400 people, Viola said with a laugh. But in the last 40 years, about 150,000 people have told me they’ve been there.
Roger Angell was in the audience there with Smoky Joe Wood, a baseball Hall of Famer who won three World Series rings with the Red Sox and Brooklyn Dodgers before becoming head baseball coach at Yale for 20 years. On the 21st. In May 1981, Smoky Joe turned 91, and Angell used Yale’s success and that pitching competition to lure Wood to the ballpark for an interview. Wood kept track of his playing time on a pocket watch he received to commemorate his heroic 1912 World Series victory over the New York Giants, when he defeated Christy Mathewson to win the title at Fenway Park, the end of his first season. That same year, he defeated Walter Big Train Johnson. Wood had a 13-game winning streak, and earlier in the year Johnson won a record 16 consecutive games. The hype for this match really hampered Angell and Wood in this match.
We won 1-0, Wood told Angell. But it’s not his fault I hit him that day.
Wood has had just one no-hitter in his long career, a 5-0 win over the St. Louis Browns. Louis on the 29th. July 1911. As this game entered its middle phase 70 years later, he and Angell began to realize that Darling had a chance to do the same. In game five, Darling had regained all of Johnny’s pitches without registering a single H.
We were very arrogant guys, a bunch of New Yorkers who opened their mouths every game and said the worst things because they knew we were so good, so strong in the Northeast, Viola recalled of the ’81 St. John’s team, which included future Major League head coach John Franco. But in the first inning, our third batter came back into the dugout just as I was coming out to warm up and he said: We’re fucked. We’re not going to beat him. These are the most incredible things. And the rest of the game was the quietest in the history of this team.
I think after the first four innings I knew I had a chance to have a special day, like any pitcher knows when his stuff is good and he can figure out what the other team can or can’t do against you that day, Darling said. The only thing I knew for sure was that I would make the course. I came into this game having played 27 full games in 27 starts. I’ve never been suspended for a game at Yale, so I wanted it to be 28.
That was the era of the NCAA baseball tournament, which had 34 teams, half as many as now. There were no super-regional tournaments, but eight regional tournaments (seven with four teams, one with six), eight of which won teams a trip to Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha to play in the 35th annual tournament. College World Series to participate.
The other seven spots were occupied by baseball teams, from the Texas-Stanford clash in Austin to the Arizona State-Cal State Fullerton clash in Tempe. But all those important games with offensive teams were overshadowed, then as now, by two good old-fashioned cold weather programs played in a nearly empty stadium in New Haven, Conn.
Yale participated in the NCAA postseason for the first time since 1947-48, when the Elistines played in the first two College World Series in Kalamazoo, Michigan (the series was moved to Omaha in 1950). They finished second in both series with two teams, something first baseman George Poppy Bush was often reminded of, including during his time in the White House. In the meantime, there have been a number of events in St. John’s. St. John’s was a more regular visitor to the series. They first appeared in ’49 when the Wichita CWS went to four teams, and visited Omaha five more times after that.
St. John’s defeated Maine in Orono and then swept first-place Arizona 6-1 in the series opener. Viola and her curveball started the game with four walks in the first inning, but then held the eventual CWS champions to six hits and one run.
We’ve seen it and we’ve thought it: Oh yeah, we can definitely beat him, recalled Terry Francona, an Arizona All-American outfielder and now manager of the Cleveland Indians. But I didn’t get any views that day. After seeing him in the premier league, I wasn’t so worried about it.
My only goal was to keep the zeroes on the scoreboard, and we did that, Viola said Wednesday. Every inning when I went back to the dugout, I would look at the scoreboard to make sure no score had been scored yet. Every time I was on the field, I felt like we were losing. Here you can see how Ronnie dominated that day.
By the time of the ninth inning, there were only zeros on the scoreboard. Darling did not give up a hit and registered a double-double from out. Viola scattered a half-dozen hits and walked two runners, but Yale didn’t let any runner get past second base.
Suddenly, the mood of the day was pushed into the funnel. With each pitch, the pressure on the players increased and even began to permeate the stands, what Angell describes as incessant, nervous sounds of conversation and speculation.
Viola and Darling both remember the tension that ensued, but both remember it as an intensely beautiful competitive pressure. This hasn’t made the athletes on the field any less so. They enjoyed it. In the seventh inning, Viola hit a fastball that flew into the hip of Yale’s third batter, Rich Diana. This fall, Diana finished 10th as a running back. Place in Heisman Trophy balloting; he was chosen by the Miami Dolphins.
I’ll never forget Rich Diana dropping his bat and looking me straight in the eye, Viola recalls. He took her hand and passed it over his thigh, as if brushing away a fly: Is that all you got?
Shortly before his death in 2018, longtime Associated Press writer Jim O’Connell recalled a steady stream of fans, writers and scouts jumping out of their seats between games, running to a row of pay phones under the bleachers and calling their friends and colleagues to let them know what was happening at Yale Field. They did so with a sense of disbelief that was shared by the two young men who shared the hill.
With two outs at the start of the 11th. Innings, Darling saved his no-hitter. The ball ricocheted off the glove of the advancing first baseman along the first-base line, but the second baseman snatched the ball off the grass and tossed it to Darling as the former Yale football player dove into the pocket to beat the runner with an eyeball. Yale responded by loading the bases in the bottom of the inning with a hit and two walks.
