The Straw That Broke
My heroes have always been black men, usually baseball players. Years ago, reading the Joe Black chapter in The Boys of Summer, I got a double shock of recognition. Black, who grew up in the comparatively race-tension-less Far West, saved pictures of his favorite players in a scrapbook and dreamed of someday playing in the majors. It couldn’t happen, his high school coach told him one day — you’re black. He ran home and flipped open his scrapbook, stunned to realize that all of his heroes were white.
I understood at least part of his reaction. As a kid, I’d collected four scrapbooks of baseball pictures, one for each decade from 1920 to 1959. For my 10th birthday my father gave me a book on the history of baseball, and I still remember the jolt I got when I read that Jackie Robinson was the first black player in the major leagues. I raced to my scrapbooks, astonished that I’d not noticed before that all my heroes from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s were white, and that, except for Mickey Mantle, and the tragic Herb Score, virtually all my favorite ’50s players — Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Don Newcombe, Larry Doby, Monte Irwin, Junior Gilliam, Roy Campanella, Elston Howard — were black. Baseball, which had been my introduction to history, drama, and class distinction (people that rooted for the Yankees were different from you and me), also became my introduction to race.
I never realized how many of my boyhood illusions survived intact into adulthood until the enduring ones were shattered at the Shea Stadium batting cage during the first week of this season. “Do you think,” I asked Darryl Strawberry as he stepped from the cage after hitting three consecutive rainbows into the right-field bullpen, “that this is the year you’ll finally be accepted as a leader?” I don’t think he was being rude, but it was clear as he turned away that he didn’t want to look me in the eye. “I don’t want to be a leader,” he shrugged.
Doesn’t want to be a leader? Isn’t that tantamount to saying he doesn’t want to be a hero? How could any baseball player not want to be a hero? How could any black ballplayer who can accelerate like a Porsche and crack baseballs 450 feet not want to be my hero (even if he is 10 years younger than me)?
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Willie Mays was my hero and New York’s first black sports hero, because he could catch flies he couldn’t see, because he could hit baseballs 450 feet, and because you could watch him do these things without the overriding tension of racial politics. He stayed everyone’s hero because he ran out from under his cap when he stole second base and on days off he played stickball with kids on the streets of Harlem. I realize now that I idolized Mays partly because he offered me a comforting, unconflicted view of race relations in the U.S. Later, in college, some of my black friends scorned my idolization of Mays, just as they turned their faces in disgust at my blues records; Muhammad Ali and John Coltrane fit in more with their lifestyle, and in truth, mine too. What I couldn’t explain to them about my love for Mays and baseball was something that I caught a glimpse of when I read the remark by the great German baseball writer, Fred Nietzsche, that “a man’s maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play.”
The play part is as important as the serious part but the play seems to have drained out of Darryl Strawberry. Off the field, his marriage has disintegrated and his relations with teammates, the press, and the fans are worse than at any time since he came out of Los Angeles’s athlete factory, Crenshaw High (which also cranked out the NBA’s Marques Johnson, the NFL’s Wendell Tyler). At the beginning of the decade, he exploded out of the minor leagues with grace and poise and a heartbreakingly beautiful sweep of a left-handed swing that was both a blessing and a curse. The curse part was that it earned him the title of “the next Ted Williams” but his enthusiasm and talent helped him fight off Big Apple pressure the way he learned to fight off southpaw curves off his fists. Strawberry stepped into the lineup at age 21 and hit 26 homers, stole 19 bases, and showed more rookie promise than two-thirds of the men now in baseball’s Hall of Fame. And when he got better, the Mets got better. It was that simple.
