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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Standing in the on-deck circle, Darryl Strawberry looked at the man on the mound, Cincinnati righthander Mario Soto, and then started for the batter's box. "I was a little excited," Strawberry would say. And with reason. It was April 2, a sunny Opening Day in Riverfront Stadium, the start of a new baseball season and the first at bat of the year for the Mets' 22-year-old rightfielder. In fact, Strawberry had been waiting all winter for this moment, knowing that the Mets would be opening in Cincinnati and figuring that Soto, the star of the staff, would be the opposing pitcher. Now there was Soto, sure enough, with that hopping fastball and the nastiest change-up in the National League. Walking to the plate that day, Strawberry thought: This is it. This is the challenge all over again, me and Mario Soto.
Strawberry didn't particularly cherish the memory. The only other time he had faced Soto was in Shea Stadium last May 6—in his first big league game after the Mets called him up from Tidewater. Soto fanned him three straight times, then popped him up, keeping him off-balance and tentative with an array of heat and changeups that bedazzled the young rookie and left him muttering to himself in the clubhouse. "I remember thinking after that game, 'Whew! I never saw that kind of stuff in the minor leagues,' " Strawberry recalls.
That performance, not incidentally, launched the rookie on an excruciating slump that lasted weeks and that found him, on June 5, batting .161. The Met front office wondered whether he should be dispatched back to the Class AAA Tides. Strawberry eventually got on track, of course, hitting .313—with 14 home runs and 34 RBIs—over the last 54 games of the season. Indeed, despite the depressing start, he ended up hitting .257, with 26 dingers and 74 RBIs, and was voted the National League Rookie of the Year.
But that was then and this was now. Strawberry says he wanted to prove to himself that "I can hit anybody." Anybody in this case was Mario Soto.
On the first pitch Soto offered a changeup down and inside, and Strawberry swung mightily but missed. "I was too excited," he says. So he stepped out of the box and told himself: Just relax. Be patient. Wait for your pitch. Soto's second pitch was a carbon copy of the first, and Strawberry kept the bat on his shoulder. Ball. On the third pitch, he took Mario Soto downtown.
It was another change inside, only slightly higher, and Strawberry crushed it. Uncoiling his 6'6", 195-pound body, his unusually quick hands whipping the 32-ounce bat into the pitch, he drove it in a long arc into the second deck in right-field, the ball caroming about the seats some 450 feet away. He felt a rush. "It felt good getting ahold of it," Strawberry says. "As I rounded the bases, I thought, 'I did it!' It was an important at bat for me. I had something to prove, and it tickled me."
For Darryl Strawberry, acting out a seemingly fanciful script that was even better in reality, the 1984 baseball season had begun. By Sunday he had hit three home runs in nine games, helping the Mets to a division-leading 6-3 record, and was batting .294, with three runs batted in. He has just turned 22 but already there are signs that he might fulfill the promise seen by Brooks Hurst, his baseball coach at Crenshaw High in Los Angeles. "You could be a black Ted Williams," Hurst had told him. To which Straw replied, "Who's Ted Williams?"
" Ted Williams is an awful large order," says former Met manager George Bamberger, "but if someone asked me, 'Who coming up will be another Ted Williams?', well, I'd have to say Darryl Strawberry. I've compared ballplayers to other ballplayers but never to Ted Williams. Fifteen years from now this kid will turn out to be one of the greatest ever to play the game."
"If he continues to try to improve and he takes the game seriously, both offensively and defensively and as a base runner, within three years Darryl Strawberry can probably be as valuable a ballplayer as anybody in the game," says Chicago Cubs manager Jim Frey, who, as the Mets' batting coach in '83, was Strawberry's guru. "The whole question is his continued motivation and ambition and willingness to work."
"If we miss on this young man, we all better look for a career change," says Frank Howard, Strawberry's manager last year after Bamberger resigned on June 3. "He can go as far in baseball as any man living."