I got tired and missed the turns, Viola recalls. But we silenced them again.
Angell, Wood and their companions agreed that they had probably seen the last of Yale. You were right.
The 12. The inning began with St. John’s first hit. St. John’s, a pitch at the end of the first batter’s innings and speedster Steve Scafa at his best. The game was briefly interrupted when the speaker at Yale Field informed the crowd that Darling had just set the NCAA record for most no-hit innings – 11. They roared.
The funny thing is that this game was more memorable than the others. If I had won 1-0 it wouldn’t have been as memorable, but the heartbreak made it more memorable.
Honey always chokes up when he talks about what happened next. What has stuck with me the most is watching the team dugouts at St. John’s. St. John’s. They all came out to make sure they were part of the ovation, including Frank. Yes, they were tough New Yorkers, but it shows how classy they were.
They were also there to win the game. After a few moments, they did. Scafa, one of the best hitters in the country, got into a heated argument with Darling before moving to second base. Then he stole a third. After the second Johnny reached base on an error, Darling recorded his 15th save of the season. The exit of the race. At the next service, St. John’s St. John’s committed a double theft. Darling had to break up a throw from first to second to stop Scafa at third, but he stumbled as he left the field after the throw. The second baseman was able to cut Scafa off for a moment, but as soon as he caught sight of the runner between first and second base and rushed to first, Scafa ran home. The first throw was too late. The first goal of the game was scored.
Eric Stumpfle of St. Gallen John’s replaced Viola and quickly destroyed Eli’s for the win.
It’s funny that this game is more memorable than any other, said Darling, who has won 136 Big League games. If I had won 1-0 it wouldn’t have been as memorable, but the heartbreak made it more memorable.
The next day, Yale played an early game in an underdog bracket, and we walked into the stadium when they were in the fifth inning of that game, Viola recalled. We were talking along the right field line, ready to play, and Ronnie was there playing right field. The Central Michigan player kicked the ball over the warning track, which is 320 feet, and Ron took the ball and threw it over the plate! He threw almost 200 times the day before, and this is a one-time pitch? My arm was so weak I couldn’t scratch my butt. That’s how great athlete Ronnie is.
Neither team made it to Omaha (Maine Bears be damned), but a few weeks later Darling was picked ninth by the Texas Rangers. Viola was picked 37th and went to the Minnesota Twins. Thanks to his performance at Yale, he went from a fifth round pick to a second round pick. The two pitchers shook hands in New Haven, but they didn’t really get to know each other until the following summer, when Viola was a Toledo Mud Hen and Darling was a Tidewater Tide player. After the Triple-A game, they went out for a beer and talked all night about the NCAA tournament showdown.
In 1986, Darling, like Smokey Joe Wood, pitched four times in the World Series and, like Wood, won at Fenway Park when the New York Mets beat the Red Sox in seven games. The following fall, Viola was honored as the World Series MVP when the Minnesota Twins earned a victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. Louis. In 1989, they became teammates with the Mets.
Joe Wood died on the 25th. July 1985. He was 95 years old. Roger Angell is still alive at the age of 100. Every day he goes to work at The New Yorker. Every night he watches a local television program about the New York Mets, where he listens to a former player he calls his favorite baseball analyst: Ron Darling.
For a kid from New York to open The New Yorker magazine and see that Roger Angell was there that day writing about our game was a dream come true, says Viola, who keeps an autographed copy of Angell’s essay on a shelf in her home in Mooresville, N.C. And to think this all happened during a high school baseball game.
No high school baseball game. A college baseball game. Was it really the best ever played? Maybe. Maybe not. But there is no doubt that the perfect combination of effort, participants and age-less pitchers created, if not the best game, then certainly one of the greatest days in baseball history, a sport that prides itself above all else on its unparalleled history and story.
While Darling broadcasts from New York for young MLB stars, Viola coaches kids trying to find their way to the big leagues from a minor league field in the foothills of North Carolina. The past, present and future were connected four decades ago on a sunny Thursday at Yale Field and remain so today.
You know, the web game.
As Angell says in his story:
I think I’ll remember this for the rest of my life. Joe Wood too. Some will tell Ron Darling that Smoky Joe Wood was there that day and saw him throw 11 scoreless innings against St. Louis. He said he had been to St. John’s, and that one day – perhaps years from now, when he too will be a famous major league hitter – it might occur to him that his heartbreaking 0-1 loss in May 1981 and Walter Johnson’s defeat at Fenway Park in September 1912 are now woven into the fabric of baseball. Pitch after pitch, inning after inning, Ron Darling made it happen. He stitched us together.From the ashes of a bad night, came a great game. Forty years ago tomorrow, the top-seeded University of Houston Cougars hosted fourth-seeded Arizona State University in the NCAA final, and it was anything but a dry run. The Cougars and Sun Devils took turns scoring runs in the opening inning, and it was the Cougars who finally broke through in the fifth inning. The Cougars went on to score four runs in the seventh inning to put the game away before the start of the eighth inning.. Read more about college baseball innings and let us know what you think.
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