But now, seven years later, New York heat seems to have finally overwhelmed Strawberry’s last reserve of Southern California high school cool. His sweetly impassive face registers not so much disgust as bewilderment every time his body fails at something that he’s been doing effortlessly for years. A friend of mine who studies Zen insists that Darryl has “grown afraid of the ball — he plays deep in the field because he’s terrified that it’s going to get past him and make him look bad. He swings at it as if the ball was an object that controlled his fate instead of something whose flight he can control.” Strawberry almost admits as much: “I’m letting guys who might not be in the majors next year get ahead in the count and dictate my rhythm at the plate.” It’s as if Robert De Niro suddenly let Steve Guttenberg dictate the pace of a scene.
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Baseball at the major league level is an exquisitely balanced game in which the difference between the winner of the World Series and the worst team in the division might be 15 games out of a season of 162. There are many reasons why the Mets didn’t win 10 or 12 games more and run away with the National League East: the loss of Dwight Gooden and Keith Hernandez for long stretches, the failure of the starting rotation to last beyond the third inning in over a dozen games, the failure of the bullpen to hold the lead in the ninth in 19 games, the inexplicable inability of the once-mighty road warriors to win away from Shea Stadium. All of these reasons are real, and all can be countered and balanced by the injuries and bad luck of the other contenders. The one argument there’s no counter for is Darryl Strawberry. Take all the other factors into account, and the Mets would probably have won if Darryl Strawberry had a normal season. The one inescapable fact is this: for the last season and a half, Darryl Strawberry has been a lousy player and the Mets, in precisely that time, have been a .500 team. The Mets have been in two tough, late-summer pennant races in a row, and Strawberry wasn’t a factor in either.
Something has gone drastically wrong. Strawberry’s Hall of Fame future suddenly is in doubt. Almost inexplicably, the Mets’ still-youthful talent corps is fast eroding and the promise of a golden era now seems farther off than it did in 1983. The cold-blooded whiteness of the Mets’ organization seems to have accomplished the astonishing feat of making a team owned by George Steinbrenner appear warm and attractive by comparison. The farm system, built to reflect the corporate mentality of the front office, seems less capable of scouting and accommodating young black and Latin prospects than even the ’50s Yankees: only black superstars need apply, and there are no more than two openings at any one time.
For that matter, the late-’80s Mets are aggressively unfunky compared to the overachieving pennant winners of ’69 and ’73. The Mets have succeeded in becoming a franchise for the suburbs: the demographics of their fans have evolved in the opposite direction from the Yankees and the inner city. Young black fans, like Spike Lee’s Mookie in Do the Right Thing, seem to wear old Brooklyn Dodger caps and shirts not so much out of nostalgia for a team they never knew but as a reminder of a promise that the city’s current National League team has reneged on. Black kids I know that wear Mets caps don’t wear them in support of the team so much as in support of Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden against the team.
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During the first six years of his major league career, Darryl Strawberry’s “potential” was held in front of his face like a carrot on the end of a Louisville Slugger. What most of us failed to realize is that he’d already eaten the carrot: Strawberry was probably a better ballplayer for the first few years of his career than Duke Snider or Don Mattingly, and the difference between the quality of his play and that of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle over the same period in their careers is probably so small that he could have replaced either without their teams’ suffering (see sidebar, “The Strawberry Statement”).
Before this year, that is. None of the players mentioned ever had a year as poor as Strawberry’s ’89 season until they approached the end of their careers. Exactly how bad Strawberry has been this year is difficult to perceive from the standard numbers. As we print this, Strawberry seems likely to finish with a batting average of about .225, with perhaps 30 home runs and 80 runs batted in. The anemic average isn’t damning in itself, but it’s an indicator of how Strawberry’s batting eye has deteriorated. The Mets are 10th in a 12-team league in on-base average with .309. With a week to go in the season, Darryl Strawberry’s on-base average is .309.
Like Queens, Strawberry’s season looks bad from a distance and worse the closer you look at it. Strawberry’s average on the road is .180, certainly the biggest factor in the Mets’ road record, the league’s third worst. With runners on base, he’s hit just .212. Seventeen of his current total of 29 home runs came with the bases empty. From August 16 to last week when the Mets’ pennant hopes sank precisely as fast as their opponent’s ERAs, he hit a single dinger. Over a stretch of 26 games, with the season on the line, he drove in two whole runs. And of course, that’s just at bat. His 11 stolen bases are a career low and, in the field, he has recorded one throwing assist all season.
