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Yearning to Be Safe at Home : Strawberry Returns to L.A. as Dodger, Hoping to Escape Pressure of Stardom

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The concrete sidewalk stretching in front of the matchbox-sized homes of Seventh Avenue mostly abides by the straight and narrow. Free from graffiti, swept daily by the residents, it is remarkable in its plainness.

Except for the section in front of the green stucco bungalow with bars on the windows.

There, for as long as anyone can remember, the sidewalk has appeared to be exploding. Roots of a giant tree have cracked the cement, causing the sidewalk to angle toward the green house.

It is an eyesore for neighbors, a nightmare for joggers, but some people imagine it as something almost mystical.

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John Moseley imagines.

“I used to wonder about that piece of cement, why nobody never fixed it,” said Moseley, a baseball coach. “But looking back, it makes sense. It always told me and everybody else around here, ‘This is where Darryl lives.’ ”

That would be Darryl Strawberry. In that house on Seventh Avenue he shaped a life mirrored by that sidewalk’s imperfection.

Eleven years ago he left the house as a sensitive, scared, overgrown child trying to become a professional baseball player with the New York Mets.

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This winter he came home as a hero, signing with the Dodgers as a millionaire outfielder who now lives in the kind of plush neighborhood where there are no sidewalks.

The skinny kid from Crenshaw High returns with 252 major league home runs, 12th among active players although he is only 28. In the past five seasons, nobody has hit more home runs than Strawberry’s 171.

The youth who used to require a splash of cold water before climbing out of bed for summer baseball practice has appeared in an All-Star game in each of his seven full major league seasons. During those seasons, the Mets never won fewer than 87 games.

The only thing that will be bigger than Strawberry’s swing this season at Dodger Stadium will be the size of his welcome. Besides a five-year contract worth $20.25 million, opening day will undoubtedly bring curtain calls and thoughts of World Series championships.

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But also greeting him will be his past. It is as hard and unchanged as that green stucco, and it has not always been accompanied by a standing ovation.

From the shops of Slauson Avenue to the tiny dirt baseball fields along the Harbor Freeway, Strawberry will stumble over that past in old friends and myths and sometimes bad memories.

Then there is the weighty baggage from New York--his treatment for alcoholism, his publicized disputes with his wife and teammates.

All which will quietly tug at Strawberry, who is caught between a desire to confront his past and an urge to kick free of it.

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“I ain’t going to run away from my past,” Strawberry said recently after a workout at Dodger Stadium. “But I’m not going to be depressed about it.”

The only thing certain is, he is not going to attempt to handle it alone. Earlier this month, with the stares of a city soon to rest upon him, Strawberry fell to his knees and asked for help.

At a Morris Cerullo evangelistic world conference at the Anaheim Convention Center, Strawberry said he became a born-again Christian.

“I was delivered and set free from the world,” Strawberry said. “I am starting my whole life over again. I finally have peace.”

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In many ways, Strawberry has long since left the old neighborhood. But in some ways, he can never leave.

He and most of his immediate family--divorced parents, two brothers, two sisters--rarely travel Seventh Avenue anymore. Strawberry resides in a plush house in Encino and has moved much of the group to a large ranch home near San Bernardino.

He is best contacted through his marketing firm in Sherman Oaks. He is writing his second book and has even dabbled in acting, playing himself in a recently taped episode of the “Doctor, Doctor” sitcom.

Yet he is still not the model of suburbia, unless shopping malls now include tattoo parlors. The large tattoo on Strawberry’s left arm reads “Lisa,” while his wife, Lisa, has a strawberry around a “D” tattooed on her back.

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Strawberry is as likely to be wearing black leather caps and tattered jeans as anything bearing alligators. And last season he ordered his barber to write a portion of his name into his haircut.

“That’s the thing about Darryl, it’s not enough to be a famous 6-foot-6 guy who looks like J.J. Washington and is recognized everywhere he goes,” joked teammate Bob Ojeda. “He also has to wear purple and cut ‘Straw’ into his head.”

