Are the New York Mets planning to sever one more link to their past by trading Ron Darling, who became the senior member of the team when Darryl Strawberry decamped to Los Angeles?
One person who would like to know is Darling, who admitted recently that he was confounded by the Mets' master plan and by his role in it.
But he does know one thing: He doesn't particularly want to become part of the dismantling of the old Mets. And he doesn't want to get lost in the shuffle of the new Mets.
Most of all, he doesn't want to struggle through another year like 1990, when he lost his job as a front-line pitcher, sat in the bullpen half the time, finished with a losing record, underwent elbow surgery and then went home to wonder.
"I don't know what they're thinking," Darling said. "I know they want to make some moves. I don't know what will happen to me. I live in New York and I want to stay in New York. But you're talking about a pitcher who had surgery and who had a bad year, besides."
He was pressed to find the bottom line of his wintertime emotions, and he replied:
"I'm praying I don't have to repeat last year. I'd hate to go through it again. If they think I'm interchangeable with three or four other people, I'd rather pitch someplace else. And I don't want to pitch out of the bullpen."
Darling may have gotten some clue to his future when Frank Cashen, the general manager, held his annual briefing on the Mets' goals and strategies for the winter baseball meetings in Chicago.
The meetings customarily become the main marketplace for trades and free-agent signings, and the Mets have acknowledged that they must be active in both to rebuild the team that in a year and a half has traded, retired or otherwise lost Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, Lenny Dykstra, Roger McDowell, Rick Aguilera, Mookie Wilson and Strawberry.
The likelihood that Darling would join this exodus arose after they traded five players to the Minnesota Twins in 1989 to acquire Frank Viola, who replaced Darling as the main man in the pitching rotation after Dwight Gooden.
In fact, Darling was bumped all the way to the bullpen, where he alternated with Bob Ojeda as the odd man out. He started only 18 games last season, half as many as usual, pitched 15 times in relief, won seven games, lost nine and then underwent arthroscopic surgery last month to remove debris from his right elbow.
"Lots and lots of chips were taken out," he said Tuesday, during a conference telephone call from his home in New York. "And lots of spurs, which are chips still attached to the bone. My elbow's been hurting for four years. With the shuttling back and forth last season, I wasn't able to count on the regular four-day spacing and take care of it.
"I won't try throwing till after the first of the year. But I have no doubt I'll be 100 percent by opening day."
Darling conceded that his post-surgical elbow might save his job on the Mets, for a while at least until other teams were reassured that he could still pitch with the same pizazz that produced a 94-64 record in seven-plus seasons with the Mets. But he doesn't want a reprieve as much as a return to full rank and respect.
"I haven't asked anybody where I stand," he said, "because you can't push Frank Cashen. They have an idea what they want to do, but it won't do any good for me to push. They've still got six of us as holdovers for five starting jobs, plus Julio Valera, who came along late last season and obviously fits into their thinking.
"I'd love to be one of those players who spends his whole career with the Mets. Will it happen? Only Frank knows. I've got to report to spring training ready to pitch, then I've got to fight for my life."
Darling also joined most of the senior players on the team in declining to blame the Mets for the loss of Strawberry.
"Darryl was our best player," he said, "the one who'd put fear into other teams. The Mets offered him the same money as the Dodgers, just one year less. Darryl had his mind made up."