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Happier Strawberry Still Struggles

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In time, Darryl Strawberry says, he will be able to mix a competitive meanness with the mellowness that defines his personality since his treatment for alcoholism.

And it is only a matter of time, he believes, until he regains a productivity of the type that has been absent since 1988.

“What is time?” asks New York Met Manager Dave Johnson, who may be running out of it.

“A month? Two months? Six? A year?”

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Johnson sat in the visitors’ dugout at Dodger Stadium, flipping through the calendar of his mind, knowing that Strawberry presents as much of a dilemma to the Mets as when the questions dealt with the albatross of his potential.

In some ways, they still do and always will.

It is simply that now, as Strawberry looks for a way to blend the pressure-free calm he derived from his treatment program with the fire needed on the field, the dilemma is significantly affected by the calendar.

Batting .239 in the wake of a season in which he hit .225, Strawberry becomes eligible for free agency when it ends. So the questions facing the Mets are these:

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--Should they try to trade him now or risk getting nothing in return if he leaves as a free agent?

--Should they try to sign him to a multiyear contract at the going rate of $3 million a season, despite believing it would be unjustified, or run the risk of waiting until the season ends--by which time Strawberry might have generated a justifiable bidding war at more than $3 million a year?

“I imagine that at some point this season we’ll sit down and discuss the situation with Darryl,” General Manager Frank Cashen said at Dodger Stadium. “It’s just that salaries have gotten out of hand, and there are differences of opinion as to what constitutes a $3-million-a-year player.”

With a $1.8-million salary in 1990, Strawberry disputed Cashen, saying he won’t discuss his future or a possible contract with the Mets until the season is over and he has first discussed it with his family.

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The former Crenshaw High star has said that playing in Southern California with the Dodgers, Angels or San Diego Padres would be nirvana, but he doesn’t want to deal with that issue now.

For the present, as part of his recovery, he doesn’t want to put any more pressure on himself than what he faces for nine innings each day.

He is a distinctly different personality since his spring treatment at a New York clinic. The edge is no longer that of a razor. The tendency toward anger has faded. He continues to explore this new road at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Manhattan and cities throughout the National League.

“I didn’t really start drinking until I had to deal with the pressures in New York and the expectations people put on me,” Strawberry said. “I wasn’t a stumbling, falling-down drunk, but I’d get angry, nasty, selfish, and the more I drank, the more pressure I felt I was relieving when, in fact, I was just creating more.”

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An abusive incident involving his wife, Lisa, at their Los Angeles home in January might have led Strawberry to the realization that he needed help. He said he is proud that he sought it on his own, that no one forced him into it. Lisa is tattooed on his left arm, and he still has her on his heart. They are together this summer in New York, along with Darryl Jr., 5, and their daughter, Diamond, 2.

The change in Strawberry can be seen in the religious medal he wears around his neck, replacing the replica of a gun he had worn in 1988 after the National League’s most-valuable-player voting was announced. The award went to Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers, and Strawberry thought he had been robbed.

“There’s a feeling of contentment knowing you can go through a day sober,” Strawberry said. “I know it’s a disease and the battle with it goes on for a lifetime, but the inner happiness I have now is more gratifying than anything.”

All of that--his feelings of contentment and happiness--pleases a Met management that has too often had to cope with an angry and stressed right fielder, but there is still concern:

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--Over his slumping bat.

--Over what some in the Mets’ family view as a passive attitude.

The Mets were told by doctors that Strawberry may need time to merge his two worlds--that of the recovering alcoholic trying to defuse pressure and stress, and that of the big league player waging war with it.

“I know I’m kind of mellow right now, and that’s part of the recovery,” he said. “I’m trying to take things as they come and not force anything, not take myself out of what I’m trying to accomplish. I know I have to get meaner and I will . . . but right now I want to take it all in stride.”

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Manager Johnson takes it cautiously when discussing Strawberry’s attitude, choosing to link it with his struggle at the plate.

“If a guy is hitting 40 to 50 points less than he’s capable of, he often appears to have less intensity,” Johnson said. “If Darryl was 40 or 50 points higher, the perception would be that he is very intense.

“Right now, I think he’s like a lot of our hitters--not as patient or selective as they could be, trying too hard, maybe.

“One thing is certain: There are too many times when I’ve seen him un happy, so I’d rather see him happy and having difficulty, because I know in the long run it’s best for Darryl and his family. I mean, he still has his whole career ahead of him.”

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At 28 and in his eighth season with the Mets, Strawberry’s dismal batting average is compounded by the fact he has driven in only 15 runs and hit only five home runs, ending a string of 40 at-bats without a homer Monday night when he hit a prodigious blast off Mike Morgan of the Dodgers.

His 1990 struggle is a continuation of 1989, when he batted .224 with runners in scoring position, drove in 77 runs, his second-worst RBI total, and hit 29 home runs, 10 fewer than in ’87 and ’88.

The 77 RBIs and 29 homers might represent decent totals for most players, but Strawberry is judged by a different yardstick, particularly now, when the Mets have to make a decision on his future and he must be the bellwether for a strangely impassive team that is last in the league in hitting.

“Darryl has got to hit for us to win, and he hasn’t hit consistently since the middle of the 1988 season,” Cashen said. “When your best hitter goes that way, it’s only natural to be concerned.”

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Said Strawberry: “I know I have to be productive. I’ve been that way in the past, so there’s no reason to think I won’t be that way again. The confidence is there. I’ve hit the ball well on this trip. I’m not going to start worrying or doubting, putting that pressure on myself. It can only go so bad, and I’ve got 400 at-bats to go.”

In that regard, Strawberry is frequently out early to work on his mechanics , which along with mellow and mean is one of the three M’s he is attempting to adjust.


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