18 DUPACR: Darryl Strawberry

You were expecting Jeff McKnight, weren’t you?

I will admit, though, there was a nanosecond where I considered honoring Joel Youngblood for the 18th Day Until Pitchers And Catchers Report. But really, there was never a question, for so many reasons.

It goes back to being a Mets fan in the late 1970s to early 1980s — a dark, ugly time for the franchise (particularly after they traded The Franchise). The team was bad. The future looked bleak. The original owners sold the club to a book publisher and a real estate magnate, but it was hard to see how that was going to help. Despite the incessant commercials produced by the high-priced, well-intentioned ad agency, the “magic” most certainly was NOT back. The situation seemed hopeless — until June 1980, when the team made Darryl Strawberry the #1 pick in the amateur draft.

This kid was a can’t-miss, a legend in his own time. His name was “Darryl Strawberry”, for goodness sakes — how could he fail as a baseball player with a name like that? We drooled over the UPI and AP reports in our local papers that listed his assets: six and a half feet tall, with lean, wiry strength; lefthanded hitter and thrower who could run like the wind, hit with power, and throw lightning bolts.The scouts were already calling him “the black Ted Williams”, for his sweet lefty swing, but radar guns had clocked him at over 90 MPH in high school games that he appeared as a relief pitcher — so maybe “the black Babe Ruth”, a two-way star, was more appropriate?

When Strawberry made his MLB debut three years later, he delivered on the incredible expectations heaped upon him — and then some. He was an immediate superstar, a young, strapping savior for an organization that desperately needed one.

Of course, Strawberry was far from perfect, but he was more perfect than anyone we’d seen in Flushing since June 15, 1977. Occasionally, Darryl would lose focus while playing the field, allowing a ball to nearly drop on his toes. Though he had a cannon for an arm, he’d occasionally lob the ball over the cutoff man, allowing a runner to take an extra base. Despite great speed, his effort on the basepaths was sometimes … uninspired, shall we say. Even in the batter’s box, when he wasn’t hitting prodigious bombs over fences, there were times when he looked genuinely uninterested — as if, perhaps, he were bored.

I distinctly remember one summer evening, after we spent most of the daylight hours playing ball, my best friend Tim and I were watching the WOR / channel 9 broadcast of a Mets game. Darryl was “being Darryl” (long before Manny was “being Manny”) — it was a hot, humid night, the Mets fell behind by a few runs early, and Straw was going through the motions. He jogged after a fly ball in one inning, waved weakly at a slider in the dirt in another. This frustrated the heck out of Tim and me, and we lamented about talent wasted. Two innings later, the Mets found themselves in the middle of a rally, battling back to within one run with a man on and Darryl coming to the plate. Something had changed about his body language as he stepped into the box: he looked more alert, more focused; he looked like a spring ready to uncoil. I turned to Tim and said, “you know, Darryl is so talented, I bet he can go up there and hit a homerun anytime he wants. Look at him now, he looks like he’s decided to finally play tonight — I bet he cracks one, just because he feels like it.” Tim was hopeful, but thought it was a little far-fetched. “Darryl’s good,” Tim admitted, “but nobody’s that good. I mean, I hope he is, but I doubt it.” Moments later, that spring DID uncoil, and the ball disappeared some 450 feet away from the plate, beyond the right field fence — putting the Mets up by one.

(Tim — if you’re reading this, back me up in the comments. I may have misremembered the exact conversation, but I think that was the gist of it … oh, and happy early birthday to you — enjoy it on Sunday !!)

For me, that was Darryl: not the black Ted Williams, but the black Babe Ruth — capable of hitting a mammoth bomb whenever he felt like applying himself. Had he been more focused, and been able to avoid the off-field distractions and demons, maybe Straw would have broken Roger Maris’s single-season record for HRs; maybe he would have passed Hank Aaron; maybe he would have powered the Mets into the postseason a few more times.

Regardless of the shoulda / woulda / coulda’s that we can debate until eternity, the bottom line is this: Darryl Strawberry gave us great memories. Dramatic, explosive memories. Even in the moment, when it was happening, we knew we were seeing something incredibly special and unprecedented when the Mets had both Strawberry and Dwight Gooden on the same team, at the same time, performing incredible feats, filling Shea Stadium with an electricity we’re unlikely to ever see or feel again. At that point in time, the magic WAS back, finally.

The countdown thus far:

#18 Darryl Strawberry
#19 Anthony Young
#20 Howard Johnson
#21 Gary Rajsich
#22 Ray Knight
#23 Doug Flynn
#24 Kelvin Torve
#25 Willie Montanez (no link … sadly, didn’t have time to write a post)
#26 Dave Kingman
#27 Pete Harnisch
#28 John Milner
#29 Alex Trevino
#30 Jackson Todd

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. Fred January 28, 2011 at 9:26 am
    I know exactly what you are talking about with Darryl. He would seem to check out, play lackadaisically, but then get back into the groove when he needed to. It’s a shame he didn’t take every at-bat seriously, because he had the talent to be one of the greatest of all time. Still, I will always be grateful for the memories he gave us during those wonderful seasons of the mid to late 80s.

    I met Darryl at a Citifield game last season and he still looked like he could play. He looked ripped. I guess we all can forgive Darryl for some his “Darryl being Darrly” moments considering the considerable baggage he carried around (the son of an abusive alcoholic, whom he threw out of the family home when he was only 12). I wish him well, and hope that both Doc and he have gotten their lives straightened out.

  2. Timo January 28, 2011 at 1:32 pm
    First, thanks for the birthday wishes. Can’t believe it’s sunday.
    Second, you did get the story right. i’m always the skeptic. Daryl was Daryl. He was the BEST right fielder we ever had. Since him, we haven’t been able to replace him with someone even close to his talent.
    I also remember we watched his whole career after that day and said he could do whatever he wanted (at the plate) If we needed a double he would hit a double. If we needed a SAC fly, he did it. We would call his shots and got them right (most of the time). He basically had the talent at the plate like Ted Williams but not the attitude. If the fans got on him, he would perform. He would also perform when the team needed too. If the team was up 11-0, he would go 0-4. But if the team was tied then he turned it on. I wish he was ON all the time. The METS would have won more World Series during his time there.
    Enjoyed the article, keep up the great work!
    • Joe Janish January 29, 2011 at 2:59 pm
      Timo, thanks for backing me up!
  3. john antinoro January 29, 2011 at 1:32 pm
    I liked your article about the straw man and I thought he was one of the great ones loved watching. Him play