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There were the injuries, the back pains, and other aches; Kirk Gibson overcame worse last year to lead the Dodgers to a pennant. There were the much-publicized off-the-field problems; Wade Boggs had some of those and has hit .340 most of the year. The Mets have tried ignoring Strawberry, stroking him, and benching him against tough southpaws. Manager Davey Johnson and batting coach Bill Robinson took turns assuring him that he’d pull out of his crash dive. Johnson pushed him to step forward and take a more active leadership role; Darryl watched strikes whiz by with runners on base, didn’t charge base hits in the field, and always, always missed the cutoff man. Robinson worked with him through extra batting practice, after which he said, “You’d think be couldn’t wait to get at the pitcher that night. Then he’d go out there and wave at curve balls and pop up with the bases loaded and you’d shake your head and say, ‘What’s wrong with him?’ First you get mad at him, but then you realize how much it’s getting to him, so you feel sorry for him.” He had sessions with the team psychologist, Dr. Alan Lans, who pronounced him “a fine young man, perhaps a bit confused at this point in time.” No shit, Doc.
The saddest spectacle of all was the sight of Strawberry and Davey Johnson, as decent a man as the brain-bending job of big league manager is likely to see, flailing away at each other. “What’s so sad about it,” says Ron Darling, who separated the two in last week’s now infamous clubhouse confrontation, “is that there really isn’t any hostility between them. Darryl knows that Davey has no animosity towards him — Darryl knows he wouldn’t get a better deal with any other manager around today. I’ve never seen two guys in baseball who needed to communicate more and wanted to but didn’t have the vaguest idea of how to go about it.” For his part, Johnson, a white Southerner, bristles at the suggestion of a racial problem: “I played with Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron. They’re my friends. Do you think that I’ve waited until this point in my life to start being a racist?”
Of course, the problem needn’t be racial at all. New York baseball history shows there is a right way and a wrong way to handle a troubled superstar. The wrong way was Casey Stengel constantly telling a brooding Mickey Mantle, “You can do better.” The right way was Leo Durocher telling a heartsick Willie Mays (zero for his first 24 at-bats), “You’re my centerfielder. We sink or swim together.” Johnson hasn’t taken either tack with Strawberry because, as the manager says, “I try to treat all players like men until they start acting like boys,” and “I try to treat all my players equally.” But treating all men alike is part of the difficulty: only on computers do ballplayers never act like boys.
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Whether or not the Mets should trade Darryl Strawberry was a hotter topic for many New Yorkers this summer than who should be mayor. Yes, said Howard Blatt in the Daily News, he’s turned into Dave Kingman; trade him while you can still get something of value back for him. (Blatt had a point: Strawberry’s 1989 totals tally in almost exactly with Dave Kingman’s average year.) No way, said Mike Lupica: you don’t give up on a player of Strawberry’s stature after one bad season. Lupica also has a point. What would the Mets possibly get for Strawberry that would justify letting go the man who only a year ago was being hailed as possibly the best player in baseball?
And yet, and yet (do we dare ask it?): what if 1989 represents something more than a slump? How long does a slump go on before you stop calling it a slump? There are three disturbing facts about Strawberry’s dismal streak:
- He hasn’t been bad for just a season, he’s been bad for a season and a half. His tailspin began with shocking swiftness after the first half of the ’88 season. From that time till now — a period of 210 games and nearly 750 at-bats — he’s hit nearly 50 points lower than his career batting average and 60 lower than his career on-base average. From 1983 to the 1988 All-Star Game he was stealing bases at a rate of three in four tries; since then, two of three. In sum, this looks more like a season and a half out of Dave Kingman’s scrapbook than out of Strawberry’s.
