"If Darryl does his work, if he comes to the park every day ready to play and keeps himself in shape, if he does everything he's supposed to do, he can be one of the five greatest players of all time. But if he dogs it and just doesn't do what's necessary, if he lays down and tries to get by with just his talent, he might be one of the 10 best of all time."
John Stearns, 1983
He hardly knew Darryl Strawberry back then, and what we did know about him focused almost exclusively on his magnificent baseball skills, the feats he already had accomplished with them and the future they appear to be building.
It was mid-May of his rookie season. Strawberry had been promoted to the major leagues some two weeks earlier when Stearns, awed by what he had witnessed, offered an evaluation that was prophetic in one regard: Strawberry too often relied only on talent. But he had so much, sometimes talent alone was enough.
Skills, talent, tools. Darryl Strawberry was about playing the game then, nothing else. No mention of guns, alcohol, paternity suits, substance abuse, swings at a teammate, divorces, threats against a teammate, a book, a back, a baby. Skills, talent and tools. He became prominent because of them. The other stuff followed.
Skills, talent and tools. Those are the words scouts use. And even with all the superlatives that normally preceded them back then, they seemed insufficient in Strawberry's case. When Joe McIlvaine said, "I can't say enough about him," he meant precisely that.
Now 11 summers, two uniforms, two rehabs, one surgery and untold broken promises later, it's all about skills once again. And Strawberry's skills remain remarkable: remarkable for what they are, stunning because they exist after all he's endured and all he has caused himself to endure.
For reasons that have little to do with his innate talents, he never has been and never will be the player Stearns, McIlvaine, Frank Cashen, et al., envisioned back then. But the 32-year-old San Francisco Giants right fielder still comes equipped with tools that few current players have.
He still hits a baseball with extraordinary power. It always was his prowess as a powerhitter and run-producer that most distinguished him from his peers. But even now, he runs with diminished, but above-average, speed and throws with power, albeit without accuracy and sometimes without purpose. Indeed, Strawberry still can turn a game with his skills.
"I'm amazed and I'm not amazed," said Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics' assistant general manager who began his professional career with Strawberry and the Mets in 1980. "I'm amazed because it's been a long time now and he's been through a lot. But I'm not at all surprised because it's Darryl. I've known him since we were both 18, and he was the best all-around athlete I ever saw. He's not much less than that now.
"I've seen (on television) most of the games he's played since he's come back, not wire to wire, but most of most of the games. And he doesn't look much different. He hasn't lost anything in his swing."
Philadelphia Phillies Manager Jim Fregosi has seen Strawberry in five of the 10 games Strawberry has played since his July 7 debut with the Giants, and he sees diminished skills in two related areas: speed and his ability to get to balls in the outfield. "But it's not a difference," Fregosi said Tuesday night. "And I don't think they brought Darryl in over there to upgrade their outfield defense.
"If we're talking just about his offense ... no difference. His swing looks the same to me. Great bat speed."
It is that bat speed, always the focal point of any evaluation of Strawberry's skills, that is responsible for the .324 average, two home runs and nine RBI he has produced in 34 at-bats.
The speed at which the bat moves through the hitting zone won't increase, but other elements of Strawberry's hitting may improve. At least he thinks so. "I'm not there yet," Strawberry said Tuesday after the Giants' 5-2 loss to the Phillies, their first defeat since Strawberry joined the team and one night after he left a game in the second inning with a tight left hamstring. "Everything needs polish. I have to refine every part of my game. Right now, I'm about where I'd be in March, if this was spring training."
Fregosi disagrees somewhat. "With him there behind (Barry) Bonds and (Matt) Williams ... it gives me a lot to think about. He might think he can get better. But he's pretty damn good right now."
Ed Montague was the plate umpire Monday night in Philadelphia when Strawberry drove in two runs in the first inning against Shawn Boskie. Montague was impressed not only by the hit -- a line drive struck with such force that it caromed so far off the right-field wall that Strawberry was held to a single -- but also that Strawberry delayed his swing long enough to hit Boskie's changeup fair. "His timing seemed fine," Montague said.
Strawberry said: "It can get better."
Indeed, he expects significant improvement, enough that next season will yield numbers comparable to those he produced with the Mets: 30-35 home runs and 90-100 RBI a season. And he's convinced his career is seven years from its ending; a happy ending at that.
"I've lost time -- about two years when you think about everything," Strawberry said. "That's 50 or 60 home runs and maybe 200 RBI. I can say that now because my skills are still there. So if I didn't get hurt and if I didn't mess up my life, I could have done a lot more by now.
"I can figure out how much I cost myself. I can't get that time back. But I can take care of myself now and try to extend my career longer than it was going to be.
"I mean, I thought about retiring. I thought about a lot of things. Now I've got my career back. I can still produce. I probably won't have a year like everybody always said I should have. But the way I'm thinking right now, I can be as good as my talent lets me be. ... I don't think it's been that way for me for a long time."