Marking Strawberry's silver anniversary
On May 6, 1983, Darryl makes his Shea Stadium debut
NEW YORK -- We all understood why in 1986, when Fenway Park created that "Daaaaarryl ... Daaaaarryyl" thing during the World Series. We recognized that the intent of that sing-song, almost-ethereal sound was to harass, irritate and generally distract the target. And when National League ballparks similarly serenaded Darryl Strawberry, we knew that, too, was designed to undermine him. Who could explain it, though, when Shea Stadium was the source?
What was the intent then? The message seemingly was mixed -- some folks singing to compliment the player vital to the Mets' success, others singing to test the sometimes troubled, often dangerous, occasionally magnificent figure standing in right field or approaching the batter's box.
By the time Boston learned how to annoy Strawberry, New York already had learned to be annoyed by him. Whatever he did was insufficient. The city always was semi-satisfied with him, and the ballpark was where the ambivalence was communicated. Shea saw Strawberry as a double-edged sword -- his monogram is, after all, DES, for Darryl Eugene Strawberry -- able to hit the nastiest pitch halfway up the Mass Turnpike and unable to hit the cutoff man in the next half-inning.
And for whatever reason, the city focused more on what Strawberry didn't achieve than it appreciated all that he did accomplish. The expectations that preceded Straw's big league debut were absurd; those that developed after he was elected National League Rookie of the Year in 1983 were preposterous. The most skilled player ever developed by the Mets organization never could produce as the city thought he should.
Joe McIlvaine, not yet the Mets general manager but already a talent evaluator par excellence and a man not given to hyperbole, said in Spring Training 1985 that Strawberry might have the first 50-50 season in him. No player has approached that achievement in 23 subsequent summers.
So when Strawberry produced 39 home runs and stole 36 bases in 1987, he had come up short. The following year, he hit 39, stole 29 and placed second to Kirk Gibson in the Most Valuable Player balloting, even after splitting the Mets vote with third-place finisher Kevin McReynolds. And that, too, was insufficient.
After two stellar seasons, Strawberry produced three hits and two RBIs on Opening Day 1989. He recalls being booed following his first at-bat in the Mets' second game.
"They expected something from me every day," Strawberry says now. "The game doesn't let you do that."
It wasn't always that way, of course. Twenty-five years ago today, it wasn't that way at all. Strawberry struck out in the first inning of the Mets' game at Shea against the Reds. And he was warmly received. He fouled out in the fourth, and struck out in the seventh and ninth.
"They were still clapping," he says, some evidence of amazement in his voice.
It was May 6, 1983, and Strawberry was taking his first big league swings at Shea. And the ballpark embraced him, loved him, cheered him, hailed him and allowed him to fail. No debut of a Mets-bred player -- not those of Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Dwight Gooden, Gregg Jefferies, Todd Hundley, Edgardo Alfonzo, Rey Ordonez, Bill Pulsipher, Jason Isringhausen, Jose Reyes or David Wright -- caused a stir comparable with what Strawberry produced a quarter-century ago.
Where Straw stands
|Where Darryl Strawberry ranks in Mets history:|
Home runs - First, 252
|RBIs - First, 733|
|Runs - First, 662|
|Extra-base hits - First, 469|
|Walks - First, 580|
|Strikeouts - First, 960|
|Total bases - Second, 2,028|
|Slugging pct. - Third, .520|
|Doubles - Fifth, 187|
|At-bats - Sixth, 3,903|
|Hits - Seventh, 1,025|
|Games - Seventh, 1,109|
Even the Mets debut of Mike Piazza in 1998 was less of an event. Piazza was merely Piazza. Strawberry, Sports Illustrated had decided, was the black Ted Williams. He was fleet and strong-armed, and he could hit baseballs to areas of Shea that had been reached only by Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell, Dick Allen and Dave Kingman. His tool belt was full. Lenny Dykstra would call him "Awesome Strawsome" in 1986.
But three years earlier, Shea forgave Strawberry, even though he didn't hit the ball fair in nine innings. And the crowd hailed his two walks, one in the 11th inning, the other after two out in the 13th. The latter preceded his first stolen base (for which he received a modest ovation), a walk to Mike Jorgensen and a three-run homer by George Foster.
"I remember a lot of that, especially the strikeouts," Strawberry said on Monday morning from his home outside St. Louis. "Mario Soto got me all three times. And they cheered anyway. [Soto] had the best changeup in the game. And I didn't want to see changeups that night. I wanted fastballs."
|"When I got [to Shea] that night, and I looked out, all nervous and excited, I said, 'How am I ever gonna hit a ball out of this place?' It was big. Still is. But I hit my share there."|
|-- Darryl Strawberry|
"I promised myself that night I'd get him," Strawberry says.
He was satisfied in that regard. The public expected nothing less.
Strawberry's mother, Ruby, was in the stands that early May evening; so was his first agent, Richie Bry. Otherwise, Strawberry was alone in the Big City.
"There were a lot of veteran guys -- Kingman, Seaver, Foster, Ron Hodges, Craig Swan," he says. "And I'd just turned 21."