Then again, he recently signed autographs for nearly three hours at a card show, the entire proceeds from which went to an inner-city baseball foundation. And occasionally, he still works out with the youngsters at Harvard Park on Denker Avenue near his old house, the same place he has trained every winter since leaving home.

“I’ve never seen a player better with children,” Ojeda said. “He’ll do things for children that nobody in this game does.”

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But when it comes to adults from his old neighborhood, acquaintances who may spend this summer chasing him for favors, he purposely stays secluded.

“Once baseball gets going, I’ll make it so people who aren’t important to me can’t find me,” Strawberry said. “I’m sorry, but a lot of those people aren’t my responsibility. I’ve got a family now. I’ve got to take care of my job and my family.”

He might have come to this conclusion last year when his past met his present in a rather jarring collision.

A close friend and former teammate on the Crenshaw High football team was on trial for allegedly murdering his mother. Before his hearing, the friend relayed a message through Strawberry’s older brother, Mike, that he wanted Darryl to attend.

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“Darryl wouldn’t do it, he couldn’t do it,” said Mike, a Los Angeles city policeman. “I think he realized that this part of his life was over, that there wasn’t anything he could do for the guy and that he had to move on.”

The friend was convicted and sent to prison, and today Strawberry shakes his head andquietly says, “We were real tight. It was real hard to see. But that was then.

Many things that happened then will confront Strawberry this summer. He will recognize it in the faces and handshakes of those who will wait for him after games, in the voices of those who have been waiting for him to phone.

There is Moseley, 73, a former city truck driver who was Strawberry’s baseball tutor and caretaker during his reckless high school years.

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Many summer mornings, Moseley would slip into that bedroom on Seventh Avenue and throw a pail of water on Strawberry’s face, forcing him to find his baseball glove and shoes and resume chasing his dream.

Today, Moseley still lives four blocks from Strawberry’s old home, still drives a 1972 Plymouth and still talks about fixing Darryl’s swing. If only, he says, Strawberry would take time to listen.

“I haven’t seen him since last season, which makes me sad, but I’ll be ready when I do see him,” Moseley said. “I went to some of his games last year when the Mets were in town, and I wrote down all of his mistakes and when I see him, I’ll show them to him.

“If he’s smart, he’ll come back to me.”

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Strawberry’s past is also there in Brooks Hurst, his baseball coach at Crenshaw High. Hurst is a construction worker, but he will be at Dodger Stadium this summer, his presence reminding Strawberry never to abuse this game that supports him.

After all, Hurst is the only baseball coach who ever dared to kick Strawberry off his team.

“Many a night, I’d see the moon come up while I watched that kid run laps because he hadn’t been hustling,” Hurst remembers. “He had been so spoiled by all his coaches, he was such a super-sensitive kid. Still is.”

Strawberry’s tightly woven family, members of which he didn’t see as much during his final years in New York, also will be within easier reach.

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Ron, his other older brother, will remind him of his good fortune at avoiding gangs and dead ends.

In his early teens, Darryl wanted to hang around with Ron’s friends, who often drank and partied. Ron would not let him, even when bullheaded Darryl would not listen.

“Finally, I would just have to beat him up to get him to leave,” Ron recalled. “I would jump on him, punch him out, anything to get him to go home. The people I hung out with, they were athletically gifted, but mentally, they shut it down. I did not want Darryl to ever shut it down.”

His mother, Ruby, and younger sisters, Regina and Michelle, also are available to remind him.

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“He always tries to have this face like he could carry it all, like none of it could get to him, but we know different,” said Ruby, who soon will turn 50, but who has the youthful appearance of Strawberry’s sisters.

“From all the times he has called us and talked, all that money he has spent on the phone, we know that ain’t right. We know how pressure can get to him. It’s good that we’re around to help.”

In a small house near Seventh Avenue, there is yet another reminder of Strawberry’s past. He is Henry Strawberry, Darryl’s father.