- Strawberry’s collapse has been total. Most great ballplayers have two or three outstanding skills that erode as their careers go by; for instance, a slugger who hits for a high average and who has the speed to cover ground on the field and steal bases will, in his early thirties, usually begin to lose hand-eye coordination resulting in more strikeouts and fewer walks. He’ll be thrown out more often trying to steal until he eventually stops trying. He’ll lose a step in the field, then two, until the fear of having a ball hit over his head forces him to play virtually in the shadow of the outfield wall. In the end, his one remaining talent will be the one that got him noticed in the first place, the one that one prospect in perhaps 500 possesses: the ability to hit 90 mph fastballs into the bleachers. This will be negated as pitchers feed him a steady diet of breaking balls with runners on base — the fastballs and hence the homers only come with the bases empty until it reaches a point where the outs used up outweigh the value of the solo shots. It happened that way to Mantle and Mays, to Schmidt and Bench and Jackson, and now it seems to be happening to Darryl Strawberry. It happened to the others as they approached or passed 35; Strawberry will be 28 next March.
- To people that watch him every day, the most obvious decline is in his fielding. Only a couple of short years ago Strawberry was considered one of the finest young outfielders in the league, and many were willing to write off his occasional lapses to youth — most of his injuries (i.e., hurting his thumb on a diving catch) were the result of over-hustle. Tim McCarver sees his current problems as mental, not physical: “Darryl seems to have lost the concentration it takes to position yourself according to the pitcher and hitter. I’d say at least two full games in the Mets’ loss column reflect how poorly Darryl positioned himself against hitters.”
But isn’t the team captain at least partially responsible for the positioning of outfielders? “I flash signals, I wave my hands, I yell, I let all the outfielders know what I know,” says Keith Hernandez. Doesn’t Darryl listen? “Been to many Mets games this year?” he shrugs. The Mets fans who rent space along Shea’s right field foul pole think that before the heavy summer rains hit there was a patch of brown turf in right field, 20 to 25 feet from the warning track. They call it “the Strawberry Patch.” It was brown, they explain patiently, because Strawberry never left it. “We’d yell to him, ‘Hey, Darryl, it’s fuckin’ Ozzie Smith up there, you can move in a few hundred feet,” says one irate 45-year-old regular. “Da-rul, come out of the Strawberry Patch!’ He’d just stand there, hands on his knees, ignoring us, and Ozzie would slap a single into short right that faded into the foul line for a double. I mean, fuck him, we’re just trying to help him and the team, y’know?” Yeah, we know.
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Everyone, even those teammates most infuriated by his behavior, wants to help Darryl. Talk to a Met with a grudge against Strawberry and once he’s talked himself through his anger, the teammate says something like, “When Darryl’s right, playing with him is as much fun as being back in the Babe Ruth league, with Babe Ruth on your side.” But though several Mets would go on record as calling him the best player in the game (Ojeda: “He’s been the best for the last six or seven years like Mike Schmidt was the best the previous six or seven”), curiously few would take Strawberry’s part in last season’s MVP debate. “I think the injustice of the MVP thing last year really got to him,” says Dwight Gooden. “I don’t want to take anything away from Mac [Kevin McReynolds] — he carried us the second half. And I’m not knocking what Kirk Gibson did for the Dodgers. But if you went by the numbers, Darryl should have gotten that award.”
Gooden’s loyalty to his pal is understandable, but in fact the numbers don’t support his argument. Gibson’s slugging and on-base average were just about the same as Strawberry’s, and he contributed almost the same number of runs to a team that was far more in need of them. Also, he performed well when the team was in the thick of a pennant fight. As McCarver says, “They don’t call it ‘Player of the Year,’ they call it ‘Most Valuable Player,’ and that implies a lot of intangibles, a lot of leadership qualities. I’m not saying Darryl doesn’t have it in him to do that, but Kirk is the one that showed those qualities with the season on the line.” One Met who asked not to be identified put it another way: “When the bad stretch started last year there was a game where we were down, I think it was 8-0 or 9-0 to the Braves in the first inning, and Darryl loped after a routine fly and tried to one-hand it. He was dogging it. Well, he missed it. Could you imagine Kirk Gibson dogging it like that?”
