May 21, 1981. The NCAA college baseball tournament was underway and a Major League Baseball strike was looming. Baseball fans of every level were starving for excitement.
Thirty-eight years ago on May 21, Yale’s Ron Darling and St. John’s Frank Viola delivered in a pitcher’s duel widely considered the greatest college baseball game ever played. It was a game that a mere 2,500 people were in attendance for, but a now-famous The New Yorker article "The Web of the Game" by Roger Angell would help the game leap to epic proportions and become widely known in baseball lore.
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So, why this game? Why was a game between two programs that have still never won a College World Series considered so iconic?
How about 22 combined innings of shutout baseball pitched by both starting pitchers?
The game was at Yale Field, where the wooden bleachers held a modest crowd and there were no locker rooms for the players to get ready. On the bump, two All-Americans were set to duel.
And duel they did.
Darling was a gifted athlete, one who could do it at the plate (he hit .386 with 66 total bases the season prior) and on the mound with one of the sharpest fastballs and nastiest sliders in college baseball. Viola was equally frightening to opposing hitters — his go-to pitch a devastating curveball — amassing a 26-2 career record behind a 1.67 ERA. Essentially, both pitchers, on their best days, we untouchable. Luckily for that small crowd in attendance, this was one of their best days.
St. John’s was 31-2 and powered by one of the most potent offenses in the land. Darling made the lineup look like they were 2-31, striking out 16 batters on the day behind 11 innings of no-hit baseball. Viola was able to match him in zeroes in the run column, though Yale was able to get some Elis on the basepaths with seven hits and four walks on the day. Both pitchers were so dominant that nary a base runner reached third base before the ninth inning. Which was why the contest heading into extra innings.
Viola was stellar in getting the victory. He hurled 11 strong innings, allowing seven hits, while walking four and striking out eight. Darling was on another level. He went all 12 innings with a friendly reminder that through the first 11 he did not allow a single hit. A 12th-inning bloop single was his demise. The lone St. John’s hit of the day became an unearned run after a double steal and botched rundown a few plays later and the only run to cross the plate in 12 innings of baseball. St. John’s won the day.
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Both have remained close to the game of baseball in different capacities, whether it be in the broadcast booth or the dugout as a coach. The story goes that Viola was so enamored by Darling's performance that he immediately befriended the Yale superstar. "To this day, all the baseball I've seen in my lifetime, that was the single most dominating game I have ever seen in person," Viola said 30 years after the game.
For Ron Darling, it was the first of many big games the star right-hander would throw in his collegiate and professional career. With his 1981 NCAA Regional performance, Darling was selected ninth overall in the ensuing MLB draft and would reach fame as a member of the 1986 New York Mets coveted rotation, starting Game 7 of one of the most memorable World Series in recent history. By 1989, the New York native Frank Viola would join him in the Mets rotation after a World Series MVP performance of his own two seasons prior.
But it all started on May 21, 1981, from Yale Field. Home of the greatest game of college baseball ever played.