In the spring of 1980, the New Yorker’s Roger Angell was making his incomparable annual rounds and alighted on St. Petersburg for a morning B-squad game between Joe Torre’s Mets and their neighbors, Ken Boyer’s Cardinals. The rookie getting everybody’s attention that March was St. Louis’s big first baseman Leon Durham — “he is called Bull, of course.” Bull Durham was turning the Grapefruit League into his own personal china shop, destroying John Pacella’s pitches in particular. Would he make the big club? Probably not right away, Angell reported. The Cards had reigning co-MVP Keith Hernandez at first, so they were trying to convert Durham into an outfielder. But they had a set outfield of Bobby Bonds, George Hendrick and Tony Scott, so there might be no room for Durham at Busch Stadium.
“Joe Torre,” Roger Angell wrote, “should have such problems. The Mets have no one like Bull Durham at any level of their organization.”
In March 1980, they didn’t. Three months later, they would — no bull. And when he surfaced, he would change everything about how the Mets would perform and be perceived for a very long time.
It would be disingenuous to say they were the two definitive decisions of his tenure as general manager of the New York Mets, for there were other momentous choices made in between, but you can almost chart the trajectory of the franchise by two moves Frank Cashen made ten years apart.
June 3, 1980: He drafted Darryl Strawberry as the first pick in the amateur draft.
November 8, 1990: He didn’t re-sign Darryl Strawberry when he became a free agent.
As we watch the two of them enter the Mets Hall of Fame in the company of Dwight Gooden and Davey Johnson today, we can comfortably declare the first decision represented the cornerstone of the ensuing decade of Mets baseball. To a great extent, the same could be said of the second decision.
• By taking the best athlete available in his first draft as Met GM, Cashen guaranteed himself (as much as any guarantees can be made regarding 18-year-old phenoms) a potential superstar around which he could build a contender, a champion and perhaps a dynasty.
• By eschewing a continued association with the same man after he had proven himself the best everyday player ever developed by the Mets, all Cashen guaranteed was a gaping void for the Mets and Mets fans that wasn’t really filled until one of Cashen’s successors traded for Mike Piazza. That was in 1998, eight years later.
Eight long years later.
The Mets of the ’80s, when they were at their best, were never Strawberry’s alone, which may explain why it wasn’t considered essential to keep him at any price as he approached free agency in 1990. Darryl was one of four pillars upon whom the club that competed year in and year out at the top of its division was built. Selecting Dwight Gooden in the first round of the 1982 draft would prove transformative. Trading for Keith Hernandez in the middle of 1983 would be most callers’ guess if there was a Foxwoods Resort and Casino Turning Point of the Decade contest. Dealing for Gary Carter in December 1984 communicated a seriousness of purpose, that the surprising Mets of the previous season were as for real and real could get. And there were probably at least a dozen other transactions worth mentioning as crucial to Cashen’s construction of a winner.
Yet drafting Darryl Strawberry came first. From the moment he was chosen, we knew he was coming. If it didn’t cause a mania on the plane of a Stephen Strasburg, it was instantly the most famous amateur draft pick the Mets had ever made. And though it would take Strawberry three years to land at Shea, Darryl was instantly the most talented player in the Mets organization, major leaguers included. The Mets may have been making a spirited run toward the .500 barrier in the summer of 1980, but anyone who wasn’t 17 and mesmerized by the exploits of Steve Henderson  would have agreed with Roger Angell’s assessment from that same spring, a couple of months before Darryl Strawberry became our future.
The Mets had nobody. And they were nobody.
You know the best part about Darryl Strawberry’s Met tenure? For all the majestic home runs he’d dispatch to the nether regions of National League stadia, I don’t believe it was anything he did in a New York Mets uniform. It was that we knew he was going to put on a New York Mets uniform — that his summers in Kingsport, Lynchburg and Jackson, along with his holding room month in Tidewater, were leading to the grand entrance. Someday, we’re going to have Darryl Strawberry on the Mets. And when we do, watch out world, we’re gonna get real good.
When the big moment came and we learned Darryl would be at Shea and in right field on May 6, 1983, batting third between Tucker Ashford (!) and Dave Kingman, I have to confess I was 90% excited and 10% let down. So much of being a Mets fan from the day Darryl Strawberry was drafted was waiting for Darryl Strawberry to be called up. Then it happened and I felt a bit at a loss.
Now what was I going to look forward to?
Darryl Strawberry’s at-bats took care of that pretty quickly. I looked forward to those every game. I looked forward to the long swing and the long trips those balls took when he connected. I looked forward to his loping stride toward first when he couldn’t trot; to his 6’ 6” frame sliding safely into second on a stolen base attempt; to how he made up for his refusal to reposition himself from of his worn Strawberry patch of grass by turning as needed toward the wall and grabbing the would-be opposition home run (Endy without the obvious effort); to the gun of a right arm that left the other team a little shy of going first to third on the basepaths. The phrase “five-tool player” was gaining resonance around 1983. I don’t think it was a coincidence that it came up around the same time as Darryl Strawberry.
