Strawberry shifts balance of power in Dodgers-Braves series

September 15, 1991|By Mark Whicker | Mark Whicker,Orange County Register

ATLANTA -- Atlanta's loathing of Darryl Strawberry is based on fear. As all loathing is.

By the time Strawberry got to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on Friday night, the locals had monsterized him to Sasquatch proportions. Fans batted fake strawberries with fake tomahawks. They unleashed the familiar "Darr-ul" chant at full capacity for the first time here. Even the Braves seemed to shake upon sighting him -- they moved shortstop Rafael Belliard to the wrong side of second base and left third baseman Terry Pendleton to patrol 90 feet by his lonesome.

Strawberry watched it all with world-weary eyes. During warm-ups he even did the "tomahawk chop" himself. He blew kisses at the hecklers. "I'm saying 'God bless you' there," he said. He actually seemed to like the fans, enough to make their worst dreams come true.

Four-for-five. A tying home run off Tom Glavine in the sixth. A shift-defying RBI single in the seventh that broke the tie for good. When Kal Daniels doubled with two outs, Strawberry whizzed around the bases with enough desperate speed to score -- not quite a second before Daniels was tagged near third.

That made it 4-2, and Juan Samuel homered the Dodgers into a 5-2 lead, which they maintained. The Dodgers were back in first place. More important, they would not be swept and washed away in the tide of Atlanta's most hysterical baseball weekend in eight years.

"If we win two out of three or one out of three," Brett Butler said, "it really won't mean that much because we play them at home next weekend. But if we do sweep, then it might put a subtle idea in their minds."

It's already there. Atlanta, for all its other impressive breakthroughs, is 4-9 against the team it has to beat. And if all things remain equal, Strawberry tips the scales.

"I saw that shift, and I decided that if they play me there, I'm going to get a lot of hits [to left field]," Strawberry said, "because I know they're not going to pitch me inside.

"If they do that, I'm going to pull the ball anyway. So I lay off that pitch and try to get a base hit.

"I just used the same strategy I use in batting practice every day. I was fortunate to come up with Keith Hernandez [in New York] and he taught me what to do in batting practice. I tried to carry over the same ideas."

Said Atlanta manager Bobby Cox: "He only beat the shift once. Rafael missed the first ball. We do it because Darryl is a dead pull hitter in the infield."

The Braves could not defend against the homer, of course -- Strawberry's second in two nights and his 16th since July 16. Glavine had given up only two homers in his last eight starts.

"I was trying to run the ball away, and it caught a little bit too much of the plate," Glavine said with the hint of a smile. "Darryl didn't miss it."

He usually does. Strawberry came into Atlanta homerless against Glavine for his career and darn near hitless -- 2-for-22, in fact. Why this, why now?

"Big ballgame tonight," Strawberry answered.

Atlanta and Strawberry agreed on that, at least. This is one of the great sports bandwagon towns in America. The local paper produced an eight-page special section on this series, even though three more baseball weekends follow.

Tickets were diamonds. Tom Lasorda helicoptered over to Athens to pep-talk the Georgia Bulldogs, who greeted him with the "tomahawk chop" and made war-chant sounds. A big banner in right field: "Starke, Fla., Says Braves Execute Dodgers." Starke is the site of the Florida State Penitentiary and the last breath of Ted Bundy, among others.

Darryl must have felt like the Rolling Stones on a visit to Peoria. "I've heard those chants in New York my whole career, Pittsburgh last year, everywhere I've been," he said. Shea Stadium, in the spring, growled "Darr-ul" so maliciously that you wanted to give Secret Service protection. Remember, he homered that night, too.

"I love it," he said. "It's OK; it's fine. People think I'm going to be bothered by it, but I've heard it since 1986. If you think you're going to beat me with that, you're wrong.

"It's not new to me," he said, then repeated it, shaking his head. "It's not new to me."

Strawberry is not always hard to dislike. A couple of weeks ago, he knocked teammates for worrying about free agency, when, in fact, he spent 1990 in New York in the same funk. This week, he second-guessed Lasorda for moving Ramon Martinez up in the rotation. But each hit extends Strawberry's freedom of speech. Since July 16, he has hiked his average from .228 to its current .272, his RBI from 31 to 88, his slugging percentage from .404 to .487, his walks from 38 to 71.

"We've told him to pay attention to how they get you out and then wait for the same pitch at crunch time," said Dodgers coach Joe Ferguson. "When you show you can hit fastballs, changes and curveballs, the pitcher doesn't know what to come back to."

It all comes back to one man making a difference. Orel Hershiser looked at the thickening queue of reporters that surrounded Strawberry's empty locker. "Darryl has left the building," Hershiser announced.

Yes, and he left this particular building, on this particular night, the same way he found it.


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