For Darryl, the reminder is bittersweet. Henry left home after divorcing Ruby when Darryl was 13. At that moment, he also left Darryl’s heart. Only in the last couple of years has Darryl begun speaking to him again.

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“Divorce is hard, but life goes on, and you have to get through it,” Henry said. “Darryl’s success feels good to me, but I feel like an outsider. I didn’t even get a call at Christmas. I just wish he could show me a little bit more love.”

To complicate his homecoming, Strawberry returns to Los Angeles a far different person from when he left.

“Darryl is coming back with a lot of bullet holes in him from his New York days,” said Davey Johnson, the former Met manager who was Strawberry’s boss for seven years. “He is a sensitive guy who is carrying around lot of wounds.”

The blemishes include widely publicized treatment for alcoholism, domestic disputes involving the police and arguments with fellow Mets who have questioned his dedication.

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A sampling:

--In February of 1990, Strawberry spent a month in the Smithers Alcoholism and Treatment Center in Manhattan.

A few days before entering the center, he had been arrested for investigation for assault with a deadly weapon after a complaint from his wife that he had threatened her with a handgun. The case was dropped after Strawberry successfully completed his program at Smithers.

After separating and beginning divorce proceedings, the Strawberrys, with two children, have been back together since 1987.

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--In the middle of the 1989 season, he engaged in a shouting match and near fistfight with Johnson, then his manager.

This happened after Strawberry, who had been benched, got dressed before the end of a game in Chicago. He was later needed to pinch-hit. After hastily pulling on his uniform, he struck out with bases loaded to end the game.

--In spring training of 1989, he threw a punch at teammate Keith Hernandez during the team’s photo day. Strawberry had reportedly been upset with Hernandez’s public questioning of Strawberry’s contract negotiations.

--In the middle of 1987, he was criticized by teammates after missing two consecutive games because of illness after recording a rap song, “Chocolate Strawberry.” On the first day of his illness, he had spent time in the recording studio publicizing the song.

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Strawberry took much criticism about the incident from, among others, Wally Backman. He finally lashed back at Backman, saying, “I’ll bust him in the face, that little redneck.”

--After Strawberry agreed to contract terms with the Dodgers on Nov. 7, some former Met teammates accused him of not wanting to play at the end of the 1990 season. He had missed the final six games, citing a back injury.

Some Mets still think Strawberry was faking it to protect himself because he would be a free agent. “The last couple of weeks of the season, in my estimation and in other players’ estimation, Darryl was not making an effort to get back on the field,” Met infielder Tim Teufel said recently.

Mackey Sasser, a Met catcher, added: “When Darryl and the Mets cut off negotiations (in the second half of the season), it just seemed like he didn’t give a damn. He can be the most exciting player in the game when he feels like it. The situation is whether or not he feels like it.”

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Met outfielder Kevin McReynolds sat out the same six games because of an ingrown toenail, and yet was never criticized. He received a three-year contract extension this winter.

Strawberry, who has averaged 146 games in each of the last five years and missed only four games last season before the final week, quickly defended himself.

“It’s hard to believe anybody would say those things about me,” he said. “I play so hard. I’ve been fighting all my life to play. Last year my back was so bad I had to sleep on the floor. I couldn’t even move.”

He added, “Some of those guys talking, they’ve got their own problems. Look at Sasser, everybody knows about his problems. And I’ll just leave it at that.”

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Although he is said to be as sensitive and honest as when he left home, Strawberry’s skin is thicker. His lifelong trip from Seventh Avenue to Dodger Stadium, while less than two dozen miles, put his spirit through a marathon.

The only peaceful years in Strawberry’s life, it seems, were the early ones. His father, a postal worker and an outstanding athlete, would drive the boys to watch him play softball in a local league at Manchester Park. The boys would love to watch him and soon modeled themselves after him.

“He was our inspiration, we all looked up to him,” Ron said. “That was the problem.”

It was a problem because, when Darryl was in junior high, Henry left home.

