Extra innings: Darryl Strawberry can relate to Bryce Harper

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Darryl Strawberry of the Mets in 1988. Darryl Strawberry of the Mets in 1988. Photo Credit: AP

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David Lennon David Lennon has been a staff writer for

David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.

Drafted No. 1 overall. Freakish power. Managed by Davey Johnson.

Before Bryce Harper, there was Darryl Strawberry, who knows plenty about what the Nationals' 19-year-old outfielder is going through this season. Almost 30 years later.

Harper, called up a week ago, is experiencing the same caliber of outrageous hype that Strawberry faced during the early 1980s, yet the Mets' young slugger, promoted at 21, surfed that pressure all the way to Rookie of the Year.

"It was real chaotic," Strawberry said this week. "Coming up, with so much media. I had a very open type of personality, so I wasn't going to let it bother me, no matter what."

Harper was hurried from Triple-A Syracuse ahead of schedule April 28 after the Nationals had to place Ryan Zimmerman on the 15-day disabled list. The rush job hasn't appeared to hurt him. Harper was batting .316 (6-for-19) with a .943 OPS through Friday with four doubles and three RBIs before going 0-for-4 Saturday to drop to .261.

But general managers always worry about the downside of a quickie promotion: the damage any prolonged adversity can inflict. In Strawberry's case, he also breezed through the minors, and spent only 16 games at Triple-A Tidewater in 1983 before getting the call-up. That year, he shrugged off a .164 May to gradually improve during the season.

In August, Strawberry batted .255 with nine homers. In the final month, he hit .376 and went deep five times to finish with 22 home runs. Strawberry credited much of that success to batting coach Jim Frey, who imparted wisdom that still holds true in the modern era for someone like Harper.

"He guided me through it," Strawberry said. "He told me it's not going to happen overnight -- and as I went along, it just started clicking in. Talent will only take you so far. I've seen a lot of talented players come in, and the next couple years, you can't find them. You know why? They stopped working."

Strawberry believes Harper has a great mentor in Johnson, who like Joe Torre, remembers how hard it is to play at a high level. "He knows he can't put extra pressure on him," Strawberry said. "He's not the cornerstone of carrying the team; he's the cornerstone of growing and learning to play the game."

As for adversity, the bugaboo of every developing prospect, Strawberry knows that it can be difficult to cope with failure.

"You never have," Strawberry said. "You're the king of kings -- in little league, in high school, the minors. But you can't walk around like you're all that and a bag of chips because the game can backfire on you."

Strawberry said he hasn't met Harper yet, but recalled talking to Johnson about him last winter, when his former manager drew the same comparisons. "Davey said [Harper] reminded him of me," Strawberry said, laughing, "but he doesn't have the pop I had. He's just got to stay on course."

 

Rivera outside the lines

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By now, you've read just about every well-documented detail of Mariano Rivera's Hall of Fame career. But why Rivera is universally liked and admired goes beyond the mound, and one example is the friendship he developed with Jack Szigety, a 17-year-old cancer survivor from Ridgewood, N.J., who first met the Yankees closer in 2005.

Szigety was on a benefit-sponsored trip to see the Yankees at Baltimore's Camden Yards, where he was allowed on the field before the game. That was as close as Szigety, just a wide-eyed 10-year-old at the time, was supposed to get.

But while the Yankees stretched, Rivera tossed him a long rubber band and invited him to join the players in their exercises. After that, the closer told Szigety to grab his glove, then had a catch for about 15 minutes. The next day, to Szigety's amazement, Rivera asked him again to do the same. "All the guys were great, but Mo specifically made me feel welcome," Szigety said.

The relationship didn't end there. The following year, Szigety -- battling Hodgkin's disease -- was extremely sick after a stem-cell transplant. Lying in his hospital bed, Szigety received a phone call from Oakland, where the Yankees were playing the Athletics.

"I really needed a boost," Szigety said, "and on the other end I heard, 'Jack, buddy, how are you doing?' It was Mo. That was such an uplifting call. I'll never forget it."

Szigety returned the favor Friday, speaking on the phone with Rivera's wife, Clara, to see how the reliever was doing. Thanks in part to Rivera, Szigety is doing great. This Saturday marked Szigety's sixth "birthday," the anniversary of his stem-cell replacement, described as such because it's like being reborn, with a do-over of childhood inoculations.

A senior at Bergen County Academy, he's headed to Notre Dame in September, but is hoping for a few Yankee Stadium visits before then, and maybe the chance to catch up with Rivera.

"When I went, it wasn't just seeing the game's greatest closer," Szigety said, "it was like seeing a friend."

 

Magic numbers

23,517: average attendance at Nationals Park, home of the NL East leaders, which has a capacity of 41,000. Tough sell with Declaration of Independence and Fonzie's jacket also in the neighborhood.

28: miles traveled by Bobby Abreu, who switched homes from Angel Stadium to Chavez Ravine this week when the Dodgers signed him. Gained almost as much distance in standings.

10: no-hitters by the Angels, who picked up their latest Wednesday by Jered Weaver. (I will not bring up the Mets . . . I will not bring up the Mets . . . I will not . . .).

8: number of playoff appearances (four different teams) for Johnny Damon, now with the Indians, the surprise leader of the AL Central. Already negotiating for Charlie Sheen role in "Major League 4."

4: blown saves by Heath Bell, the Marlins' $27-million closer, in seven chances. Turns out Bell is a worse investment than Miami real estate.

.316: batting average of Pablo Sandoval, out six weeks with a broken hamate bone that must be removed from his left hand. Did the same thing to his right hand last season. Good news for 2013: Kung Fu Panda is all out of hamate bones.

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