The others, plus Mookie Wilson and Hubie Brooks, hadn't reversed the fortunes of a moribund franchise. Keith Hernandez was still in St. Louis, Gooden with Class A. The burden already was Strawberry's. We'd been led to believe that nothing was beyond his skills.
The Mets had told Strawberry -- and promised themselves -- in Spring Training 1983 that they would afford him the time necessary to polish his tools. They wouldn't rush him to the big leagues. He had put himself in their field of vision by hitting 34 home runs and batting .283 in 435 at-bats with the club's Double-A Jackson affiliate in the Texas League the previous summer. But he had yet to play in Triple-A when March teammates told him he had the necessary skills for big league play.
It was during that Spring Training that Mets batting coach Jim Frey provided this insight into Strawberry's prowess.
"I, personally, never saw anyone move the bat through the hitting zone faster than Clint Hurdle -- until I saw this kid. He has power to spare."
The club wanted to wait -- until September, if possible -- to promote him. They preferred that he be a September callup, not a savior. Strawberry had merely 57 at-bats with the Tidewater affiliate in the Triple-A International League when Tides manager Davey Johnson summoned him to his office on May 4, after a night game.
The message from his future Mets manager was, "They need you up there. You're ready."
Half of it was true.
The Mets had played 21 games and lost 15. In the nine home dates that followed Opening Day at Shea, the team's average attendance was 10,147, and that figure was boosted by a Phil Niekro-Seaver Sunday-afternoon matchup that drew 32,163.
That gate told the Mets they had potential customers -- they just needed an attraction. And Strawberry in right field and in the middle of the batting order -- he batted third and fifth mostly -- was an attraction. The club didn't want to say out loud that he was a savior, but they put him in that role, exploiting his promise before he'd even had 100 at-bats in Triple-A.
Indeed, the Mets denied the "savior" label. Strawberry flew from Norfolk to LaGuardia with Tides teammate Tucker Ashford, a 26-year-old journeyman infielder who had spent all of 1982 with the Yankees' Triple-A Columbus team. The club tried to pass off Ashford and Strawberry as comparable that first night, telling reporters that each was a young talent with a bright Mets future. Ashford played that night and in 34 other games before being traded.
Strawberry, of course, emerged as one of the most feared sluggers in the game. He was the left-handed engine in the Mets' potent batting order through the 1990 season, their MVP for that period. He had his moments -- some forgettable, embarrassing and even wretched, and others special, extraordinary and spectacular to the point of being touchstone events in the club's history.
It should be noted that the Mets' 1983 season -- they produced a 68-94 record that year -- was followed by seven seasons of success unparalleled in the franchise's history. It should also be noted that the sequence of winning ended in 1991, Strawberry's first season as a former Met.
Shea appreciated him some of the time, clawed at him at others. And it sang "Daaaaarryl ... Daaaaarryl" to praise and torment him.
"But I loved the park," he says. "That's my home. I played with other great organizations. I played with all the New York teams [Mets, Yankees, Dodgers and Giants]. But Shea was home.
"The first time I saw it was right after I signed [July 11, 1980, after being the first selection in the amateur Draft, now called the First-Year Player Draft]. It was only the second big league park I'd ever seen. I'd played in Dodger Stadium twice in high school. But Shea was cool. When I got there that night, and I looked out, all nervous and excited, I said, 'How am I ever gonna hit a ball out of this place?' It was big. Still is. But I hit my share there."
Strawberry has hit the most home runs at Shea -- 127, 123 of them with the Mets. Piazza is runnerup, with 22 fewer. The one Strawberry recalls most readily came against Reds pitcher Jack Armstrong on June 6, 1988. Armstrong threw successive fastballs to Strawberry. The first was hit foul, the second sailed well beyond the home bullpen after Strawberry crushed it.
Two other home runs at Shea were far more significant. Both came in the 1986 NL Championship Series against the Astros; each tied the score. The first was a three-run homer against left-hander Bob Knepper in the sixth inning of Game 2, tying the score at 4. The Astros scored in the next half-inning, but the Mets won on Dykstra's final-pitch, two-run homer off Dave Smith in the ninth.
Strawberry's home run was overlooked. He had done merely what he was supposed to do.
The second came against Nolan Ryan in the fifth inning of Game 5, the half-inning after the Astros had taken a 1-0 lead. The Mets had been hitless until Strawberry swung at a Ryan fastball thrown at his shoetops. The line drive was inches fair and inches over the fence.
Ryan, perhaps the most talented pitcher ever, had no-hit stuff that day. He was amazed by Strawberry's home run.
"I've thrown that pitch, what? 10,000 times? I don't know," Ryan said. "No one's ever hit it that hard, that far in that direction. ... His talent out-talented mine."
But even that remarkable home run was obscured by the Mets winning in the 12th inning.
The Mets had moved to within one victory of reaching the World Series. Shea rocked that afternoon as it has perhaps two dozen other times in its 44-plus years.
On Monday, Strawberry weighed the impact of that home run.
"Nolan might have pitched a no-hitter that day. He was that good. But I got him," he said. "I'm proud I got him. ... They weren't 'Daaaaarryl-ing' then."
The home run was as stunning as it was critical. But somehow its impact and grandeur are overlooked now. Strawberry was just doing his job. He understands that better, though not fully, now. He wonders, how much would have been enough?
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.