Okay, I said, realistically, would that have made a difference in the game? “Realistically, no. But it’s a question of attitude. If you show the other teams that you’re scrappy and full of fight when you’re down 10-0, they’re going to remember it on some day when they’re only ahead 5-0, and it’s going to undermine their confidence.” Okay, I said, but doesn’t Kirk Gibson ever drop a ball? “Yeah, and when he does he comes up snarling. ‘Blame me,’ he says, and what sportswriter’s going to have the guts to tell him to his face he’s wrong? Get what I mean’!” Okay, I say, but isn’t that asking a player like Gibson to assume a burden above and beyond the call of duty? “Yes.”
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Part of the problem with the MVP vote is that, like everything else these days from mayoral races to film festivals, it’s tinged with racism. Gibson, aggressive and hard-nosed as any player in the game today, is a writers’ favorite; even before the ’88 season was into the stretch writers had declared the MVP award a race between the “gifted” Strawberry and the “hustling” Gibson. (That Gibson was himself rather gifted — he was also an All-America football player at Michigan State — seemed to have been forgotten.) Strawberry stopped short of accusing the sporting press of racism, but the feeling was never far from the surface.
Strawberry brooded over the second-place finish all winter; Reds outfielder Eric Davis, his boyhood friend and former high school teammate, feels that Strawberry “let the media get to him too much. First he let them create an image of his that was based on what they wanted him to be, not what he thought he could be. I think after the season he had thought, ‘Well, didn’t I do what you asked? Where’s my reward?’ I think he was bitter ’cause he’d read so much about Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and how every writer expected him to be them all over again. They won MVP awards before they were 28, and he had the kind of season they did and the recognition wasn’t there. I told him, ‘Darryl, your mistake is that you ‘re letting them dictate how you feel about yourself. That’s wrong.’ ”
When I spoke to Strawberry this spring about the MVP award, he didn’t seem so much bitter as resigned: “I think now that the main reason I wanted it so much is not for the award itself but because of what it would have meant. If I’d have reached that level, it’s like a burden would have been lifted off me. Y’know? Nobody could say, ‘Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays and Hank Aaron all won the MVP, but Darryl Strawberry never did reach their level.’ It was something I could hold in my hand and say, ‘Okay, now I’m there.’ ”
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It was another case of using others as a yardstick that led to the famous “team picture” flare-up this spring when his resentment at being the team’s fifth highest paid player finally spilled out. I asked Keith Hernandez if he had any last words on the incident: “Yeah, I do. I think it’s ridiculous that Darryl should be the fifth highest paid player on this team. I thought so at the time. What I couldn’t get across to Darryl is that he was letting it get to him too much. If he wanted to show the front office something, go out and play harder. You can’t let the media or the front office or the fans affect the way you see yourself. Believe me, if I’ve learned nothing else in this game, I’ve learned that. I think you can trace some of Darryl’s problems right from the time, about midway through the ’88 season, when he started thinking too much about this MVP thing. I mean like, ‘What kind of numbers do I have to put up to be MVP?’ and ‘What do they want in an MVP? Am I really it?’ Shit like that. He took it too seriously and I think it’s affected his play.”
Serious. Play. Attitude. Of course, it would have been a nice gesture if some boosters of Strawberry’s early potential had come to his defense and pointed out that perhaps the Mets had something of an attitude problem in their handling of the situation — that if the press and the team expected Strawberry to play like Mays and Mantle and if he finally had the kind of seasons that Mays and Mantle had that he could finally expect to be the high man on the salary scale as they were on their teams. In response to my query on the subject, Mets GM Frank Cashen would only reply, “No one appreciates Darryl’s accomplishments more than we do. But Darryl’s demand for renegotiation was clearly intended to test our resolve — and we responded accordingly.” It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Cashen that what Strawberry might have been testing was the Mets’ good will and their faith in him.
