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NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES / DODGERS VS. METS : DARRYL A DODGER? : Mets’ Strawberry Wants to Come Home, but First Wants to Beat L.A.

Times Staff Writer

Darryl Strawberry’s mind is clear.

He wants to beat the Dodgers, then join them.

The New York Mets right fielder and most valuable player candidate said it is his long-range goal to join the Dodgers as a free agent after the 1990 season, when his close friend, Cincinnati Reds center fielder Eric Davis, also will become a free agent.

The proposition, Strawberry feels, is one the Dodgers can’t refuse.

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“Think about the excitement and magic,” he said. “Eric in center, me in right and Kirk Gibson in left. The Dodgers would have a dynasty for years to come.

“Eric and I would both be 28 then and in our prime. Two guys capable of hitting 40 homers and stealing 40 bases. We talked about it just the other day again. We want to go to the same club.

“We want to come home and let our home people cheer for us rather than being booed every time we don’t hit a home run.”

Strawberry hit a career-high 39 homers last year and 39 more this year, leading the National League. He drove in a career-high 104 runs last year and 101 this year.

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He has come to grips with his own expectations, if still failing to shake the albatross that is the expectation of others.

Tonight, Strawberry leads the Mets into the opener of the National League’s Championship Series against the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium.

“To come home to play for the National League championship is one of the dreams I’ve always had,” said the former Crenshaw High star, who returns to Los Angeles each winter to work out with Davis and another longtime pal, Chris Brown of the San Diego Padres.

The other, larger dream burns as brightly.

“I’ll play my heart out against the Dodgers,” Strawberry said. “I’ll play my heart out for the Mets the next 2 years. But I also want to go into the playoffs with the Dodgers knowing what’s in Eric’s heart and what’s in mine.

“People talk about pressure playing at home, but I don’t see it. I think it would be fun to play for your hometown team. I think it’s the only place you can really be happy, and I’m getting anxious to see what happens. The way time flies, 2 years is right around the corner.”

It has been 5 years since Strawberry’s ballyhooed arrival in New York. He had been the Mets’ No. 1 draft choice and the No. 1 in the country less than 3 years earlier.

“I was expected to step in and hit 40 homers and drive in 100 runs,” he said in reflection. “I never had a chance to develop. I’ve had to handle just about everything anybody could be asked to handle. I’ve learned to deal with it and accept it. I’m accustomed to playing in New York. I’ve been through the worst of it. It’s not like I’ll be running away.

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“I just think it’ll be time for a change.”

Put another way, Strawberry said he is probably at a point where the Mets want to renegotiate his contract but said he won’t make a longer commitment than he already has.

“I won’t do that, and neither will Eric. I’m going to play it out,” Strawberry said of his contract. “Eric doesn’t want to return to Cincinnati, and I don’t want to return (to New York).

“It’s not that I have anything against the players or organization.

“I just want to go where 35 homers are appreciated, where I don’t have the pressure of always living up to someone else’s expectations, where if I hit 30 homers, the fans and media aren’t asking why I didn’t hit 40.

“I had a great first half this year, struggled some in August and was being booed again.

“I don’t know if that will ever change (in New York). I just want to go somewhere where I can be happy and have fun.”

There are degrees of happiness, of course, and Strawberry is quick to deny that he is unhappy.

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A 5-year, $5.3-million contract guaranteed him $1.3 million this year, $1.4 million next year and $1.8 million in 1990, providing the Mets pick up that option. He can make another $100,000 if he is the league MVP, $50,000 if he is the playoff MVP and $100,000 if he is the World Series MVP.

Money can’t buy happiness, but it can pay for a new home on the same Long Island street where close friend Dwight Gooden lives, and it can secure the financial future for wife, Lisa, and son, Darryl Jr.

What is happiness if not the reconciliation of a once-troubled marriage?

And there has to be satisfaction, at least, in being a member of the team generally recognized as baseball’s best.

But it has not been easy for Strawberry, in the same way that it was not easy for Reggie Jackson to be Reggie. The expectations are only part of it. Some of the pressure has been self-produced. How often has Strawberry seemed to march to the beat of his own alarm clock or fed an adversary relationship with Manager Dave Johnson? Hasn’t he criticized teammates’ attitudes and performances, claiming later, in some cases, he was misquoted?

Now, it is generally agreed, he has become a conscience of the clubhouse in the way that Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling and Gary Carter, among others, are. His performance alone represents--if not happiness--a significant degree of enthusiasm, pride and growth.

He is only the second Met--Carter was the other--to drive in 100 or more runs twice. He needed only 1 more stolen base to join Willie Mays and Bobby Bonds as the third National Leaguer to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases twice in a career.

He is the only major league player to have averaged 25 or more homers and 25 or more stolen bases over the last 6 seasons. He has raised his career averages to 31 homers and 93 RBIs a year, and of his 39 homers in 1988, 20 were off left-handed pitchers, this by a .234 career hitter against southpaws.

“I’ve seen him grow as both a man and hitter,” Met first base coach and hitting instructor Bill Robinson said. “There used to be a time when his concentration was inconsistent and he didn’t want to hit against left-handers. Now, he gives total concentration on every pitch. He allows himself quality at-bats every game. With anything, time and experience helps.”

Strawberry will be leaning on experience in the playoffs, hoping to profit from previous mistakes at Dodger Stadium. He has a career average of only .225 here, based on 29 hits in 129 at-bats, and an overall average of .189, with 6 homers and 20 RBIs in 206 at-bats against the Dodgers.

“I think I’ve put too much pressure on myself to do well here,” he said. “I’ve been trying too hard. I haven’t stayed within myself. Now I feel I’m coming back relaxed. I want to enjoy this. I’ve had a good season, and feel I can be at ease now. I’ve been through the playoffs. I know what to expect.”

Strawberry enters the playoffs on a roll. He batted .338 with 9 home runs and 19 RBIs in September, helping power the Mets’ 29-8 closing surge.

He hit .269 overall, struggling in August when he seemed to tire after carrying the Mets through much of the first half.

MVP?

“I’m fortunate. I’ve got two guys who should be 1-2 in the MVP voting,” Robinson said of Strawberry and Kevin McReynolds, who batted .288 with 27 homers and 99 RBIs. “I know I’m prejudiced, but they have the numbers to back it up.”

Those baseball writers who were members of the MVP committee had to mail their ballots between the end of the regular season and tonight’s first pitch. The contest seems to be between Strawberry and Kirk Gibson, the Dodger left fielder.

Gibson’s statistics weren’t as impressive as Strawberry’s, but he is credited with having a significant impact on the intensity of a club that finished 16 games under .500 each of the last 2 years.

Said Strawberry: “I had a career year numbers-wise last year, but I feel I played a more important role this year. There was a period when Keith was out (with a hamstring injury) and Gary was struggling that I was the offense.

“But I’m satisfied in knowing I was a top candidate (for the MVP) no matter how the voting goes. Nobody dominated the league because the pitching was so good. I had a great first half, then Kevin sparked us the second half.

“I mean, I don’t think you can give it to just one guy on our team. You’d have to give it to two, and if we don’t win it, then I suppose Gibson will, and that wouldn’t be a bad choice.

“I couldn’t gripe. He gave the Dodgers a different character. How long have they needed a player like that? The Dodgers would be nowhere without him.”

Like Gibson, Strawberry hopes to make his own deal with the Dodgers some day. A package deal that would include Eric Davis.

“Do you think they can afford us?” Strawberry asked Monday.

The question is: Could they afford not to afford them?


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