Still, there was no escaping the sense that the five tools weren’t always necessarily put to optimal use. Shouldn’t have the “black Ted Williams” (a phrase his high school coach made famous in Sports Illustrated) hit .300 at least once? Walked 100 times? Launched 40 homers? Won an MVP? Straw never did hit much for average, with .284 the best he ever managed as Met, in 1987, the same year he collected a career-high 97 walks and established a career-best .398 on-base percentage. He set the Met record for homers then, with 39, and matched it a year later when he came closest to attaining his only Most Valuable Player award. Darryl finished second in 1988 for MVP, behind the gritty, gutty Dodger Kirk Gibson (who, ironically, can watch Darryl’s induction today from the Diamondback dugout).
Ted Williams was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible. Darryl Strawberry was on the Cooperstown ballot once, received the support of 6 of that year’s 516 voters and dropped off the ballot for good immediately. If you go by Bill James’ Similarity Scores, he wasn’t Ted Williams for the next generation. He was a template for Jeromy Burnitz.
So what? Darryl basically asked at a Citi Field press session Saturday. “Everybody has their opinions of where we should be,” Straw said of himself and Gooden and the massive expectations they didn’t live up to. “Should we be in the Cooperstown Hall of Fame? Well, guess what — we’re going into the Mets Hall of Fame, and that’s what’s most important. That’s all I really care about.”
It’s the right sentiment for 2010. It’s a good enough explanation for 1983-1990, even if it papers over that Darryl Strawberry in real time was as perplexing a Met who ever was. It’s not just that he didn’t ascend to immortality beyond the village limits of Flushing. Nor is that he never quite had a season for the ages on offense that was comparable to Dwight Gooden’s 1985  on the mound (though you’d pretty much have to be Ted Williams in 1941 to claim one of those). You couldn’t watch him, love him, root for him without deep-down knowing he could be doing more. He could be running a little harder to first. He could be paying attention to Bill Robinson or the scouting reports when it came to moving over a few steps for a hitter who might not hit it directly to where he was standing. He could not seem intermittently sullen or surly or less than fascinated by the niceties of baseball.
As one of his predecessors among local pop culture icons might have observed had she been around deep into the 1980s, With Darryl Strawberry, it’s always something. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. With apologies to the incisive commentary of Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna, we sure do ask a lot of our greatest position player for fans from a team without any other players anybody ever compared to Ted Williams.
But honestly, it was always something: a police report; an alcohol rehab stint; a rap recording session the day of a game he’d call in sick for; clubhouse feuds gone public; an interview with an L.A. Times reporter in which he said it sure would be nice to play for his hometown Dodgers while he was still very much a Met.
Perhaps because his 1985 was so transcendent and he seemed so ideal a person in the process and he did it before turning 21, we get reflexively wistful over what Doc Gooden could have been. I don’t know if the coulda-been quotient attached to Darryl Strawberry is quite as romantic or, more precisely, as graspable. The best we saw out of him — 37 to 39 home runs three times, 101 to 108 RBIs those same three times (’87, ’88 and ’90), 30-30 once — was phenomenal Metwise, yet just very good in any given season of its era. They were the batting and running equivalents of Doc’s post-’85 Met years, which were perfectly fine 18-9 type campaigns, but not the stuff that layers our memories of him with regret for what he didn’t do.
Darryl did plenty. We just wish he’d done it longer and with us.
If you wanted to frame Darryl as something more than not quite as great as advertised, you had to look for an angle as Allen Barra did in the Voice in 1989 when he made much of Straw outhomering and outstealing Willie, Mickey and the Duke when you lined up all four New York outfield legends’ first six full seasons…and if you took the pitcher’s park nature of Shea into account, Barra added, Darryl might have been better than Mays or Mantle or Snider.
It may have been true, and it may have told an underreported story — Barra insisted we weren’t fully appreciative of what we had in our midst — but even as I cheered the evidence, because I very much wanted Darryl Strawberry to be my Willie Mays, I didn’t quite buy it. I read that Sports Illustrated sidebar in the 1980 baseball preview issue with the black Ted Williams quote. I thrilled to our drafting him, especially when I read the Mets gave serious thought to drafting Billy Beane with that first-in-the-nation pick (the future Moneyball hero was still available later in the first round and we grabbed him at No. 23). I salivated at the coverage Newsday gave his professional debut in Kingsport, how they were immediately scheduling strawberry-themed promotions. I teetered between accepting and rejecting the organization’s assessment that he wasn’t ready coming out of Spring Training in 1983 despite totaling 34 homers in Double-A in 1982. Yeah, he hadn’t yet faced Triple-A pitching, but how much International League did the black/young/next Ted Williams need anyway?
