“Toni has everything I like in a woman,” says New York Mets pitcher Ron Darling of his Irish-born wife. “She’s beautiful, she’s hilarious, she’s a good friend….” “And she’s got large breasts,” adds Toni. Darling grins shyly and continues: “The first things that attracted me to Toni were her eyes [luminous blue] and her lips [delicately bowed]. If anyone had told me I would marry a redhead, I’d have said he was crazy. Redheads have freckles.”
Toni O’Reilly Darling, 27, has no freckles. A Wilhelmina model, she is slim-limbed and leonine, with a head of titian hair as wild as a bonfire. And she is besotted with “Ronnie.” “He is the handsomest man I’ve ever seen,” she declares. “I mean, like drop-dead gorgeous.” In his fourth season with the New York Mets, Darling, 26, is one of a quartet of star pitchers that has led the team to its best record ever—and a date with the Houston Astros in this week’s National League Championship Series.
Darling, whose nickname on the team is “Mr. P” (for Perfect), will be a model of composure when he takes the mound against the Astros, while Toni will be unraveling in the stands. “I’m a maniac when Ronnie pitches,” she admits. “Nobody wants to sit beside me. If he’s doing well, I’m the best, but if anyone gets a run off him, I hate everybody.”
The couple met in December 1984 on a blind date—dinner with mutual friends—that neither wanted. She was flashy, foxy and free with her opinions. For all she knew about baseball, a sacrifice fly could have been a suicidal insect. He was reserved, introspective, soft-spoken. Each was on the rebound from a previous relationship (hers with a male model, his with a Yale classmate to whom he was engaged). “I had no women in my life,” says Darling, “and the last thing I wanted was to meet somebody unbelievably special again.” In a blunt display of disinterest, Darling showed up for dinner dressed in jeans, a frayed shirt and gamey hightops. “I walked in,” he recalls, “saw Toni and thought to myself, ‘You stupid….’ ” Still, they had another date the following evening.
Three weeks later it was Toni’s turn to feel foolish. Eager to locate Ron at Christmas, she called Darling’s parents’ home in Worcester, Mass. “I asked for Ronnie,” Toni says, “and his mother put his father [Ronnie Sr.] on the phone. I said, ‘Hi, baby. I miss you so much. I’m just going out of my mind.’ I kept talking and talking and I realized that he hadn’t even said he missed me. So I said, ‘Is this Ronnie Darling?’ and he said [deep voice], ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘Is this [swallow]…Ronnie’s father?’ And he said [deep voice], ‘Yes.’ And it was like, ‘Oh, noooooo.’ ” She shudders at the memory. “I’m glad I didn’t say anything dirty.” Last January Darling’s parents were among the 30 guests at the couple’s wedding in Atlantic City, N.J.
Life as a baseball wife is trying at times. First there are the fans. “We can’t walk two blocks without 10 people asking for his autograph,” says Toni. Last month the Darlings were on their way to lunch in Manhattan when they were chased by a pack of squealing teenage girls. “I felt like I was in an old Monkees movie,” says Ron. Then there is the palpitating mail he receives—up to 50 letters a day. “I once made the mistake of reading some,” says Toni. “It was unbelievable: ‘I love you; I’ll do anything for you, just call me.’ ”
Worst of all are the separations; Ron is gone for up to 15 days at a time on road trips. Before their marriage Toni turned down bookings so that she could travel with the team, but she found the numbing routine too tedious. “My life was hotels, shopping and going to games,” she says, “and I was getting mad at Ronnie, saying, ‘I’m never going to work again, and it’s all your fault.’ Finally, he said, ‘You’re driving me crazy, go back to work.’ ” Toni now models during the week and joins her husband on weekends. “He has his life and I have mine,” she says, “but it gets so lonely. I just come home and watch baseball games.”
