NEW YORK — 'I haven't had my year. But I'm going to have it this year. . . .
I know what I can do, what I should do, how good I can be.'
Maybe it was the termination of a stormy marriage, the realization that he will now see his 2-year-old son only occasionally.
Maybe it was the problems that enveloped close friend Dwight Gooden--the suddenness with which a life and career can change--or the winter vow made with close friend Eric Davis that one of them should go out and win the National League's Most Valuable Player Award.
Maybe it was the biting criticism he received from New York Met teammates when he was fined $1,500 for being late to one spring practice and stalking out of another.
Maybe, at 25 and in his fifth year, he has simply come to terms with the albatross that is his potential, defining it, accepting it and living with it on his own terms.
Or maybe all of those things are factors in what has been one of Darryl Strawberry's strongest starts.
The numbers--some of the league's best--are only part of it. The attitude is what has caught the Mets' attention.
Davis, the Cincinnati Reds' center fielder who graduated from Fremont High at the same time that Strawberry graduated from Crenshaw High, calls it "the eye of the tiger."
He and Strawberry hone it each winter by working out at Harvard Park in South Central Los Angeles, a reminder of where they came from and where they want to go.
If Strawberry's eye has clouded at times in the past, as some obviously believe, there is now cautious optimism, a hope that he will carry this new determination--and the Mets along with it--for all six months of a testing season.
Little things. Meaningful things. The 1987 Strawberry is at Shea Stadium by 3 o'clock for games that begin at 7:30. He works with weights now, runs to his position, goes for the extra base when the opportunity seems there and asks for more hitting, even though he has failed to hit in only 4 of 27 games that the Mets have played.
It is not that he did none of those things before, it's just that his levels of consistency and concentration seems higher. He was a .228 hitter against left-handers before. Now he is hitting .280. He was a .244 hitter in often hostile Shea Stadium before. Now he is hitting .317.
He has a .291 overall average this season, with 7 home runs, 21 runs batted in and 16 extra-base hits among a total of 30.
He has dedicated the season to his son and to Gooden.
"If that's what it takes to get him to do the things he's capable of doing, that's fine with us," Bill Robinson, hitting instructor and first base coach, said.
"I hit him fly balls before the game and he throws them back as hard as he can, as if he's trying to take my hand off. There'd be times in the past he'd never even go after the ball.
"There were too many peaks and valleys, too many highs and lows. He didn't allow himself a chance to utilize his capabilities. Now he's hustling, playing happy. I'd like to think he's finally just grown up."
First baseman Keith Hernandez, the Mets' captain, said he isn't skeptical, just wary. He said the real test for any player comes during the dog days of mid-summer. So far, however:
"Darryl's come to play and he's come to play hard. We all have days when we don't feel good. Darryl would give in to them in the past. Now he isn't. He's been great, and that's growth."
Strawberry sat at his Shea Stadium locker the other day and described himself as a man on a mission. He said he is very intense, very aggressive, very hungry to have a year commensurate with his capabilities. He predicted that it will be fun watching him.
"I haven't had my year," he said. "But I'm going to have it this year.
"I'm relaxed, confident. I know what I can do, what I should do, how good I can be. I want to live up to my expectations, not somebody else's. It's a tough thing to carry a label unless you have the experience to deal with it. Now I do.
"I'm not going to hold up any stats and say, 'This is what I should do.' I used to do that and have people say I failed when I didn't reach those goals.
"I know I'm going to put up great numbers, but I just want to stay healthy, have fun, do my best and take it a day at a time. I think good things can happen that way, especially when you're blessed with talent."
Darryl and Lisa Strawberry were married Jan. 5, 1985. Darryl Jr. was born June 11 of that year. A Met official said the marriage was simply one long argument.
Lisa filed for separation Jan. 29. Strawberry said that she beat him to it. She charged him with assault, saying that he broke her nose when they were in Houston for last year's National League playoffs. Now living in the Los Angeles area, she is seeking $31,000 a month in support. The case is in litigation.
Said Bill Robinson: "We all have problems at home. We have to learn to leave them behind."
Not easy when you're in your early 20s and the confusion of an unhappy marriage is complicated by the confusion of career expectations.