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The sporting press and public maintain a double standard toward highly paid athletes: on the one hand, because they are spoiled and overpaid (and they are, of course), we expect them to be immune to the pressures, frustrations, and irritations that the rest of us are subject to. After all, the only thing they do for their millions is “play” a game. Then, when their performances become too much like “play” and they don’t win often enough to please us, we complain that they’re not “professional” enough (“Their hearts aren’t in it,” scolded Newsday‘s Steve Jacobson after the Mets watched a football game on the clubhouse TV following a recent loss. “They aren’t professional”). “Just us folks” sportswriters suck up to their readers’ prejudices by telling them that athletes “play games for a living” instead of doing “real” work. On Friday, in one of the most extreme examples of the genre, Jimmy Breslin wrote that Strawberry “should be consigned to some of the jobs that the rest of us have had to work at.” Breslin, who tagged Strawberry “a deserter” and “a public loiterer,” summed up this way: “New York is a place where people work hard and … Strawberry is a walking insult to us all.” (Breslin led off by criticizing Strawberry for not taking time off from his job shagging flies to sign an Ordinary Joe’s yearbook; if Breslin had worked a little harder, he’d have discovered that Strawberry is one of the most accommodating New York players when it comes to pre- and post-game autographing.)
Maybe the columnists are right, maybe Strawberry is a “tall, spoiled, utterly boring young man” who makes loads of money “playing a game” instead of toiling under “real” pressures like jobs where you have to tote lunch pails or pound computers. But performing for a living day in and out in front of TV cameras and millions of screaming people and being scrutinized and dissected the next day in print must certainly provide an amazing simulation of what pressure is like. The fans realize this better than the press: the “just us folks” who actually pay to get into baseball games voted Strawberry onto the All-Star team three years (’85-’87) when polls show the sportswriters would have kept him off.
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The fact is that no matter how little we can empathize with him, the professional athlete carries a burden: we want his play to reflect the seriousness with which we take our dreams. What makes it such a burden is that we care more about those games than we do about curing cancer or improving education — you can’t turn on WFAN without hearing a caller complain how ridiculous an athlete’s salary is compared “to what we pay our teachers and cancer researchers,” but of course, if we thought of them as our teachers and researchers, we would pay them more. Simply put, we think of ballplayers on our favorite teams as our possessions. What we pay goes directly from our pocket into theirs (unlike the impersonal way taxes are redistributed). When our players succeed, we’ve made a good financial and emotional investment. When they screw up, however, they’ve let us down, ripped us off. And if our player is black — and most of the money is coming from whites — there is a feeling of ingratitude, robbery, and, yes, betrayal, that simply isn’t there for a white player: the attitude is where would these uneducated black kids be if we hadn’t chosen them to be our heroes?
One reason black athletes are so prominent in modern American sports is because whites and blacks need them more — their success somehow assures us that the America we desire is a reality, or at least a possibility, and that if only the same simple rules toward the game and sportsmanship and team loyalty were followed off the field, then the rewards would be the same. None of us needs to be reminded how silly that is, and none of us wants to believe that what is best about the game can’t be carried over into everyday life.
The burden falls more heavily on the black player than the white, since he has two communities to be a hero for. Probably no one feels that a Strawberry-led Mets charge in the second half of this baseball season would have gone far toward easing racial tension in one of the ugliest summers in New York memory, but the fact is that having Darryl Strawberry as a hero would have unified this city in a way that even a black mayor could not: politics is almost always a divisive game, while team sports unifies cities. Instead, Strawberry and the Mets have pushed our noses more squarely into things as they are: the Mets’ black players are increasingly isolated on a team that is seven-eighths white, that has an all-white power structure, and which, if we can trust demographic studies, is losing more of its black fans every year.
