Strawberry Season

“I think some of the pressure comes from the expectations of other people; they expect you to be the big lifesaver or something when you play a sport.” – Barry Bonds

For years, New York Mets fans dreamed of a player, a hero, a Superman — a mythical figure who possessed the power of Willie; the arm of Roberto; the swing of Ted; the speed of Rickey; and the ferocity of Ty.

On June 3, 1980, the New York Mets used the No. 1 overall pick in the amateur draft to select a 17-year old, 6 foot 6 inch, 190 pound high school athlete from Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles. His name: Darryl Strawberry. He batted .400 his senior year. Strawberry had that raw talent that is often shadowed with high expectations and intense pressure. He was coming to a franchise so desperate for hope, on the biggest stage in baseball, the name Strawberry was showing up in print beside Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. The New York Times referred to him as ”the black Ted Williams.”

”I’m not familiar with the things Willie (Mays) has done,” he said. ”I’m just Darryl Strawberry and I have to play like me. I know I have the talent to play, but it’s not going to be easy. I’m going to have my ups and downs, and I have got to be able to deal with them.”

After signing with the Mets, Strawberry was sent to the Mets rookie league affiliate in Kingsport, where he batted .268 with five home runs and 26 RBI.

”I’m not ready for the majors yet,” Strawberry humbly confessed at the end of the season. “I know it, and they know. I don’t want to put any pressure on myself, get up there before I’m ready and have the fans boo me.”

Too late. The pressure was already mounting on Strawberry. The Mets promoted their top prospect to Double-A Jackson (Miss.) to start the 1982 season. Strawberry started the season in a slump, going 2-for-44.

”A lot of people expected him to get a home run every time up,” former Kingsport manager Chuck Hiller told the Times. ”And now he couldn’t even get on base. He was under a lot of pressure.”

As Strawberry began to relax he also began to hit. By season’s end his batting average was .283 with 34 HR and 95 RBI. He was voted league MVP and and was recognized by the franchise as the team’s top prospect winning the Nelson Doubleday Award.
Strawberry appeared at his first major league training camp in the spring of 1983, but the franchise eventually decided to let their Strawberry ripen a little longer at the team’s Triple-A affiliate in Tidewater. ”I realize they don’t want to put that kind of pressure on me, not at this stage,” he said. “So I suppose they’ll start me at Tidewater for a while. But I may be in Shea Stadium before the season’s out.”

The Mets started the 1983 season struggling to score runs and wins games. They had lost 15 of their first 22 games and the Mets were right back in last place. Hope was fading and attendance was falling fast. So, on May 7, 1983, the Mets picked a Strawberry.

Darryl Strawberry was on his way to New York. In 17 games at Tidewater (AAA), Strawberry was batting .333 with three home runs and 12 RBI. The Mets wasted no time, penciling Strawberry into the starting lineup as the starting right fielder against Mario Soto and the Cincinnati Reds at Shea Stadium. ”I don’t remember anyone coming up to the majors with this kind of attention,” Mets GM Frank Cashen told the media. “I talked to him and told him not to go shouldering the burden. The danger is that Darryl will think he has to do it.”

His debut was one to forget. Strawberry was hitless in four at-bats, striking out three times. He also walked twice and stole a base in the Mets 7-4 win over the Reds. The media chronicled Strawberry’s slow start in the next day’s paper. The Times had little sympathy writing, Strawberry knows that when he finally puts his 6-foot-6-inch, 190-pound frame into the white uniform with the orange-and-blue pinstripes and piping, and takes his place in right field, greatness will be expected.

Greatness would come, but it would take a little patience. After going 3-for-24 over his first seven games, Strawberry delivered, crushing his first career home run in front of 1,970 at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh off Lee Tunnell. Strawberry finished his rookie season with the slash line: .257/26 HR/74 RBI/.336 OBP, and the National League Rookie of the Year honor.

Strawberry would go on to hit 251 home runs in New York before signing a five-year, $100 million free agent contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He still holds the Mets franchise record for most home runs (252).

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