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#TBT: Happy birthday, Darryl Strawberry

Darryl Strawberry at Shea Stadium in 1980, the year the Mets drafted him first overall. Getty Images

Darryl Strawberry turns 53 today.

I remember the first time I read about Strawberry. My sister used to get allergy shots, and I would read Sports Illustrated as I waited. The story was about a senior at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles who was about to become the first overall pick by the Mets in the 1980 draft.

From Joe Jares' story:

Darryl is 6' 4" and 180, throws and bats lefthanded and has reminded several observers of Ted Williams. "He's got a Williams-type physical makeup -- tall, rangy, good leverage," says Phil Pote, former A's scout who now coaches baseball at Los Angeles City College. "He's got bat quickness, he can drive the ball. The ball jumps off his bat.

"He's got what we call 'bat presence' -- an intangible, a something. Any swing of his can hurt you. He's just a natural hitter. He could make a lot of money in baseball."

Says Crenshaw Coach Brooks Hurst, "I asked Darryl. 'Do you know who Ted Williams is?' He said, 'Well--' and kind of hesitated. I said, 'Well, there's a little generation gap here. But you're going to be a black Ted Williams, because you hit just like Ted.'"

From the beginning, those were the expectations for Strawberry, who would grow to 6-foot-6: Hall of Fame or bust. It's unfair to compare anyone to Ted Williams, and it put enormous pressure on a kid who reached the major leagues in 1983 at age 21, joining a horrible Mets team that was on its way to a seventh consecutive losing season. Strawberry was going to be the savior. He hit 26 home runs in 122 games and won Rookie of the Year honors.

Soon, he was joined by other young talent -- Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling and Lenny Dysktra -- and the Mets acquired key veterans like Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter. They won 90 games in 1984; 98 in 1985; 108 and the World Series in 1986; 92 in 1987; 100 and the NL East in 1988; 87 in 1989; and 91 in 1990.

Strawberry was one of the best players in the National League all those years, although even then there was a nagging belief that he should be better. From 1983 through 1990, he ranked fifth in the National League in WAR, behind only Ozzie Smith, Tim Raines, Ryne Sandberg and Tony Gwynn. But none of those players received the attention Strawberry did. A 1984 Sports Illustrated cover story proclaimed him "The Straw that Stirs the Mets." George Bamberger, Strawberry's manager in 1983, brought up the Ted Williams comparison again in that story.

William Nack's story also contained three quotes that, in retrospect, tell us a lot about the person and player Strawberry would become:

Jim Frey, a Mets coach in 1983: "The whole question is his continued motivation and ambition and willingness to work."

Strawberry, on being compared to Williams: "I don't believe that. I don't want to get my mind confused with all that crap. That's what I call it: crap. I just want to be myself. I just want to be me. To have fun and play baseball."

Lloyd McClendon, Strawberry's minor league roommate: "There was a lot of pressure on him, and he didn't know how to handle it. ... He was young, he didn't have good work habits. In this game, it's easy to stay in bed all day, especially on the road. What Darryl didn't understand is that you have to get your body regulated. You've got to get up early, walk around and do things -- go to the mall, take in a movie. It's very easy to lie around and grab a bite and go play. But you're not getting yourself ready either physically or mentally to play the game."

During his Mets days, those would be attributes constantly described to Strawberry, even as he put up some of the best numbers in the sport. During his years with the Mets, he led the majors in home runs, even though Shea Stadium wasn't a good home run park. In the National League, only Dale Murphy and Andre Dawson had more RBIs.

Still, it wasn't enough. Strawberry fled New York and signed with the Dodgers as a free agent. He had one good year there and then his life and career fell apart. Drugs. Alcohol. An arrest for domestic abuse. Tax evasion. Injuries. More drugs. By 1995, Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci was writing about how Strawberry and Gooden had paid the high price of hard living:

He is living in self-imposed exile, talking about his former home cities, New York and Los Angeles, as his versions of Sodom and Gomorrah.

"It became a lifestyle for me," Strawberry says. "Drink, do coke, get women, do something freaky ... all that stuff. I did it for so long. I played games when I was drunk, or just getting off a drunk or all-night partying or coming down off amphetamines. With alcohol and drugs it was the excitement. That's how I got addicted. It was an exciting way to escape from everything else. Coming to the major leagues at such a young age and coming to New York ... maybe someplace else it would be a little different, but New York is a party place, an upbeat place."

His career was over until George Steinbrenner gave him a chance and Strawberry helped the Yankees win the 1996 World Series (he hit .417 with three home runs in the ALCS). Then came a battle with colon cancer and a final drug suspension in 2000. In March of 2001, a drug binge left him suicidal. "All that was left now was to blow his brains out and hope the life insurance policy would take care of his family," sportswriter Bob Klapisch, a biographer of Strawberry's career, said in ESPN's "SportsCentury" series.

* * * *

But Darryl Strawberry is still alive and gets to celebrate his birthday. Many didn't think he'd make it to age 53. He's a born-again Christian, an ordained minister who, with his wife, Tracy, runs Strawberry Ministries, as well as the Darryl Strawberry Recovery Center in Orlando, a Christian-based drug and alcohol treatment center.

I suspect most view his career as one of failed potential, even though he hit 335 home runs, drove in 1,000 runs and played in three World Series. That assessment is fair; Strawberry himself would acknowledge that he wasted a portion of his Hall of Fame talent. I would guess Mets fans from the '80s now view Strawberry with a certain fondness; we do grow kinder and gentler as we recall the players from our youths. Plus, there was this home run at Olympic Stadium. That's one way to remember Darryl Strawberry.