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It’s possible that, with the exception of his friend and teammate Dwight Gooden, no baseball player has ever felt the burden of fan expectations more than Darryl Strawberry. This isn’t to equate Darryl Strawberry’s problems with those of Jackie Robinson and the pioneer black ballplayers of the late ’40s and early ’50s, but that was a different struggle. Back then, the public prejudice was that the black athlete was inferior; Robinson and Larry Doby and Willie Mays silenced their critics with circus catches and daring steals of home. The problem for modem players like Gooden, Strawberry, Ricky Henderson, and Eric Davis is the unstated prejudice that the black athlete is naturally superior, and thus each achievement is judged not in its own right, but as an indicator of how much more he could do — the implication always being that only his attitude holds him back. Pete Rose is not only judged by what he has done, but is allowed to set his own goals. Darryl Strawberry, however, is cursed by forever being judged according to standards set for him by others.
In our time, no black athlete has handled this situation better than Reggie Jackson, who said to the media, in effect, “Fuck you, I’m setting my own agenda — I’m great, so now let’s see if you’re capable of appreciating me.” It’s no accident that good teams, in Reggie’s words, “followed me around.” In addition to bringing a great player to every team he was with, Jackson also provided his teams with a built-in lightning rod; all the team’s angers, resentments, and frustrations were centered on him, as well as the lion’s share of the blame and credit. He thought it was a fair exchange, and, finally, when they came to see the benefits, most of his teammates felt the same way. Reggie won, he lost, he had fun. We had fun — no one ever called Reggie an underachiever.
Darryl Strawberry is a better ballplayer than Reggie was. He’s the best player the Mets have ever had — the best ballplayer New York has had since Mickey Mantle peaked nearly 30 years ago. The Mets have been baseball’s winningest team since he became a regular. But, like the Mets, he seems to have jumped from a confident future to a disappointing past without ever basking in the present. He’s not having fun, and neither are we.
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Swatting baseballs at Yankee Stadium before a Twins-Yankees game earlier this year, Strawberry’s old sparring mate Wally Backman offered an insight. “Darryl’s one of those who’d be so much better off if he’d quit thinking about himself in the third person. You know what I mean? When he started saying stuff like, ‘I’ve got to do the kind of things Darryl Strawberry is capable of,’ you said to yourself, ‘Oh, shit, it sounds like he’s been reading about himself in the papers too much.’ I feel sorry for him sometimes. It’s not the kind of problem players like me are faced with that much. But guys like that, they come up so young and read so much about themselves for so long, after awhile they’ve got to wonder who they really are.”
Of all the Mets, Backman has been the most critical of Strawberry, who once threatened to “punch out that little redneck.” I was curious. Had it ever occurred to him that Strawberry’s lack of leadership qualities might have stemmed from a rather unique situation: a young black man asked to lead a lineup of all-white veterans? “You know,” he said, “it didn’t at the time and I guess it should have. I never thought to try and put myself in Darryl’s place and see things his way. I just thought of him as a great player with some attitude problems. You think to yourself, ‘Jeez, I’m no racist,’ and you think you’re free of prejudice in things like baseball, but you get out in the world and find out that things are different than you thought. I mean, hell, my idol was Willie Mays. Know what I mean?” Yeah, I know what you mean. ■
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The Strawberry Statement
How good has Darryl Strawberry been? Two years ago we ran a piece comparing him to the two best ballplayers of the 1950s, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays — for good measure we threw in New York’s other great Hall of Fame outfielder from the same decade, Duke Snider. The study showed that, after 500 games, there was little difference in performance: Mays had four more home runs than Strawberry, Mantle had three more RBIs — but Strawberry had far more stolen bases.