I didn’t think Darryl Strawberry was going to be another Ted Williams or Willie Mays. I took it on faith that he’d be Darryl Strawberry and that the top prospects who came after him would be touted as another version of him.
It didn’t really work out that way — but it wasn’t exactly a misfire, either. Darryl did win the Rookie of the Year award on merit, did make the N.L. All-Stars seven consecutive years as a Met (often on merit), did pair 30+ homers with 30+ thefts in 1987, did lead the league in long balls in 1988 and, when he wasn’t physically, mentally or spiritually AWOL, made for an unmatched presence in Met reality and Met lore.
You watched Doc every fifth day. You watched Mex batting with (or holding) runners on base. You watched the Kid when he saw the cameras. But you could not take your eyes off Darryl Strawberry when he came up to bat because you never stopped imagining what he might do and how far he would do it. In legend, his long balls are still traveling.
• There goes the one he hit just foul in the bottom of the ninth the night he came up to the majors to stay. George Foster would hit one fair in extras to win it for us, but Darryl had suddenly and emphatically served notice that more and straighter clouts were coming.
• There goes the one off the clock in St. Louis in the last valiant week of 1985, where he added an extra hour to our pennant savings time.
• There goes Al Nipper’s self-esteem in the last half-inning we would need before making a formality of clinching the last World Series we won.
• There goes one on Opening Day 1987, with Doc Gooden at Smithers and Doc Gooden’s pants worn by his power-stroking buddy who managed to stay out of official trouble to that point. Who the hell wears a teammate’s pants as a tribute? I wondered, but maybe it was just a different way of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.
• There go two on the next Opening Day, at Olympic Stadium. The second clanks off the top of the Big O. We all learn the phrase “tension ring” on April 4, 1988 because that what it hits. Without a roof, it would have rung the North Pole.
• There goes the Shea scoreboard, bruised halfway up in the middle of the hottest of hot streaks, in 1990. As Joe Durso reported it in the Times, it “carried 450 feet from home plate and struck halfway up…against the lighted word ‘Ball,’ where the count on the batter is recorded but where baseballs rarely carry.”
That’s where Darryl Strawberry sent baseballs: into uncharted territory and off toward eternity. He did it 252 times as a Met, most ever by one of ours. He was doing it and everything like crazy in what turned out to be his final Met year. Strawberry was in yet another of his phases of carrying the ballclub on his back (he had a knack for imbuing clichés with doses of accuracy). The Mets were on a 27-5 roll in June and July of 1990. Darryl was doing about as well, with 15 home runs and 36 runs batted in over a 29-game span. He batted .389 from June 8 through July 13. Keith Hernandez was gone. Gary Carter was gone. Dwight Gooden was finding himself after a wretched (for anybody, not just him) start. By 1990, the Mets were Darryl Strawberry’s team.
By 1991, they were not.
That’s the flip side of Frank Cashen’s Hall of Fame general managership. Darryl wanted to be paid like the best player on the Mets, one of the best players in the sport. Frank Cashen chose not to concur with that desire. For all the letting go of Ray Knight and Kevin Mitchell and Wally Backman and Lenny Dykstra, this may have been the worst decision Frank Cashen made as Met GM.
Darryl did not maintain the Mets on his back the rest of that season, but nobody else’s back on that club was near broad enough to even broach the possibility of carriage. Nobody had the presence of Darryl Strawberry in the Met lineup or the Met imagination. Howard Johnson proved capable of hitting one more homer (38) and driving in nine more runs (117) in 1991 than Darryl did in 1990, but let’s be serious: Howard Johnson was no Darryl Strawberry. Nor was good old Hubie Brooks, reacquired from L.A. to play Darryl’s former position when Darryl headed west to play it for the Dodgers. Nor was the oddball Met signee of the winter of 1990-91, Vince Coleman.
Cashen built his Mets on trades and from the farm. He hated free agency. When he was hired to re-create the Mets from the ground up in 1980, he gave free agency one legitimate shot — trying for Dave Winfield and Don Sutton in his first full off-season but settling for Mike Cubbage, Dave Roberts and the second coming of Rusty Staub — before removing that distasteful arrow from the organizational quiver.
“Fans think that because of free agency, you can turn a ballclub around very quickly,” Cashen told Angell the spring before, “but that isn’t a useful way to go about what we have in mind here.” Thus, the open market went largely untapped by Cashen…and it didn’t hurt a bit in the buildup to 1986.
Mazzilli for Darling and Terrell.
Terrell for Johnson.
Allen and Ownbey for Hernandez.
Brooks, Winningham, Youmans and Fitzgerald for Carter.
Bailor and Diaz for Fernandez.
Young, Lee and Cook for Knight.
