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COMMENTARY : Perhaps, in Darryl Strawberry's Case, What We See Now Is All We'll Get

June 18, 1989|STEVE JACOBSON | Newsday

The most difficult part of evaluating Darryl Strawberry as a baseball player is that nobody knows what Darryl Strawberry is. Everybody thinks he knows what Strawberry ought to be, but then what?

He's only 27 years old, but then he was only 26 last year and the year before he was only 25. And we're still thinking in terms of boundless potential.

"This guy is still maturing into his body," Joe McIlvaine, the New York Mets' perceptive vice president of baseball operations, said this spring. But he could have said it last spring and the spring before. Probably did.

But if what we see is what we get, it's such a disappointment.

Davey Johnson, the manager, and Bill Robinson, the batting coach and guiding hand, sat down to talk with Strawberry before Tuesday night's game. They said the obvious. They said Strawberry should be playing better and if the Mets are going to get better, he has to be better.

Sometimes Strawberry forgets. He called them good talks. "Davey said, 'If you do good, we all do good,' " Strawberry said.

Simple. So is the converse: If he doesn't do good, oh boy.

On a divisional champion last year he was a strong contender for Most Valuable Player. He thinks he should have won. He stood out. On a team that's struggling to stay above water, starving for runs and barren of leadership, he is lost with the rest.

"Everyone expects me to be the one to take charge," Strawberry said. "I realize it now, when it's pointed out to me.

"I have to get back to playing at this level up here. Not to here."

The first level, marked by the flat of his hand, was up around his chin. The lower level was somewhere just above his belt, which is where he is now.

They want him to be an MVP. He's hitting .232. He is among the leaders only with his 14 home runs. Eleven of them have been with nobody on base. He has batted in 31 runs, when Kevin Mitchell has 62 and Von Hayes has 40. And it's June 14. It is no kind of Flag Day.

Remember that when Strawberry grudgingly went back to spring training, he vowed to settle his contract dispute with a "dynamite" year.

The Mets are giving no sign of waking up. "They're not pointing a finger at me," Strawberry said.

berry is that only Strawberry can carry the team . If you're thinking that at this time in his development Strawberry shouldn't have to be told that, you're right. But the manager's art is diplomacy that works.

Play up to Strawberry's ego and it might stimulate him. Knock it down and it's risky business. "If I get hot, things will change," Strawberry said. "I have to do what I can do."

He is now alone in a lineup that has no other presence. That's an additional burden on Strawberry, who should be one of the sage old heads on this team. In the spring he said he welcomed the challenge of leadership, but he has shown no grasp of the role in the absence of Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter.

To the contrary, Strawberry notes it has become a "laid-back" team. "I fell into the pattern of being too laid-back," he said. "I blame myself."

He has not batted with a lot of men in scoring position, but then when he has had opportunities, he hasn't distinguished himself. In the field he has done less.

He is an insecure and tentative right fielder. He's never made himself a good fielder or a wise thrower. He plays deep because he is not a great judge of a fly ball. Consequently, balls drop in front of him. He doesn't like the risk of charging a ball, so the word is out to challenge him for the extra base.

The Cubs ran on him last week, so when Andy Van Slyke's 10th-inning single scooted his way Friday night in Pittsburgh, Strawberry rushed his play. Instead of getting in front of the ball, he was afraid of giving up the extra base, tried to backhand the ball and it went past him for three bases. Van Slyke eventually scored the winning run.

The guidon of leadership has fallen to the ground. Strawberry concedes the Mets especially miss Hernandez, the man he took a punch at in the spring.

"He goes to the mound; he doesn't let the pitcher rattle himself out of the lineup," Strawberry said. "He brings out the fire; he brings out the best of us."

Certainly, it's difficult for Strawberry in right field to remind the infielders where they ought to be. Maybe Lenny Dykstra still would behave like a rockhead even if Hernandez were around.

Strawberry's production could say the things that need to be said. He has to hit to be an impact player on this team.

He's been a good player. At times he's been a very good player. He never has been a great player, which was the term applied to him. He is a feared slugger, but that's a limiting term. He was spoken of in terms of the Hall of Fame. "He can be as good as he will allow himself to be," was McIlvaine's analysis.

Perhaps this would have been the year. Perhaps his impending divorce has been a distraction. But he doesn't mention it, and he has not appeared different from his past.

This is his seventh season in the big leagues. By this time the great ones already had shown what they could do and played consistently that way. Seldom does any player reach a level beyond the age of 27 he hasn't already touched. By 27, what you see is what you get.

"They're expecting me to do what I'm capable of," Strawberry said. "It's the right time now to turn the season around."

If he could turn the season around, it would be turning the career around as well. It's later than it's ever been.

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