The hate mail was voluminous: we ”manipulated statistics” or “took facts out of context” or — the most common howl — we “needed to wait a couple more years before the comparison could be valid.” Well, we’ve waited a couple more vears, and after 2900 at bats, here’s how NYC’s Fantastic Four stack up:
Actually, I have manipulated statistics a bit: I haven’t included batting average or strikeouts. Mays, Mantle, and Snider all finished their careers near .300 while Strawberry probably won’t hit .275. But batting average is less important now than it was 35 years ago — modern sluggers like Mike Schmidt and Reggie Jackson seldom hit over .290 and no one expected them to. On-base average is a much weightier stat and, thanks to his eye for drawing walks, Strawberry compares well in this with our big three. Strawberry has also struck out more, but, despite the modern sportswriter’s prejudice for the value of “putting the ball in play,” there’s little evidence that strikeouts have any correlation with winning and losing again, check out Schmidt and Jackson. (Darryl may have a point when he says, “At least when I strike out I’m not hitting into a double play.”)
At any rate, the evidence on that chart is undeniable: after approximately six big league seasons, Strawberry was a better hitter than Hall of Famer Duke Snider and comparable to, if not the equal of, the great Mays and Mantle. Let’s give the guy the benefit of the doubt: after 2900 at bats, he might have been better. Mays, Mantle, and Snider played half their games in home parks that didn’t hurt their numbers; Shea Stadium is a power pitcher’s park, and judging from the difference in Strawberry’s home-road stats over his first six seasons, it seems like Shea cost him over 100 hits and 60 RBIs.
“For six years,” Inside Sports wrote last year, “Mets fans have been waiting for Darryl Strawberry’s train to arrive.” They must have been watching the wrong station: Darryl was on track since his rookie year.
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A Way Out of the Strawberry Jam
What are we going to do about Darryl Strawberry? If the Mets keep him, they risk another year of the on-field malaise and off-field tur moil that’s plagued the team for the last season and a half. If they trade him, they risk the enduring hatred of Mets fans for exiling perhaps the best ballplayer of the decade.
There’s no easy way out for the Mets, but there’s one other move that could provide a greater payoff than either of those two scenarios: keep Strawberry and deal with the Cincinnati Reds for Eric Davis. Here are five reasons why:
1. Davis is one of baseball’s best hitters. This year he’s on the verge of finishing at .290 with 35 home runs, 100 RBIs, and 20 stolen bases. His slugging average of .550 is higher than anyone on the Mets except Howard Johnson, and his on-base average of .370 tops all Mets except the punchless Dave Magadan.
2. He’s a fine centerfielder, and it’s time the Mets cut their losses on Juan Samuel.
3. The Mets need a right-handed hitter with power and speed.
4. He’s black. The Mets desperately need black players to shake up the ethnic mix and to pump up flagging interest among minority fans.
5. He’s Darryl Strawberry’s best friend.
Normally the Reds wouldn’t let a player of Davis’s caliber go for all the money Pete Rose owes his bookies, but in the wake of this year’s collapse they’re likely to consider a deal — especially from a team in another division. It’s no secret Davis wants out, and he’s a free agent after 1990; the floundering Reds might swap him while he’s still a bargain for them. For what? Samuel and Ron Darling? Maybe Bobby Ojeda too? Ojeda and Greg Jeffries? We’d make any of these deals in a New York minute.
Strawberry has hinted that he’d like to wind up with Davis on a southern California team, but the Dodgers, Angels, and Padres aren’t likely to inflate their payrolls by the amount it would take to get both of them. The Mets, on the other hand, would be able to afford Davis — after cutting some of their aging high-priced vets (dumping Gary Carter alone might pay Davis’s way).
Strawberry would be playing alongside his closest friend, and a player of Davis’s stature — especially a black player — batting in front of or behind Darryl could take the pressure off him in much the same way Roger Maris eased the load for Mickey Mantle in 1960 (historians will recall that the Mick rebounded from his poorest season in 1959 to smack 122 homers over the next three years while Maris hit 133). Davis would be a hot acquisition for any baseball team, but for the Mets the deal might be worth two superstars.