LOS ANGELES 7/8 7/8 — LOS ANGELES -- The neighborhood is known as South Central, L.A. at its toughest. This is not some pretty suburb, or beach, not even downtown, where the office buildings are. This is inner-city L.A., where you can feel the attitude all over the 'hood. This is Darryl Strawberry country.
"Man, you are in the ghetto now," he says with a smile. He pronounces it "ghet-TO." Straw surveys the streets, which are filled with broken-down cars and phone-equipped Mercedes. "This is my ghet-TO, where I'm from," Strawberry says. "I'm back."
Back to a place called Harvard Park, where the infield has no grass and the pitching rubber is missing. No matter: the place is cluttered with athletes who want to throw or take batting practice -- some minor-leaguers, some high schoolers and dozens of onlookers. Talk about attitude: Strawberry is wearing shorts, an old T-shirt, a thin mustache, a goatee and Nautilus-hardened muscles that look ready to tear through his skin.
Visiting the 'hood is part of Strawberry's daily routine now. He spends two hours a day taking batting practice at Dodger Stadium, then devotes the afternoon to working out in South Central. At night, it's off to a gym, where Strawberry pumps himself even larger.
Oh, yes, the man is back, talking like the Strawberry you either loved or loathed as a Met. He is still a Christian, gentle and good inside, but he says he has his "confidence" back. Strawberry has opinions about the Mets, Gregg Jefferies, the Dodgers, and of course, Darryl. The reason for the energy? He's pulling up to the 'hood in a car, chatting on a cellular phone.
"Here he is. My man, E.," Strawberry says. It's his childhood friend, Eric Davis, closer to Strawberry than even Dwight Gooden. Davis recently was traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the Dodgers, and the two will be playing together again for the first time since their days in the 'hood.
"Homeboy, wassup?" Davis says, and sits down to lace up his cleats. Straw nods at Davis and says, "Me and him, we're going to crush the world this year."
Davis laughs at Darryl's boast, but he, too, nods and says, "It's a dream come true, coming home to play with D. It's gonna be some year for us -- for him."
And Strawberry hopes it will be a year that forces the Mets to regret once and for all their decision to let him leave in 1990. Yes, he still dwells on the Mets, perhaps now more than ever. He takes satisfaction in the fact that it took two players, Bobby Bonilla and Eddie Murray, and $39.5 million to replace him. But Strawberry still wonders if the Mets have enough ammunition to win the East.
"So much money. I guess the Mets finally figured out they made a mistake with me," Strawberry says, shaking his head. "Don't get me wrong, they have a good team now -- at least on paper. But do they have players who can win? Money can only put players on the field, but it can't guarantee you a pennant. Bobby is a good player, but I always thought [Barry] Bonds was the franchise player [in Pittsburgh]. He's the one you didn't want to let beat you.
"And Eddie [Murray] is a solid player. He'll help. But I hope the Mets aren't expecting him to be Keith Hernandez, to be a leader. Eddie's a quiet guy. He could have some problems with the press.
"That's the thing the Mets still don't know, for all the money they spent: Can these [new] guys win? I still remember the quotes from certain players about me when I left. Stuff like, 'We'll be better off without Straw.' Well, now the Mets know how much pressure I took for them. I turned on the TV a couple of times late last season just to see what was going on with the Mets. It was awful to watch. I had to turn off the set."
Still, Strawberry praises the Mets for having the courage to trade Gregg Jefferies, whom he sneeringly called "Mr. Everything." Strawberry says: "Jefferies had to get out of town. Only certain VTC players can handle the pressure. The Mets made the mistake of building him up, but Jefferies' personality got caught up in it. He really thought he was Mr. Everything."
Jefferies is gone, banished. But so is Strawberry. Is he really happy away from New York? Kevin Elster wonders. "In his heart, I think Darryl wants to be back," the Mets shortstop said. "I think he knows he made a mistake leaving."
Not so, Strawberry insists. "Look, I loved the Mets, the memories, the winning, guys like HoJo. But the people here in L.A. are good to me. I had a so-so year, just average, and I still hit 29 home runs. They understand I was hurt, I was adjusting. Just watch out for me this year. If I stay healthy the next four, five years, I'm telling you the truth, I'm going to the Hall of Fame."
The Hall: yes, Strawberry is serious. He needs 22 home runs to reach 300. He'll be 30 this summer, and sooner or later has to surpass 40 home runs in a season to reach 500. Strawberry's single-season high is 39, and there are moments he plays What If.