With the exception of Tom Seaver, Darryl Strawberry is probably the most recognizable name in the history of the New York Mets. The ovation he received on Opening Day is a living testimony to how popular Straw still is in Flushing. It was not always that way here, because he was a lightning rod for much of his career. But in his new role as senior advisor with the team, his presence is very visible with the fans, and, more importantly, with the Mets players.
In the early days of sports talk radio, circa 1988, Strawberry was the No. 1 topic on the air. Bigger than the Knicks and Patrick Ewing, bigger than the NFL, and yes, bigger than the New York Yankees. The Mets were coming off a year in which they failed to defend their 1986 world championship, and Strawberry was about to embark on what many people feel was his best season -- one in which he should have won the National League MVP.
But it was also the year Strawberry started to grumble about his contract status. Strawberry began to think seriously about playing somewhere else in the future. He even openly admitted that returning to his hometown of Los Angeles might be in the offing.
In many ways, Strawberry has come full-circle, and has become the unofficial "team conduit" between the successes of the '80s and the present-day Mets. "I have always been a Met and this organization will always be my home," said Strawberry. "And I know I played for a few other teams but I will always be a Met -- period." His experiences and pitfalls could be a great learning tool for Mets players who are trying to make the transition from good to great. Players like Jeff Francoeur.
The Mets' ex-rightfielder spent a lot of time with the current rightfielder in Port St. Lucie this spring, because Francouer had a lot of success early in his career in Atlanta (back-to-back 100-RBI seasons) until, for whatever reason, Bobby Cox lost faith in him -- so much so that he was willing to trade him to a division rival. Part of the issue for Francoeur was he was playing in his hometown and fell victim to the demands that can present. "I needed a fresh start because my whole life I was exposed to only Atlanta," said Francouer. "[Atlanta] is a great town, but when I got here Jerry Manuel and Howard Johnson reassured me that the Mets wanted me and that made me feel very relaxed."
And in a strange way, Strawberry and Francouer have shared that feeling, as Strawberry quickly realized when he signed with the Dodgers that playing in your hometown is not all it's cracked up to be. Ironically, New York was an easier place for Strawberry to play because, despite all of the media scrutiny, at least you are not constantly getting pestered by the people that you grew up with to "share the wealth."
"Straw is great," said Francoeur, "because he has so much experience to share. Sure, we have talked about hitting approach and pitch selection but we have also talked about clubhouse communication, leadership and listening skills. And those are the lessons that I think will help me the most."
I have known Strawberry since 1984, and have seen him at his best and at his worst. I have seen him carry a team on his back, and I have seen him hibernate in a shell when things did not go his way. But in the past few years I have seen a change in him which I can only explain as a certainty of purpose. He knows his career could have been better and his Mets teams should have won more than one championship. But he also knows why that happened, and he has decided to try to impart some wisdom to the current-day Mets.
And, he has decided not to do it with a lot of fanfare, but to do it behind the scenes in a quiet yet meaningful way. Strawberry loves his new role with the team, and when he is inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame this August, he will have finally returned home. His on-the-field heroics are well-documented, but he is enjoying his new role as Mets counselor as much as he enjoyed any one single moment in a Mets uniform.