The Darlings lessen the pain of separation by talking on the telephone—five or six times a day. His 4 a.m. call on July 20 was unexpected, however. “I was sound asleep,” Toni remembers, “and he said, ‘Hi, honey, I’m in jail.’ He sounded like a little boy. I thought he was going to cry. He was so upset.” Darling and three teammates had been arrested after a scuffle with the police outside a Houston nightclub. Mets second baseman Tim Teufel was trying to carry a drink out of the club when he was stopped by a bouncer. “We thought Tim was being manhandled,” explains Darling, “and we were helping a fellow player whose career might be in jeopardy if he got hurt.” Darling was charged with aggravated assault. He pleaded not guilty and goes to a pretrial hearing on Oct. 30. “The whole thing was blown out of proportion,” says Toni. “If Ronnie has a wild streak, I’ve never seen it. He’s always Mr. Nice Guy.”
Mr. Nice Guy was born in Honolulu and raised in Worcester. From his father, a machinist, he inherited his competitive drive and from his half-Chinese mother, a low-key reserve. Studies came before sports for the four Darling boys, who were coached by their demanding father in Little League. “I was a quiet, studious kid,” says Darling, “not quite a nerd, but almost.”
Darling enrolled at Yale in 1978, studied Southeast Asian history and French (which he speaks, along with Mandarin Chinese) and distinguished himself on the baseball field. In 1981 he pitched the longest stretch of no-hit ball (11 innings) in NCAA tournament history. At the end of his junior year the Texas Rangers signed Darling for $150,000. “I didn’t want to leave Yale,” he says, “but when you come from a family with very little money, and you have a chance to make some money, not only for yourself but for your family, you take it.” He was traded to the Mets a year later, where he has compiled a 43-23 record.
As a lass in Dublin, Toni O’Reilly had one objective: to get out. The second of seven children born to a utilities worker, she remembers, “When everyone in my family was watching TV, I would be in the other room making plans for the future.” At 16 she left school and took a job as a receptionist. A fashion photographer discovered her the following year and launched her modeling career. At 18 she won a bit part in an American movie, S.O.S. Titanic, and moved to California. “I loved it,” she says, “the weather, the food, the people. I left a place where it rained all the time and ended up in a place where everyone was having a nice day.”
O’Reilly tried modeling but had little success in the land of blondes. “Agents told me I was too old, too sophisticated-looking, not pretty enough,” she says. “It was like my life was over at 20.” A modeling competition in 1981 brought her to New York, where she joined the Wilhelmina agency, earning up to $4,000 a day. “I don’t have to work,” says Toni (Darling’s $440,000-a-year salary is supplemented by income from contracts with RC Cola, among others), “but it’s not in my genes to be just a housewife.”
Home for the Darlings is a penthouse duplex in Manhattan. On the rare occasions when they have simultaneous free days, Ron may surprise Toni with a champagne-and-lobster picnic in Central Park. Nights are spent restaurant-hopping and attending rock concerts, as well as basketball and hockey games. Their taste differs only when it comes to television. Darling is bewildered by his wife’s fetish for soap operas. The Wednesday nights that she invites a dozen girlfriends to Dynasty parties chez Darling, Ron disappears “until it’s safe to come home.”
On days when Darling pitches, Toni prepares his lunch, hot at home or boxed to go. He gets a ride or drives his 1967 Mercedes to Shea Stadium. (Until last July he took the subway; now he is recognized too often.) As game time approaches, he begins to churn. “Up to a point, I feel like I could strike out King Kong,” says Darling, “but as I get closer to the field, my legs get heavy, and I begin to think, ‘God, I’m not going to get anyone out tonight.’ By the time I hear the national anthem, I’m sweatin’ bullets.”
When this season is over, the Darlings plan to honeymoon in Australia or Japan. In the off-season, Darling will be busy with the new Lower Manhattan bistro he plans to open with three partners. He also signed a book deal to write a memoir of the 1986 season. Toni plans to continue modeling until December. She and Ron are expecting their first child next April. Darling would prefer a daughter. “I’d hate to have a son who had to try to grow up to be like me,” he says. “A girl doesn’t have to be a ballplayer.”
“That’s right,” says Toni. “She can grow up to be like me.”