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Apple to Orange for Strawberry : Dodgers: Slugger signs five-year contract for $20.25 million and, right now, he’s the starting center fielder.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saying he was virtually forced to leave the New York Mets by their refusal to offer an equitable contract and meaningful relationship, Darryl Strawberry said Thursday that he is prepared to begin his rich relationship with the Dodgers as a center fielder.

Introduced at a Dodger Stadium news conference after signing a five-year contract that will pay him $20,250,000, the former Met right fielder said he was sincere when he told the Dodgers during their initial negotiations that he would move to a position he has not played on a regular basis since he was 15.

“My ability to play center field is not a problem,” Strawberry said. “I’m thankful I have the ability. The main issue is what’s inside your head. If I doubt myself, I won’t be able to do it, but I’m confident I can.”

So are the Dodgers, apparently.

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“If Tommy Lasorda was filling out the lineup card today, Darryl would be the center fielder,” Executive Vice President Fred Claire said.

Lasorda doesn’t have to fill out a lineup card until the exhibition games begin in March. For now, Kal Daniels looms as the left fielder and Hubie Brooks the right fielder. The Dodgers, it is believed, are not likely to re-sign free agent Kirk Gibson, though Claire would say only that Strawberry’s signing affects several players and he is not ready to close the door on any of them.

“Darryl can play anywhere he wants,” Lasorda said by phone from Boston, where he was fulfilling a speaking engagement. “When Fred phoned me at 2:30 this morning to tell me he had signed, I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night, I was so excited.

“I’d compare it to Bruce McNall’s signing of Wayne Gretzky for the Kings. Darryl Strawberry is one of the outstanding players in baseball, and his willingness to play center field shows you what kind of person he is.

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“I think he can be an outstanding center fielder, but we’ll determine which of the two positions he plays in spring training.”

It was a year ago that Lasorda was saying that Juan Samuel could be an outstanding center fielder, but Samuel was ultimately returned to second base, as Gibson and Stan Javier shared center.

Strawberry last played center field in a Los Angeles summer league as he prepared to enter Crenshaw High.

Now, of course, the attraction for the Dodgers wasn’t Strawberry’s glove as much as his bat, which produced 37 home runs and 108 runs batted in last year, and an average of 31 homers and 91 RBIs in his eight seasons with the Mets.

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And for free agent Strawberry, 28, weary of the long struggle to fulfill his potential amid the pressure of New York’s great expectations, the issue wasn’t position as much as location: Hometown Los Angeles, and the security blanket of family and friends--a dream the Dodgers helped turn to reality by offering Strawberry the second-richest contract in baseball history, exceeded only by Jose Canseco’s five-year, $23.5-million deal with the Oakland Athletics.

Strawberry’s arrangement calls for a $1.5-million signing bonus and yearly salaries of $3.5 million, $3.75 million, $3.5 million, $3 million and $5 million. “We would have preferred three years or four years, but I really feel that if we hadn’t gone to five years, we wouldn’t have been able to sign him,” Claire said. “It wasn’t a difficult decision when you consider the magnitude of the player and his age. I really feel Darryl is in his prime, that his best years are ahead of him.”

If the Dodgers do not re-sign Gibson, Samuel and Fernando Valenzuela, three of their four free agents, they will have $4.55 million in 1990 salaries to put toward Strawberry’s contract. Strawberry’s agent, Eric Goldschmidt, had promised the Dodgers he would not shop Strawberry if they offered Canseco-like numbers, and he didn’t.

“We could have played it out over the next few weeks, created a bidding war and got more money,” Goldschmidt said. “We know we could have probably been No. 1 (ahead of Canseco), but it wouldn’t haven’t been with the Dodgers. We knew there was eventually going to be a line drawn (by the Dodgers), and this was the situation Darryl wanted. It’s his home, he likes Tom Lasorda, and he’s always wanted to play for the Dodgers. I mean, he may have gotten $23 million somewhere else, but a $20-million-plus package sets him up for life anyway, and he gets everything else he wanted along with it.”

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Said Strawberry: “I didn’t want to fly all over the country and get in a bidding war. I wanted to be with a winner, which the Dodgers have always been. I wanted to come home. I mean, people talk about the pressure of playing at home, but after going through what I went through in New York, nothing can be as bad as that.

“The pressure and expectations, the feeling the media created that every time the club failed it was because of me, took all the fun out of it. Now I feel that the fun is just beginning, that my career is just beginning. I think you’ll see Darryl Strawberry take his game to new levels. There’s no telling what I might produce. I’ve come here to help the Dodgers win a championship.”

