Darryl Strawberry wanted to quit professional baseball, then he formed a lifelong bond with the Mets

Mets rookie Darryl Strawberry eyes his home run exiting the ballpark during the first inning of the first game of a doubleheader with the St. Louis Cardinals at Shea Stadium, Wednesday, June 22, 1983. Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS/Ray Stubblebine

You think the Mets are bad now? You long for the day when the struggling club will call up hot prospects such as Luisangel Acuna or Drew Gilbert or someone, anyone, to pump some signs of life into Citi Field?

You think you’re a long-suffering Mets fan?

Mets fans who were around in 1983 know about long-suffering. The team hadn’t had a winning season since 1976.

But they had this kid at Triple-A. His name was Darryl Strawberry. He was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1980 draft.

The date was May 6, 1983. The Mets had lost 15 of their first 21 games. General manager Frank Cashen — without the help of pleading fans on social media, which had not yet been invented — called up the 21-year-old Strawberry.

Darryl Strawberry, seen here before and during his big-league debut...

Darryl Strawberry, seen here before and during his big-league debut on May 7, 1983, joined the Mets from Triple-A Tidewater as a 21-year-old with plenty of hype as the No. 1 pick in the 1980 draft. 

Thus began an eight-year journey that took Strawberry to the 1983 National League Rookie of the Year award, to seven All-Star Game selections over the next seven seasons with the Mets, to a World Series title in 1986, and finally to Saturday, when the Mets will retire his No. 18 before the 4:10 p.m. game against Arizona.

“The first thing that comes to mind as far as my Mets career is, it was outstanding,” Strawberry said recently. “I got a chance to play eight seasons in Queens. Probably the best time of me ever playing Major League Baseball. Fun years competing. The guys I played with, the teams that we had, were incredible.”

But it almost didn’t happen at all.

In his second minor-league season, Strawberry played for Lynchburg (Va.) in the Class A Carolina League in 1981. He was 19. He hit .255 with 13 home runs, 78 RBIs and 31 stolen bases.

And when the season was over, he almost quit baseball.

“I hated that year,” Strawberry said. “I hated Lynchburg and I hated the fans and all the things that were being said. The comments and the racial things were being said to me as I kept running back to the dugout. It was not good. I was not in a good space.

“It was a lot of pressure and a lot of things to deal with in the Carolina League. No doubt about it. I hit 13 home runs that year and I just really sucked and I really hated that year. I just talked to the Mets. I said, ‘I think I made the wrong decision. I don’t want to play baseball. I think I’m going to go back to school.’

“They said, ‘Give it another year,’ and then I went to the Texas League the next year and I went on to hit 34 home runs that year and stole 45 bases that year. Then I really realized that I arrived as a ballplayer that year in the Texas League.”

Strawberry said he got some sage advice that difficult season from his Lynchburg roommate, future major-league player and manager Lloyd McClendon.

“Such a long time ago,” McClendon said recently. “I will say this has been a tremendous journey for Darryl . . . I tried to convey this to people back in 1981. Straw was so blessed and so graceful on the baseball field that a lot of times it looked as if he wasn't trying. But he was so talented that his talent came out and the game was so easy for him at that level. People didn't quite understand what he was all about. But he was a tremendous competitor. He wanted to win. He was 19 years old. What a tremendous talent. We all had the joy of watching him grow and continue to get better at that level.”

In his very first game for the Mets, before 15,916 at Shea Stadium, Strawberry went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and two walks. But the Mets won, 7-4, in 13 innings, and Strawberry was on base after a walk when George Foster hit a game-ending three-run home run.

Also on base: Mookie Wilson. Also batting in the 13th inning: Wally Backman. The winning pitcher, with three scoreless innings of relief: Jesse Orosco.

The Mets were beginning to build something, planting seeds for a better tomorrow. The biggest seed, literally and figuratively, was the 6-6 Strawberry, who finished the season hitting .257 with 26 home runs, 74 RBIs, an .848 OPS and 19 stolen bases in 122 games.