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“And there went our happiness,” Ron said.

Ruby says Henry gambled too much. Henry says he didn’t make enough money to gamble. Whatever happened, Darryl’s life turned.

“Darryl took it hard. He had a lot of hostility that even I didn’t know about then,” said Ruby, who worked at the phone company. “All I knew then was, I would be at my office and the kids would call me, screaming about fights going on in the house, and I would be telling them there was nothing I could do about it.”

Strawberry, his family says, became obstinate and rebellious. He began getting into fights with older boys, fights he couldn’t win.

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“I remember coming home from school and hearing about somebody hitting Darryl, and I would always have to go out and fight the guy for him,” said Mike, 30, also an accomplished athlete who played two years in the Dodgers’ system. “Darryl could have become wild. We had to watch out for him.”

Said Strawberry: “This is why I care so much about children, and why I spend so much time with my children. Nobody should have to go through what I went through, growing up without a father.”

For the next several years, Strawberry did not let his father forget the pain he caused. Although the rest of the family remained in contact with Henry, Darryl refused even to speak to him.

Henry Strawberry would attend Darryl’s high school baseball games, only to be ignored by his son. When Henry suffered a stroke in 1985, he said Darryl never visited or phoned the hospital.

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“I may have made some mistakes, but I’m not that bad of a guy,” Henry said.

His father’s departure might have been the best thing for Strawberry’s career. Unable to escape his self-pity with his fists, Strawberry dedicated himself to sports.

“Having Dad gone, it pushed Darryl,” Ron said. “He went on a mission.”

Enter Moseley, who was the first of several father-figures to pass through Strawberry’s life.

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“I knew Michael, who was a great little player,” Moseley remembered. “Then one day he brings his brothers Darryl and Ronnie to the park, and boy, they were all good players. Darryl, in fact, was probably the worst of the three.

“And Darryl was certainly the little devil. He would be sitting next to me and all of a sudden pop me on the head, for no reason at all. I took all of them home and told their mother, ‘Girl, let me take care of these boys.’ ”

Ruby was thankful to have someone watching Darryl, especially someone who inspired such fear in him that, when Moseley honked the distinctive horn on his truck, Darryl would come running and jump in the cab.

“This was particularly effective when Darryl was hanging around those gang fellows,” Moseley said.

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Thanks to equipment purchased by Moseley, Strawberry was becoming a local legend before reaching high school. He would hit long home runs at Athens Park along El Segundo Boulevard in the mornings, then play a game of precision catch with Moseley in Strawberry’s narrow driveway in the afternoon.

“I remember the day he hit a soccer player about 500 feet away with a fly ball,” Moseley said. “I told him, ‘Boy, you got everything but a good head.’ ”

This lanky kid with the bad attitude was sitting on his doorstep one Saturday when Brooks Hurst pulled up in his Volkswagen van to pick up Mike, a Crenshaw junior, to attend a Dodger game.

“I had heard all about Darryl but never seen him before,” Hurst said. “I shouted at him to ask if he wanted to join us. He said yes and jumped in the van.

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“I’ll never forget how that whole game, while all the other boys were running around the stadium, Darryl just sat there and stared at the field.”

A year later, playing in his first year at Crenshaw as a 10th grader, Strawberry showed none of that concentration.

“You could tell he was going to be a great player, but we had so much friction between us,” Hurst said. “He would go halfhearted through our drills. He was supposed to be swinging a bat at a tire, but he would be staring at another field or up into the sky.”

One afternoon during the first half of the season, Hurst’s full anger fell on Strawberry. That was because, after an inning, it took the outfielder what Hurst estimates to be “a full 1 1/2 minutes” to reach the dugout from left field.

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“Their pitcher was already halfway through his warmups and Darryl had not even crossed the third base line yet,” Hurst said. “This was it. I had seen enough.”

Hurst confronted Strawberry on the bench, jamming his finger into the letter on Strawberry’s cap and shouting, “Don’t you see that ‘C,’ don’t you know what it stands for? It means you’ve got to hustle!”