Strawberry lives in Encino with his wife, Lisa, and their children, son Darryl Jr. and daughter Diamond. He is a partner in a home interior business in Woodland Hills with Eric Davis of the Cincinnati Reds and Reggie Montgomery. He said he would have signed with the Dodgers even if the Mets had offered the same terms, but their best try was a belated Monday bid of $15 million for four years.

“It hurts to walk away from players with whom I’ve had a long relationship, but the Mets never made an offer that showed they were genuinely interested,” Strawberry said. “I can’t understand it, but they never gave me reason to feel I was appreciated. They let me walk away, as if they were waiting for me to call them. Maybe they misunderstood. I mean, I don’t want to take your money and not have a relationship. I don’t want to feel like I’m fulfilling dreams by myself. And it wasn’t just the last week. They had two years to get this done. They had their chances.”

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The relationship with the Mets may have soured for good amid the tension of the pennant race when General Manager Frank Cashen said on New York television that Strawberry wasn’t worth $4 million or $5 million a year. The Mets were distracted when they didn’t need to be, and Strawberry responded by calling a clubhouse meeting in which he told teammates that he would give his best the rest of the season but would probably leave when it ended.

Cashen reiterated Thursday that he didn’t think either Canseco or Strawberry were worth $5 million a year. He also said he didn’t believe that Strawberry had fulfilled his potential, that he thought from the beginning Strawberry was determined to go to Los Angeles and that the Mets, after a long, hard study of the history of five-year contracts, determined they were “disasters” and would not have offered Strawberry a fifth year under any circumstances.

“It will take two years before you can say the Dodgers were wise or the Mets were wise,” Cashen said. “It was my decision, and I’ll stand by it.”

Cashen acknowledged that the Mets couldn’t replace Strawberry in kind. The rumor is that the Mets will attempt to reshape their offense by pursing free agent Vince Coleman of the St. Louis Cardinals.

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Reached by phone, pitcher Dwight Gooden said he couldn’t believe that in two years the Mets had been unable to resolve contract differences with a “franchise player” of Strawberry’s stature. But he added: “I don’t see it in any way as the end of our winning ways. Darryl was a huge part of our team, and obviously it will be difficult to replace his production, but a lot of times we relied too much on him and it took away from our performance and execution.

“We didn’t win with Darryl the last two years, and maybe in a way this will give us a chance to regroup and go in a different direction. Other shake-ups here haven’t worked, but maybe this one will. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

This will also be a challenge for Strawberry, who has a career average of .225 in Dodger Stadium, but said he expected to respond to playing there regularly and not having to face Dodger pitching. Based on their 1990 numbers, Strawberry (37 homers, 108 RBIs), Daniels (27 homers, 94 RBIs), Brooks (20, 91) and Eddie Murray (26, 95) in the heart of the Dodger lineup would represent 110 home runs and 398 RBIs. One other number that interests Strawberry is his uniform number of 18, now worn by coach Bill Russell, who may feel that Strawberry has the resources to buy it from him.

In the meantime, Strawberry said he has dealt with his biggest challenge, which was finding an inner peace during his alcohol rehabilitation of last winter. He and Claire talked about it during six hours of negotiations Tuesday and five more Wednesday.

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“I wanted to know what impact Darryl felt it had on his life and I was happy with what I heard and happy with the season he had,” Claire said. “We make an effort to know the players we trade for and sign, and I feel very comfortable with Darryl Strawberry.”

STRAWBERRY’S STATISTICS REGULAR SEASON

Year Team AB R H HR RBI Avg. ’83 Mets 420 63 108 26 74 .257 ’84 Mets 522 75 131 26 97 .251 ’85 Mets 393 78 109 29 79 .277 ’86 Mets 475 76 123 27 93 .259 ’87 Mets 532 108 151 39 104 .284 ’88 Mets 543 101 146 39 101 .269 ’89 Mets 476 69 107 29 77 .225 ’90 Mets 542 92 150 37 108 .277 Totals 3903 662 1025 252 733 .263

PLAYOFFS

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Year Team AB R H HR RBI Avg. ’86 Mets 22 4 5 2 5 .227 ’88 Mets 30 5 9 1 6 .300 Totals 52 9 14 3 11 .269

WORLD SERIES

Year Team AB R H HR RBI Avg. ’86 Mets 24 4 5 1 1 .208

* REACTION: Signing sends shock waves through the rest of National League. Story, C8.

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* HOMECOMING: Crenshaw coach says this will mean a lot to the school. Story, C8.


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