“He was just such a confident young man when he walked through the door,” Wilson told Newsday recently. “With us, it was anticipating. You hear about guys that have so much potential, and so many of those very same guys end up falling on their face when they actually play at the major-league level. With him, he was a very confident — borderline cocky — young man. Very graceful, just the way he walked. It’s almost like he just belonged in the clubhouse. When he was on the field, it was the same way. From Day One, it was like he just belonged.

“He came in, he wasn’t loud or anything. He didn’t step in like he owned the place or anything. He got more vocal later on. But his rookie year, he was just trying to get the lay of the land and everything and see where he fit in. There were a lot of places to fit in on that club. We were still building that club.”

Said Orosco: “A big, tall, 6-6 guy. He came in young and really, really had tremendous skills. I think that’s what most of us saw as players, noticed real fast. How good he was. The man had pure power, he could run, and could just do a lot of things. We knew we had something going there.”

Strawberry’s time in Flushing wasn’t perfect, of course, and he left as a free agent to sign with his hometown Los Angeles Dodgers after the 1990 season. Strawberry said at the time that he hoped being free of the pressure of New York would make him a better player.

Now, at age 62, with a lifetime of experiences on and off the field, Strawberry is fully reconnected with his Mets past.

Strawberry surprised former teammate Dwight Gooden by attending his number retirement ceremony on April 14, just a month after Strawberry had suffered a heart attack.

Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden have a laugh during a news conference at Citi Field on Sunday, April 14, 2024 ahead of Gooden's number retirement ceremony. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Strawberry’s former teammates will return the favor on Saturday to honor Strawberry, a traveling preacher who lives in the St. Louis area.

“The people that helped get me there, those are the people I want to embrace, and the fans are part of that,” Strawberry said. “I want to embrace them because they helped me get there, and all these guys that I had the opportunity to play with. I want to make that day special. I just don't want to make it about me. Yes, I know, of course, that's what the whole day is supposed to be about — me — but it's about us.”

As a three-sport start at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, Strawberry was used to being the center of attention. It was his high school coach, Brooks Hurst, who in a 1980 Sports Illustrated article said of Strawberry: “You’re going to be a black Ted Williams.’ ”

Darryl Strawberry, left, is shown with his coach Brooks Hurst...

Darryl Strawberry, left, is shown with his coach Brooks Hurst at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles on June 4, 1980.  Credit: AP/REED SAXON

Strawberry, in a recent interview, said: “I was like, ‘Well, who the heck is Ted Williams?’ I didn't follow baseball and the only baseball that I followed growing up was the Dodgers because you grew up in L.A.

“I started watching baseball and I saw the Pirates. Then I saw David Parker, the Cobra, a big rightfielder, and I said, ‘Man, I want to be like him — big, strong, 6-5, lefthander, can run, can throw, hit and hit with power. I want to be like that.' That's what I learned growing up watching baseball. I didn't have any idea about the great Ted Williams until I actually got involved with playing baseball and who he really was and realized what a legend [he was] to be compared to as a high school kid.

“When you’re coming out of high school, you do think you’re all that and a bag of chips until you’ve got to put that aluminum bat down, and when you put that aluminum bat down, you got to make a big adjustment to the wooden bat.”

It took some time, but once Strawberry arrived with the Mets, he arrived as a big-league baseball player. His eight years in Flushing were turbulent. But now he wouldn’t trade them for anything.

Darryl Strawberry shows his Rookie of the Year plaque to Willie Mays, left, and Tom Seaver on Sunday, Jan. 29, 1984.  Credit: AP

“That career, those eight years, nobody can take that away from me,” Strawberry said. “I played in other places, but no place was like Shea Stadium. Nothing like playing in Shea Stadium, nothing like a curtain call, nothing like who we were as a team. We had a lot of dawgs on that team and that's what I really love about that organization and being able to play in that organization. We kind of all came up together and blended it with some veteran players and we became great at what we were trying to accomplish.

“I think I just liked the animal feeling of New York. I liked the way people yell at you and get at you. They make you either get after it or they will run you out of town. They surely weren’t going to run me out of town. I was from South Central. No running out of town, so I had to get after it, and that's what I love about playing there. I loved the fans. I loved the atmosphere.”

On Saturday, the fans will get a chance to show Strawberry the feeling is mutual. Or Met-ual.


Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months