Being touched by his manager, by anybody, was too much for Strawberry to bear. He removed his shirt, threw it on the bench and shouted, “I quit.”

He did not play for Crenshaw again until his junior year.

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“After the game, he was ready to come back, but I couldn’t let him,” Hurst said. “It would blow my credibility with the team and ultimately hurt Darryl. Even the principal came to me to find out how come I wouldn’t let him play, but I just told the principal, ‘It’s something I have to do. I have no choice.’ ”

For Strawberry’s career, it was the best thing Hurst could have done. The next season Strawberry ran out every ground ball while hitting .372 with five home runs and going 4-1 as a pitcher.

He helped his team to the City championship game while helping himself to a position as the most highly regarded high school player in the nation. Soon there was at least one scout at every practice and a dozen scouts and agents at every game.

“Once there was even an agent from Palm Springs who talked to Darryl in right field during practice,” Hurst said. “I ran out there and yelled, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ He just smiled with his gold chains and offered me a condo and women if I would introduce him to Darryl’s mom. I nearly killed the guy.”

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At age 17, Strawberry’s life as a besieged athlete began.

“It overwhelmed him,” Hurst said. “He is so sensitive, he had a hard time with it.”

Once a distraught Strawberry ran to the locker room after missing a fly ball and needed to be coaxed back to the field by Hurst. Another time, shortly before the 1980 amateur draft, when the commotion was at its peak, Strawberry approached Hurst.

“He asked me, ‘Do you really think I’m worth all this?’ ” Hurst recalled.

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Even though he was the No. 1 pick in the nation in June of 1980 by the New York Mets, and even though he had a successful rookie league season that summer at Kingsport (Tenn.), he was still asking himself that question a year later.

He was struggling at Class-A Lynchburg (Va.), phoning home every day and threatening to quit.

“Then I get this call at midnight,” Hurst recalled. “It was from Frank Cashen (Met general manager). Strawberry had disappeared from the team, and they couldn’t find him.”

According to his Lynchburg manager, the confused Strawberry had decided to play basketball.

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“He never actually left the team. He was just gone for one day,” said Gene Dusan, now a school teacher in Oregon. “At the time, Darryl just wasn’t putting all the marbles in the jar. He wasn’t hustling like he should, he wasn’t pushing like he should, and I let him know it.”

But as in high school, a few moments of isolation from the game and Strawberry was ready to return.

“I remember him coming into my office after that incident and saying, ‘You going to be at the ballpark at 3 tomorrow?’ ” Dusan said. “Darryl rarely got to the ballpark that early, so I knew he was changed. From then on, I have never dealt with a better player.”

But Strawberry’s frustration at failure has remained. His uneasiness at being placed on a pedestal has never disappeared.

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The Mets secretly flew Ruby to New York when Darryl made his major league debut in 1983. She saw him on her hotel television that first night when he was struck out by Cincinnati pitcher Mario Soto in his first three major league at-bats. And she knew.

“I could see in his eyes--it was like he was there, but he wasn’t,” she said. “I knew right away, all this pressure was going to be a burden on him.”

Despite a slow start he was voted National League rookie of the year in 1983 with 26 homers in 122 games. For the next several seasons he blended in on a veteran Met team that was headed toward a 1986 World Series championship.

But after the 1988 league championship series against the Dodgers, during which he hit .300 in defeat, Strawberry’s position with the Mets slowly unraveled.

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By 1989, veteran stars such as Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter and Wally Backman had either left the Mets or accepted reduced roles because of injury. That left Strawberry to be the star. The increased pressure became unmanageable.

“And that was the beginning of the end for him there,” Ojeda said. “Personalities on the Mets were becoming vanilla, and Strawberry is spumoni. He became the only big attraction and began having to shoulder more of the load. The whole thing got too intense.”

When discussing those final years, Strawberry’s eyes narrow and his usual grin flattens.

