Saying he was virtually forced to leave the New York Mets by their refusal to offer an equitable contract and meaningful relationship, Darryl Strawberry said Thursday that he is prepared to begin his rich relationship with the Dodgers as a center fielder.
Introduced at a Dodger Stadium news conference after signing a five-year contract that will pay him $20,250,000, the former Met right fielder said he was sincere when he told the Dodgers during their initial negotiations that he would move to a position he has not played on a regular basis since he was 15.
"My ability to play center field is not a problem," Strawberry said. "I'm thankful I have the ability. The main issue is what's inside your head. If I doubt myself, I won't be able to do it, but I'm confident I can."
So are the Dodgers, apparently.
"If Tommy Lasorda was filling out the lineup card today, Darryl would be the center fielder," Executive Vice President Fred Claire said.
Lasorda doesn't have to fill out a lineup card until the exhibition games begin in March. For now, Kal Daniels looms as the left fielder and Hubie Brooks the right fielder. The Dodgers, it is believed, are not likely to re-sign free agent Kirk Gibson, though Claire would say only that Strawberry's signing affects several players and he is not ready to close the door on any of them.
"Darryl can play anywhere he wants," Lasorda said by phone from Boston, where he was fulfilling a speaking engagement. "When Fred phoned me at 2:30 this morning to tell me he had signed, I couldn't sleep the rest of the night, I was so excited.
"I'd compare it to Bruce McNall's signing of Wayne Gretzky for the Kings. Darryl Strawberry is one of the outstanding players in baseball, and his willingness to play center field shows you what kind of person he is.
"I think he can be an outstanding center fielder, but we'll determine which of the two positions he plays in spring training."
It was a year ago that Lasorda was saying that Juan Samuel could be an outstanding center fielder, but Samuel was ultimately returned to second base, as Gibson and Stan Javier shared center.
Strawberry last played center field in a Los Angeles summer league as he prepared to enter Crenshaw High.
Now, of course, the attraction for the Dodgers wasn't Strawberry's glove as much as his bat, which produced 37 home runs and 108 runs batted in last year, and an average of 31 homers and 91 RBIs in his eight seasons with the Mets.
And for free agent Strawberry, 28, weary of the long struggle to fulfill his potential amid the pressure of New York's great expectations, the issue wasn't position as much as location: Hometown Los Angeles, and the security blanket of family and friends--a dream the Dodgers helped turn to reality by offering Strawberry the second-richest contract in baseball history, exceeded only by Jose Canseco's five-year, $23.5-million deal with the Oakland Athletics.
Strawberry's arrangement calls for a $1.5-million signing bonus and yearly salaries of $3.5 million, $3.75 million, $3.5 million, $3 million and $5 million. "We would have preferred three years or four years, but I really feel that if we hadn't gone to five years, we wouldn't have been able to sign him," Claire said. "It wasn't a difficult decision when you consider the magnitude of the player and his age. I really feel Darryl is in his prime, that his best years are ahead of him."
If the Dodgers do not re-sign Gibson, Samuel and Fernando Valenzuela, three of their four free agents, they will have $4.55 million in 1990 salaries to put toward Strawberry's contract. Strawberry's agent, Eric Goldschmidt, had promised the Dodgers he would not shop Strawberry if they offered Canseco-like numbers, and he didn't.
"We could have played it out over the next few weeks, created a bidding war and got more money," Goldschmidt said. "We know we could have probably been No. 1 (ahead of Canseco), but it wouldn't haven't been with the Dodgers. We knew there was eventually going to be a line drawn (by the Dodgers), and this was the situation Darryl wanted. It's his home, he likes Tom Lasorda, and he's always wanted to play for the Dodgers. I mean, he may have gotten $23 million somewhere else, but a $20-million-plus package sets him up for life anyway, and he gets everything else he wanted along with it."
Said Strawberry: "I didn't want to fly all over the country and get in a bidding war. I wanted to be with a winner, which the Dodgers have always been. I wanted to come home. I mean, people talk about the pressure of playing at home, but after going through what I went through in New York, nothing can be as bad as that.