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Strawberry had always had pillars to lean on—Moseley when he was a young boy, Dusan when he was a young man—and he suddenly had another in Frey. Says Strawberry, "I didn't know which way to turn, who to turn to, and Frey steps in like a father and says, 'I'm going to help you, but you got to help yourself, too.' I'm still green, but then I was really green. Frey's a great guy. He really helped me."
The two spent hours walking ball parks together in the quiet mornings and afternoons before games. They sometimes spent 40 minutes before a game just walking together. Some passages from the gospel according to Frey:
"A lot of good things are going to happen over the next 15 years if you put in the work.... Study pitchers and get a feel for what each one is trying to do. Baseball can be so much fun if you think of playing in the majors as a gift. Fans and writers are dying to appreciate you and respect you if you just give them a chance.... Work on your defense.... A big salary is a player's reward for what he has already done. Most of the players you hold in awe aren't the players they once were.... Think, 'I'm the best player on the field tonight,' and you will be. Lock that in your head and nobody can take it away."
Only once during that first week did Strawberry fail to show up early. Frey upbraided him: "I'm not going to chase you around the clubhouse, and I'm not going to call you and I'm not going to beg you to do what you should be doing."
Over the next 10 weeks, Strawberry never again missed a session with Frey, and gradually he came out of the slump. He grew more aggressive at the plate, and he shed his reluctance to hit balls to the opposite field. "I started turning things around," he says, "and all of a sudden I was back to myself."
Strawberry began 1984, his first full year in the big leagues, after an outstanding spring training in which he worked to level off his stroke, cut down on strikeouts—he fanned 128 times in 420 at bats last season—and hit to the opposite field. With Frey gone, Strawberry's guru now is the well-traveled Bill Robinson, the new Met batting coach, who preaches from his own text: "The money lies in the RBIs. You don't have to hit a home run to drive in a run.... Think left-field, up the middle. Wait longer on the pitch. If a man can drive a ball to the opposite field like you can, doesn't it behoove you to use two-thirds of the field instead of just one-third?"
During the winter in L.A., Strawberry practiced batting in a park near his mother's home, where he was living. He's not a partygoer or a carouser. "I wanted to stay close to the family," he says. "I wanted to share my moments with them." He broke up with his fianc�e, USC basketball star Paula McGee, last fall, but this winter he found another in Lisa Andrews, a former model who is now a loan coordinator in a Pasadena bank. They plan to marry in January.
"I'm going to take care of my whole family," Strawberry says. "I'm battling for all of them." Except for Henry Strawberry, of course, who has remarried and deeply feels the estrangement from his youngest son. "I've never been a part of his success," he says. "Sometimes I feel down about it, but what can I do? As long as he's happy, I'm happy."
At the moment, Straw is. He took some mild heat for statements he made this spring that he planned to take over as team leader, but he doesn't care. The Mets have needed a leader for years. "Leadership is going to be another challenge to me," he says. "I'm tired of getting ripped about how terrible the ball club is. How can this club get out of the cellar if it doesn't have any leadership?"
The question answers itself. For Strawberry, leadership began the only way it can begin, on the third pitch of the new season, when he took Mario Soto downtown.