He has owned his mistakes, shared his regrets, arguably as much as any professional athlete of his time. Yet when Darryl Strawberry chatted on the phone last week, he shared one I hadn’t heard previously.
“I shouldn’t have had such a great year in Double-A,” Strawberry said with a laugh. “I was Texas League MVP, and then the expectations went through the roof from there.”
The coronavirus shutdown has allowed us in the sports media world, admittedly searching for content, to discuss anniversaries we normally wouldn’t have the time to contemplate. On May 6, 1983, Strawberry made his major-league debut, starting in right field and hitting third for the Mets against the Reds at Shea Stadium. A reported crowd of 15,916 attended the Friday night game, which sounds rather awful until you consider that the Mets’ previous game, two days prior at Shea, drew only 5,511.
We can talk all day about how Strawberry and his fellow Mets phenom Dwight Gooden ultimately didn’t match the hype bestowed on them upon their arrivals, both falling short of Hall of Fame induction. I happen to think it’s more interesting to focus on their successes. And how Strawberry’s arrival marked a huge step forward for the Mets franchise.
“When I came up (in 1980), we were still struggling, but you could see the light at the end of that tunnel,” Mookie Wilson said in a telephone interview. “When Straw came in, he was an impact player right away.”
Look at the lineup that Strawberry joined. The only people who played in that game and would still be Mets teammates by the 1986 World Series were Mookie, Wally Backman, Danny Heep and Jesse Orosco. The influx of talent that Strawberry led was remarkable. By the end of ‘83, Keith Hernandez would come aboard via a trade with the Cardinals and Ron Darling would get promoted from the minors. Gooden, Sid Fernandez and Ray Knight joined in ‘84. Gary Carter, Lenny Dykstra, Howard Johnson and Roger McDowell in ‘85. And Tim Teufel and Bobby Ojeda in ‘86.
The waves of reinforcement really started with Strawberry, who reported with industry chatter of him being “the black Ted Williams” after that .283/.419/.602 tally with Double-A Jackson in 1982. With his 6-foot-6 frame impossible to miss and his unusual last name impossible to forget. On the New York stage.
“I hadn’t seen a player like him,” said George Foster, who started in left field that night and had played with Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” that won titles in 1975 and 1976. “I saw guys with parts of (such talent). But all the skills he had, I hadn’t seen anyone like that.”
“The beginning was really hard,” Strawberry said. “It was really challenging because the expectations were so high, and as a young player, you don’t know if you can live up to those expectations, especially in a big city.
“In some place like Seattle, there wouldn’t have been a lot of pressure, not a lot of media. They get a chance to excel quickly because the expectations may be high, but the demands are not. There’s a big difference between playing in New York and playing somewhere else.”
Strawberry went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and two walks in his debut, scoring the winning run on Foster’s walk-off, three-run homer in the 13th inning. If he didn’t dominate right out of the chute, he was indeed an impact player, as Wilson said, by year’s end. He wound up winning National League Rookie of the Year honors with a .257/.336/.512 slash line and 26 homers.
“It was just amazing. It was an experience to watch him every day, no matter what Straw did,” Wilson said. “We always thought that he was more (than what he produced), and that was unfair.”
Well, think of it this way: The drumbeat around Strawberry, the scrutiny of him and the many rambunctious players who eventually joined him, would be far greater nowadays.
“We’d have been thriving pretty well in social media,” Strawberry said, laughing again. “We had so many characters. Social media would’ve been on fire.”
While Strawberry of course found more than his share of trouble in those pre-social media days, at 58 years old now, with an established ministry and a love of urging youngsters to learn from his journey, he can look at his beginning with clear eyes. And we can appreciate what his beginning meant for the franchise with which he still identifies the most.
This week’s Pop Quiz Question came from Gary Mintz of South Huntington: Name the former major-league player that Paul Rudd plays in the 2018 film “The Catcher Was A Spy.”
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Strawberry’s Yankees teammate David Wells and his auctioning off of memorabilia to help people fighting COVID-19. In that column, I also gave shout-outs to many other former Yankees who were helping out. If you’re a Yankees fan, you’ll want to check out Jim Leyritz’s Facebook page for occasional “talk shows” with his Yankees friends, during which more funds are raised. On Wednesday night at 7 o’clock Eastern time, Johnny Damon and Tino Martinez are scheduled to speak with Leyritz and his co-host Jay Kobak.
Your Pop Quiz Answer is Moe Berg.
If you have a tidbit that connects baseball with popular culture, please send it to me at [email protected]
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