Strawberry's return to N.Y. tonight fans flames of love-hate affair Cheers, jeers still echo for struggling ex-Met

May 07, 1991|By Joe Sexton | Joe Sexton,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- The New York Mets, focused on the long season that stretches out in front of them, have nonetheless each kept an eye on the calendar countdown to May 7.

And though they are chiefly concerned with their own statistics and the final results of their own games, the Mets have quietly but steadfastly kept abreast of Darryl Strawberry's fortunes with the Dodgers.

There was a collision coming, the Mets understood, and it made no sense not to monitor the momentum as it built. The crash of competing emotions, torn loyalties and individual honor will take place tonight at Shea Stadium when the Dodgers face the Mets, and Strawberry, the electric and enigmatic right fielder, comes face to face with his past.

Although they conceded that a strange spectacle was in the offing, the Mets have avoided trying to handicap the contest.

"He is Darryl," shortstop Howard Johnson said of his former teammate. "And he can do a lot of things."

Strawberry has done almost nothing through the first month of his season with the Dodgers. The right fielder, who signed a five-year, $20.25 million contract with Los Angeles after after eight dynamic seasons with the Mets, enters Tuesday night's game with an average of .214, one hit in his last 21 at-bats, one home run and 27 strikeouts in 24 games.

Those numbers, which have acutely disappointed Strawberry while delighting his detractors, are bound for irrelevance once Strawberry steps to the plate before more than 50,000 fans at Shea. The Mets said yesterday that the game was several thousand tickets shy of a sellout at the 55,000-seat stadium.

Frank Viola, the left-hander who will be pitching to Strawberry tonight, said, "For sure, it'll be a New York sports moment."

There is apprehension among his closest friends on the Mets, who are still bewildered by the organization's decision not to try seriously to re-sign Strawberry, that he will be booed by the crowd at Shea. They are not naive, however, remembering that Strawberry was jeered when he struck out during his tenure with the Mets.

But they are genuinely sorry that it will be that way. Strawberry, whatever his shortcomings, hit 252 home runs for the Mets, lighting up countless nights for their followers by threatening to knock out the scoreboard lights with another shot to right.

"I don't and never have understood the relationship he had with the fans," said Dwight Gooden, Strawberry's friend and the star pitcher who is treated much differently by the fans. "I'd like to think a standing ovation was possible. I know I think it's in order.

"Not everyone in our clubhouse misses him as a person, and there's nothing wrong with that, but they all miss him as a ballplayer."

Whatever they miss, they all also have many memories.

"I think naturally you remember Darryl moments that directly affected you," said David Cone, who is off to a 3-1 start for the Mets this season. "I remember a game in 1987 when Iwas an unproven pitcher trying to earn a job. I was going against the Dodgers and Fernando, and gave up a three-run homer to Pedro Guerrero in the first. Darryl came back and banged one off the scoreboard for me for three runs. Typical monster shot."

The enduring images of him were generated by more subtle demonstrations of his strength as well. Gregg Jefferies, a beleaguered rookie not especially well regarded by the rest of the Mets, remembered his fight with Roger McDowell and the Phillies one night in late 1989.

"Darryl was the first guy out there," Jefferies said.

John Franco's first impression of Strawberry as a teammate was a lasting one. Franco, a reliever in his first season with the Mets, recalled Strawberry's first and most destructive offensive tear of 1990, when homers appeared to come with every other at-bat and the Mets rode the rockets to first place in the National League East for a while.

"Now, that was interesting," said Franco, smiling.

"He was a character," said Tim Teufel, who publicly and bluntly challenged Strawberry's character after last season. "He fit in the New York atmosphere. And he created it."

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