Strawberry recalls rewarding debut season with gratitude, pride

May 5th, 2023

NEW YORK – The Mets were in fifth place in the National League East on May 4, 1983, 7 1/2 games behind the first-place Phillies.

New York had name players on its roster like Rusty Staub, Tom Seaver and Mike Torrez, but they were past their prime. Dave Kingman and George Foster were supposed to supply thump in the batting order that year, but they had issues making contact at the plate.

After his club lost to the Astros, 4-3, that day, then-Mets general manager Frank Cashen decided to promote the team’s top prospect, , to the big leagues. Strawberry came to the Big Apple with a lot of hype. He was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1980 Major League Draft, labeled the “Black Ted Williams” because of his sweet swing from the left side of the plate. He had impressive numbers with Triple-A Tidewater to warrant the callup, hitting .333 with three home runs, 13 RBIs and a .465 on base percentage.

Strawberry made his Major League debut two days later against the Reds, batting third and going 0-for-4 with two walks and a run scored in a 7-4 victory.

For some, including Strawberry, it’s hard to believe that was 40 years ago.

“The memories always come back when I do think about it,” Strawberry said. “Oh, what a time. What a young pup I was. … The dream was to get to the Major Leagues. Also, at the same time, you know it’s going to be a great challenge with that level of competition. I was nervous about it. Why? It’s because you are playing against the best.”

During batting practice prior to his debut, Strawberry received a nice surprise, noticing his mother, Ruby, in a box seat at Shea Stadium. He had no idea she was going to attend the special moment.

Darryl Strawberry takes batting practice at Shea Stadium before his big league debut on May 6, 1983. (AP)

“She gave me the biggest smile. She was so happy for me,” Strawberry said. “She was everything to me and my life. It was something that I dreamed of. I remember the long nights I was playing in the Minor Leagues. I started out at Kingsport [in Rookie Ball] and I used to call home every night saying, ‘I want to come home.’ And she goes, ‘No, No, No. You made this decision because you wanted to play baseball. You are going to have to figure it out.’”

It took Strawberry a while to figure out big league pitching. From his debut through July 31, Strawberry hit .215 with 12 home runs and 40 RBIs. Some even questioned his work ethic during that period.

One day in June, Strawberry and then-hitting/first-base coach Jim Frey made plans for Strawberry to take early batting practice. Strawberry was supposed to arrive at 1 p.m. but showed up two hours late. Frey approached him and said, “I’m never going to wait for you again. You want to be great at this level and play at this level, you have to be at this ballpark early every day.”

From that point until the end of the season, Strawberry was at the ballpark early, working on his hitting and defensive skills, with Frey showing him how to do things right.

“[Frey] said, ‘You are talented enough to play here,’” Strawberry remembered. “I got a chance to reach out to him before he passed away [in 2020]. I heard he was sick. I got his number. I called him and I said, ‘Jim, Darryl Strawberry.’ He goes, ‘How’s it going, kid?’ I said, ‘I want to tell you, thank you. You made me become the best Major League player I was by getting in my face and [asking me] if I want to be great at doing this. I needed to work no matter how much talent I had.’”

Strawberry took Frey’s words to heart. From Aug. 2-Oct. 1, Strawberry looked like the second coming of Williams, hitting .312 with 14 homers and 34 RBIs. The tear helped Strawberry win the National League Rookie of the Year honors.

“I was very proud. It was the hard work I put in to get there,” Strawberry said about winning the award. “It was a struggle for me [at first]. I think the pressure and the expectations were far greater than I could ever imagine.

“The expectations were that I was going to change the franchise. The expectation of that was there through the media, through the fans. The fans were great. They loved me when I struggled, and they knew the potential and the sign of me becoming a player that everybody hoped the Mets would have.”

Even more amazing, the Mets showed improvement amid an otherwise difficult season, going 29-29 during the final two months of the season after a 39-65 start.

“It was Darryl,” former teammate Keith Hernandez remembered. “Darryl started hitting. He was young, and I knew he was something special. … I could see the swing and the talent there.”

Strawberry would go on to play eight years for the Mets, finishing his career with seven All-Star nods and helping the Mets win two division titles, one pennant and one World Series title, which came in 1986. He is still the franchise leader with 252 career home runs. Strawberry left the Mets after the 1990 season, signing with the Dodgers as a free agent.