The game began on an afternoon in mid-May but has endured for 31 years, immortalized by a famous magazine article, viewed live by only 2,000 spectators but perpetuated, through the decades, as a moment of triumph and torment.
Yale Field, in 1981, had no locker rooms, so the St. John’s baseball team arrived there that Thursday dressed fully in uniform. Yale’s ace, Ron Darling, was stretching. The sun was out, but the wooden grandstands, under an overhang, remained cloaked by shadows. That may have been reason enough for some fans to linger after the earlier game of the N.C.A.A. tournament’s northeast regional, a sleepy 10-2 victory by Maine over Central Michigan.
At 3:15 p.m., Darling began with a fastball to the St. John’s leadoff hitter, Steve Scafa, and from the dugout Frank Viola, the opposing pitcher, first glimpsed Darling’s wickedness. He began to worry.
“It was the first time I’d ever seen this team deflated before we even got started,” Viola said.
The current St. John’s team is making its first appearance in the N.C.A.A. tournament’s super regional this weekend, against Arizona in Tucson, but the university’s well of baseball history is deep. It is a history enriched by a celebrated pitcher’s duel between Darling and Viola on May 21, 1981, that, for many, is considered the best college baseball game ever played.
It was a game that included 11 no-hit innings thrown by Darling before he allowed a bloop single in the 12th, a hit that ultimately cost him the victory.
“For 42 years now I’ve been involved in baseball,” Viola said. “To this day I’ve never seen a better-pitched game.”
St. John’s was 31-2 and confident when the team arrived in New Haven to face Yale, a scrappy Ivy League team with 12 losses and one star: Darling, a two-time all-American.
St. John’s catcher Don Giordano had faced Darling in the Cape Cod League the previous summer, and players had heard reports about him. But nothing truly prepared them.
“An unbelievable slider that broke like nothing that any of us were accustomed to seeing,” Giordano said.
The Elis stranded six runners in the first five innings against Viola but could not manage to score.
“Every inning I had to check the scoreboard to make sure it was still zero-zero,” Viola said. “Even though I was pitching well in my own right, it was like I was doing nothing in comparison.”
By the ninth inning, no runner had reached third base, Darling had not allowed a hit, and the fans were frenzied. Jim O’Connell, a St. John’s graduate who was then a young Associated Press reporter, drove up from Queens to attend the game. He recalled people sprinting up the stands to the pay phones between innings to inform friends of what was going on.
“We would call some of the former players,” said O’Connell, now the A.P.’s national college basketball writer. “They were sitting in their offices in Manhattan working, and we’re telling them what’s going on.”
Roger Angell, who later wrote a famed article in The New Yorker about the game, described stands that “hummed with ceaseless, nervous sounds of conversation and speculation — an impatience for the denouement, and a fear of it, too.”
Although both pitchers’ counts were estimated to be reaching the 170s, neither Viola nor Darling was slowing. “He didn’t get weak as the game went on,” Giordano said of Darling. “That was probably the most remarkable thing about that day.”
Scafa led off the 12th inning. “I remember the pitch that I hit was in on the hands,” he said.
Scafa had taken 10 steps when he saw the little liner fall a few feet over the head of Yale shortstop Bob Brooke and to his right. It rolled into left field in front of Joe Dufek. “It was almost like it was suspended in midair,” Scafa said.
The fans rose in applause. Even the St. John’s players stood on the top step of the dugout and clapped.
“I’ll never forget this as long as I live: the St. John’s team came up to the top step of the dugout and they gave me a standing ovation,” Darling told SNY last year during a 30th anniversary special about the game.
Darling now had to pay attention to the speedy Scafa, who always had the green light to take off for second base. “Certainly I was looking to make something happen,” he said.
Scafa stole second base. And, after Giordana reached on an error by Brooke, Scafa swiped third.
With runners on the corners and two outs, the St. John’s pitching coach Howie Gershberg — filling in for the head coach Joe Russo, who was out with pneumonia — signaled for a double steal. On the next pitch, pinch-runner Thomas Covino broke for second. Darling said he intended to cut off the throw from the catcher but stumbled off the mound. Scafa froze as Covino got in a rundown. When the Yale second baseman threw to first, Scafa broke for home and slid in safely.
“I definitely remember throwing my helmet,” Scafa said. “I think it’s still up in the clouds.”
The Yale hitters in the bottom of the inning went down against reliever Eric Stampfl. St. John’s won, 1-0. Darling, after 12 innings and 16 strikeouts, became the unlucky loser in one of college baseball’s finest games.
After the game, Viola sought out Darling to introduce himself. “The friendship went on from that day on,” said Viola, who ended up pitching alongside Darling with the Mets. “We’ve got a friendship still that nobody can take away from us.”
A version of this article appeared in print on June 9, 2012, on page D6 of the New York edition with the headline: Viola-Darling Duel in 1981 Has Not Been Forgotten.
Viola-Darling Pitching Duel in 1981 Has Not Been Forgotten
By ZACH SCHONBRUN
Published: June 9, 2012
© & ™ Steve Scafa Baseball Camps
For More Information Call 516-375-4155