“Always being pointed out as the one everything occurs on, always being the center of everything, that has been so hard,” he said. “It has been a difficult road, and it has not been worth it. I mean it. It has not been worth it for anything.”

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He paused, shaking his head. “New York was so bitter to this man. There were days I didn’t want to deal with it. Days I didn’t want to come to the park.”

Said Hurst: “When I would sit in the dugout when the Mets came to Los Angeles, I could tell something was wrong. He was always looking around, his eyes darting left and right, like he was trying to figure out who was coming at (him) from where. New York really tugged at him.”

Mike Strawberry said, “I knew he had problems when I would visit him in New York. He was separated from his wife, so he would go out with his friends all night. I tried to go out with them once during the winter in Los Angeles, and I couldn’t keep up. The big cars, the money, the partying, it was too much for me.”

It was apparently too much for Darryl, too, although it took the publicized dispute with his wife to persuade him to enter Smithers. Those close to Strawberry still don’t believe he ever had a serious alcohol problem, but that he used Smithers as an escape from something else.

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“To me, Darryl is not an alcoholic. To me he was having problems at home and wanted to escape them,” said his mother, who spoke to Darryl on the phone at Smithers in February. “He wanted to get by himself and figure out his problems. He was under so much pressure, he didn’t know how to handle it.”

Said Strawberry: “It was a combination of things that caused me to go into Smithers, mostly everything that happened in New York. I had no inner happiness. I didn’t know what it was.”

Whatever the symptoms, the cure has apparently worked. Everyone around Strawberry said that this past season was his most peaceful.

He stopped being late for spring workouts and stopped giving teammates reason to doubt his hustle during games. He barely caused a ripple with his postgame remarks and resisted the urge to fight back when criticized.

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Off the field, he increased contact with his father, even visiting his house in December for dinner.

“I’m not trying to prove anything to my father other than that I love him,” Strawberry said.

And as the crowning moment of this personal renewal, he signed with the Dodgers.

“When he called me around midnight and told me he just agreed to a contract, I thought, ‘Praise the Lord,’ ” his mother said. “I was so excited, my next prayers were that I could somehow get back to sleep.”

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The Dodgers seemingly have everything Strawberry needs. They have a lineup that can surround him with enough big names that he won’t always feel the pressure. He will not have to bat cleanup and not have to worry about weak hitters behind him: He will hit third, ahead of Eddie Murray and Kal Daniels.

The Dodgers also have a manager, Tom Lasorda, who is expected to treat Strawberry like the sensitive father Strawberry feels he was denied.

“Tommy is the perfect manager for Darryl, because he needs a big-brother type to boost his morale,” said Lee Mazzilli, a former Met. “Tommy will always be telling him how good he is. Darryl needs that.”

The Dodgers have an understanding front office. They already are allowing him to deal with reporters through his own public relations team, and didn’t blink when he stopped attending the voluntary winter workouts after the second day to pursue his personal conditioning program.

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“The change can be good for Darryl--if he lets it be good,” said Bill Robinson, Strawberry’s batting coach with the Mets and now an ESPN announcer. “Los Angeles will work for Darryl if he doesn’t say, ‘I’ll just chill out for the next few years.’ He has to stay hungry.”

The Dodgers are convinced he will.

Said Lasorda: “People have always told me this and that about Strawberry, and I’ve always said, as long as I’ve managed the Dodgers, I have never allowed a reputation to precede a player.”

Contrary to rumors, the Dodgers did not place a no-alcohol clause in Strawberry’s contract.

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“During negotiations I asked Darryl particularly about Smithers, and in his answers, I could tell he was very much at peace with himself about the experience,” said Fred Claire, Dodger vice president. “Did Darryl make mistakes? Like all of us, he made mistakes. But he has benefited from those experiences. . . . and I honestly think that Darryl Strawberry’s best years are ahead of him.”

When asked about those years, Strawberry flashed a smile as expansive as his future. “Now that I’m happy, people will see the real me,” he said.

People will be watching.


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