Christensen, Gardner, Schiraldi and Tarver for Ojeda.
Beane, Klink and Latham for Teufel.
Even Treviño, Kern and Harris for Foster.
Heck, even Scott for Heep.
Frank Cashen didn’t always fleece the other guy, and not every guy he got was the equal of what he gave up (Mike Scott) or the equal of what he thought was getting (George Foster), but every part contributed to a beautiful whole. Mix the fruits of those deals with Strawberry and Gooden and Dykstra and Elster and Aguilera and Mitchell and McDowell and Sisk, all drafted by the Cashen regime — along with pre-Cashen holdover youngsters Wilson, Backman and Orosco — and you have a contender that became a champion if not a dynasty. Hardly any free agency was involved in making the Mets great in the 1980s.
So why not keep Darryl Strawberry, the homegrown star you nurtured when he was tempted to test the free agent waters? And why on earth would you break with your philosophy and throw big money at a poor fit and questionable human being like free agent Vince Coleman?
1990 was different from 1980, both for Strawberry the superstar and Cashen the GM. The short answer is both were older and more recalcitrant than they were ten years earlier. Strawberry had done his blossoming. Now he wanted to do his banking. Cashen didn’t care for that attitude, certainly didn’t care for the money Straw wanted, which was in the neighborhood of what then reigning face of baseball Jose Canseco had re-signed for with Oakland — $4.7 million a year for five years. The Mets offered three years, a little over $3 million a year. The Dodgers ultimately gave him five years at approximately $4 million per year.
The numbers, as obscene as they are to the average fan twenty years later, don’t sound all that ludicrous in the context of the megastar money that would be flowing soon enough in the 1990s. Cashen, though, was standing on his version of principle when he snorted his best ballplayer wasn’t worth anywhere near $5 million a season. Maybe Darryl was standing on principle, too, when he accepted all the money he could get out of L.A.
Hindsight tells us neither one of them was right.
Vince Coleman — four years, not quite $12 million — was not a logical solution for any challenge regarding the Mets post-Darryl, not as a leadoff batter, not as a natural grass hitter, not as a positive influence on the roster, certainly not as a gate attraction. He was more Al Harazin’s idea than Cashen’s — the GM in the bowtie was moving toward stepping down, calling it quits after the 1991 season — and typified the Harazinian quick-fix thinking that would hamper the franchise as the new Met decade rapidly disintegrated. The Mets were kind of desperate once Straw signed with his hometown team, so they lunged at a guy who used to regularly beat them.
What Vince Coleman did to the Mets as a Cardinal barely compared to what Vince Coleman did to the Mets as a Met. In the context of Darryl and Frank, he represented collateral damage of a relationship gone awry. By not reaching accord with Darryl, we got Vince. And with Vince, we got tsuris.
The toxic outfielder helped wreck the Met winning ways from within in 1991 by breaking down (72 games played, on base at less than a .350 clip), acting up (unleashing a “profane outburst,” as the Times put it, at coach Cubbage) and being generally miserable. The Coleman solution to the Strawberry void shoved the Mets down a hole that made Harazin double down on desperation…in other words, 1992 and Bobby Bonilla. Bonilla was more bad news, as was all of 1992 and 1993 and so on for the Mets who extracted every wrong message possible from everything episode that went sour. It was like the opposite of teachable moments.
Players got in trouble after 1986? Get rid of potential troublemakers.
Less troublesome players not playing well? Sign whoever looks good.
Guys we spent on making the situation even worse? Stop spending — and look out for troublemakers.
Cashen served the Mets as a consultant but was retired from active duty. Strawberry had a good first year as a Dodger, two lousy, injury-riddled seasons and was released after substance abuse and Tommy Lasorda got the best of him in 1994. By then, the Mets were a shell of what the two men had begun to build together in 1980. Coleman was gone. Bonilla would go. The Mets would spin their tires in the mud of a few more mostly lost seasons and scrounge around for replacement parts before Bobby Valentine pounded together a scrappy competitor in 1997. The following year, Nelson Doubleday ordered Steve Phillips to trade for the suddenly available Mike Piazza, and it was only then that the Mets could be said to have replaced Darryl Strawberry as a presence and a player.
The Mets are on their fifth general manager since Cashen. Three of his successors — Joe McIlvaine, Phillips and Omar Minaya — can be said to have been successful, but none on the level of Cashen. Edgardo Alfonzo, Jose Reyes and David Wright are the only homegrown position players the Mets have signed and developed since Strawberry bolted to establish themselves as legitimate stars while wearing the Met uniform. That’s three in two decades. Alfonzo was more technically sound, Reyes has been pound-for-pound more exciting. Wright is no doubt more consistent and will likely wind up as more productive.
But you only get one Darryl Strawberry in a lifetime. No wonder Frank Cashen picked him first.