Electric Darryl Strawberry's must-see appeal is his legacy as a Met

Darryl Strawberry
Darryl Strawberry / SNY Treated Image

There was always a larger-than-life quality to Darryl Strawberry’s time as a Met, at least in the batter’s box.

He hit one of the most astonishing home runs in baseball history, off the roof at Olympic Stadium in Montreal on Opening Day in 1988, a towering blast that a local physics professor estimated — long before Statcast made such calculations obsolete — would have traveled some 525 feet.

He hit the clock in Busch Stadium in St. Louis during a crucial pennant race game in 1985, a ball hit so hard that his teammates at the time swore they’d never seen a ball leave a ballpark so fast.

Those two home runs, two of Strawberry’s most famous as a Met, spoke to his impact as a cornerstone player for the winningest era in Mets history, a period that included their 1986 world championship, but even so more to his status during that time as perhaps the most electric offensive player in the game.

As Alex Rodriguez, a Mets fan as a kid, once told me, “Keith Hernandez was my favorite player, but Darryl is the guy you never took your eyes off. You never wanted to miss one of his at-bats because you never knew how far he might hit one.”

In the end, all these years later, that must-see appeal is really Strawberry’s legacy as a Met, even beyond the disappointment of derailing a Hall of Fame career because of his well-publicized problems with drugs over the years.

In other words, much like his old teammate, Dwight Gooden, Straw will forever be remembered for not only revitalizing a franchise with his arrival, but also turning the Mets into the hottest ticket in New York and Shea Stadium into the place to be for much of the ‘80s.

In that sense it is only right the Mets will be retiring his No. 18 next season, and it was especially fitting that they announced Thursday both Strawberry and Gooden will have their numbers retired, albeit in individual ceremonies, in 2024.

Doc and Darryl.

There was nothing quite like them in baseball, two young superstars, first taking the big city by storm and then succumbing to the temptations that came along with their fame and fortune. It was frustrating at first, watching them throw away their tickets to Cooperstown, but then sad when the scope of their problems became clear even after baseball, to the point that each spent time in prison for a drug-related offense.

With that in mind, it is gratifying they will be honored in this way. Mets fans that I know who fell in love with them nearly 40 years ago have longed for their numbers to be retired, willing to forgive their failings largely because they’ve never forgotten the thrill of watching them do their thing.

Personally, having covered both Doc and Darryl in their glory days, I’m glad to see it as well. For all of their problems, both always came off as good guys, usually with good intentions.

And though Gooden was the first to publicly be flagged for a problem, failing a drug test near the end of spring training in 1987, Strawberry seemed to be more of a true wild child – immature as a ballplayer while angry and resentful on the personal side, shaped that way because his father abandoned him and his family when Darryl was 13 years old.

As Strawberry once told me, “I was broken inside before I ever put a uniform on. It was only a matter of time before all of that stuff took me down.”

It didn’t help that he was burdened with huge expectations from the moment he was drafted No. 1 overall by the Mets in 1980. His own high school coach was quoted in a Sports Illustrated story saying he’d told Straw, “You’re going to be a black Ted Williams.”

Strawberry had the majestic swing and the talent, but his self-destructive tendencies were reflected in his poor work ethic on the field and his desire to party off it.

Still, he was such a thunderbolt that, much as A-Rod said, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. And for a long time his brilliance overcame his late nights.

He helped the Mets win the World Series in ’86 and he was robbed of the NL MVP Award in ’88, and though he fought along the way with teammates like Hernandez and Wally Backman, who both pushed him to be better, Strawberry often left his peers in amazement over the way he swung the bat.

“He hit the ball harder and farther than anybody I ever saw,” Backman once told me. “That’s what frustrated me and some others at times. You knew he was capable of being one of the all-time greats.”

It didn’t happen, at least partly because Strawberry became frustrated with his negotiations with GM Frank Cashen and bolted for his hometown Dodgers in Los Angeles via free agency. It was a decision he said later was the worst of his career, bringing unhappiness that sent him careening toward more drug use and years of injury and poor play.

Even after Straw revived his career as a Yankee, becoming a valuable part of three championship teams in the 1990s, he tested positive for cocaine in the spring of 2000 and was suspended for the season, effectively ending his career.

Yet Strawberry for years has insisted he has no regrets about what might have been. Instead, he believes his indiscretions led him to a second life of happiness: It started with a drug-recovery meeting where he met his current wife, Tracy, who inspired him to become a preacher of born-again Christianity, traveling the country for the last 17 years, speaking anywhere people want to hear his message, from prisons to churches.

I once told him some of his former teammates might find it hard to believe this could be the same Darryl Strawberry they once knew.

“I get it,” he said. “People are going to have a hard time believing I could become such a different person. I’m still Darryl Strawberry. My past will always be there, but I have been born again. I’ve been changed on the inside.”

Someone who has been close to Straw since his playing days attests to his sincerity.

“I doubted it at first, but I’ve seen it for years now,” the person said. “Hs wife helped him become a new man and he really wants to help people with his positivity. Anytime I’ve called him to ask for his help with someone having issues, he either gets on the phone or makes arrangements to come in person. He’s committed to that life, and it’s a beautiful thing.”

I don’t doubt that, but I can also attest the ballplayer is still in there as well. In at least a few phone calls the last couple of years, Strawberry has told me the current Mets need to retaliate for getting hit so often by opposing pitches, and before you know it, he’s delighting in re-telling stories of the various brawls he and his teammates started in ’86 as a way of intimidating opponents.

“Teams knew they couldn’t mess with us,” he’ll say with a laugh.

It is one more reason that, for all of his faults, the fans felt so passionately about the superstar right fielder and eventually forgave him.

Now the Mets essentially have done the same, and it feels as right for Strawberry as it does for Gooden. Doc and Darryl. They had their flaws, but they also transformed a franchise in a way that maybe you had to experience at Shea Stadium to fully understand.