Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

Minor Leagues fueled Strawberry's meteoric rise

Coaches, teammates and experience guided 'Straw' to stardom
February 21, 2024

Darryl Strawberry doesn't lament where the circuitous route of life has ultimately brought him. He doesn't look back with regret. He does, however, wonder what might have been. His tale is well-known. From high school phenom in Los Angeles to the top of the sports world in New York, the

Darryl Strawberry doesn't lament where the circuitous route of life has ultimately brought him. He doesn't look back with regret. He does, however, wonder what might have been.

His tale is well-known. From high school phenom in Los Angeles to the top of the sports world in New York, the man they called "Straw" wasn't simply a baseball superstar, he was one of the most recognized athletes during the 1980s.

The No. 1 overall pick in the 1980 MLB Draft played with four teams over parts of 17 seasons in the bigs, smashed 335 homers, posted an .862 OPS and drove in exactly 1,000 runs. Strawberry won the National League Rookie of the Year Award, earned eight consecutive All-Star selections, finished in the top 10 in MVP voting four times between 1987-91 and was a four-time World Series champion.

A vast majority of the damage he inflicted on opposing pitchers came in the Mets' orange and blue. He remains the organization's all-time leader in homers (252), a perch he's occupied since April 30, 1988. And despite what was often a love-hate relationship during his time in the Big Apple, Strawberry will have his No. 18 retired by the Mets on June 1.

At the conclusion of his 1991 season with the Dodgers, Strawberry -- 30 years old and nine seasons into his big league career -- had 280 roundtrippers, an .875 OPS and a 144 OPS+ while averaging 36 homers, 108 RBIs and 26 stolen bases a season.

Cooperstown seemed a safe bet ... until it wasn't.

The backside of Strawberry's journey through the Majors -- and life -- has been well-documented and dissected. Alcohol, drugs, tax evasion, jail and cancer eventually extinguished his career. But the journey began like any other prospect.

As a Minor Leaguer.

'I was just Darryl'

Proving even the most talented of players face challenges, Strawberry's introduction to professional baseball didn't portend his rocky future, but it wasn't easy. His selection as the first overall pick came as no surprise to those who knew about the 6-foot-6 specimen with the sweet left-handed swing, himself included.

"I was excited when I was drafted and signed with the Mets," said Strawberry, now 61. "I used to see scouts at our [high school] games all the time, but I never felt like I was a big fish in a small pond. I was just Darryl. I owe a lot of that modesty to my [late] mother [Ruby Strawberry]. I never thought I was anything special during those years."

Nor did Strawberry feel his stature as a No. 1 pick merited extra pressure as he debuted with Rookie-level Kingsport in Tennessee in the summer of 1980. It was a world away from his upbringing in Los Angeles, but it was an ideal spot to begin his Minor League tenure.

"It was definitely a culture shock ... no doubt about that," Strawberry said. "There were probably more Black players on our team than in the stands. Coming from what was basically an all-Black high school, it was a different experience."

Strawberry's tenure in Kingsport mirrored that of many teenagers playing away from home from the first time. Daily calls to Mom with a lot of crying and I-want-to-come-home conversations. But he adjusted and remembers his time with the K-Mets fondly.

"The fans were really nice, and it's something I was and still am grateful for as I look back on it," Strawberry said. "[Manager] Chuck Hiller made it really easy for me. I felt like I was just one of the guys and that was really important. I was able to relax and just play my game."

'I didn't really sign up for this'

Things took a turn for Strawberry the next year in Single-A Lynchburg. Only 19 and beginning his first full season as a pro with huge expectations didn't bother him. But other aspects of his new home were challenging for a West Coast big-city Black kid playing in the South.

"It was a different time," Strawberry recalled. "Even at that point, I mean, we're not talking about the 1930s or 1940s, but there was a lot of racial things tossed my way. There were always guys in the stands in our own ballpark who wanted to just rag on me."

At times, it got so bad he almost quit altogether. The insults and racism got to Strawberry, but a manager and a teammate helped him stay on an even keel.

"I almost left that year, I really did," he said. "I remember thinking, 'I didn't really sign up for this.' It was scary. I played ball in California and nobody ever said those types of things. I wanted to play baseball, not deal with this. Had it not been for [Lynchburg skipper] Gene [Dusan], I think I would have either quit or done something really stupid.

"Gene would come up to me in the dugout and say straight up, 'Don't ever look up [into the crowd]. Don't listen to that foolishness because that isn't who you are or what you're about.' I think he knew if I lost it, there could be a big problem."

Former big leaguer and manager Lloyd McClendon also got his teammate through some dark times that year. Like Strawberry, McClendon was in his second pro season, but with one big difference. McClendon played college ball and was more than three years older.

"You knew he was a special talent, but he was so young and a bit rough around the edges," McClendon said of Strawberry. "We bonded quickly and became good friends. Lynchburg wasn't Los Angeles and it wasn't [McClendon's hometown] Gary, Ind. The culture was different and we had a tough time fitting in. Thank God we had each other."

McClendon was mature enough to understand the challenges Strawberry was facing.

"I think the pressure was a combination of things," he said. "A young Black kid, the No. 1 pick and the money that came along with that. There were expectations from fans and other players alike that just wasn't fair for someone that age."

Strawberry and McClendon were teammates for just one season. After batting .255/.381/.429 with 13 homers, 78 RBIs and an .809 OPS in 123 games for Lynchburg, Straw moved up to Double-A Jackson (with manager Dusan) in 1982. The two players, however, remained close throughout their careers.

"He made mistakes just like the rest of us, but he was willing to listen," McClendon said. "I think he respected my opinion and I would tell him like it was. We had a great relationship."

'1982 is when I became a ballplayer'

The comfort level Strawberry found upon arriving in the Texas League in 1982 helped land him in the Majors for good a year later. Just 20 years old, Strawberry tore through the circuit and was named Texas League MVP after batting .283/.419/.602 with 34 homers, 97 RBIs and 45 stolen bases.

The transformation from Darryl Strawberry, the prospect, to Straw, the superstar, was nearing completion.

"I grew up a lot in 1982," he said. "Gene was the turning point for me. He kept my heart in the right place and allowed me to grow and just play. It was a really wonderful time. ... I was like his son. He took me everywhere with his family. He didn't have to do that. He was a white manager and I was a Black player. He saw me as a son and I'm so grateful for that. 1982 is when I became a ballplayer."

Strawberry began the next season at Triple-A, but was only with Tidewater for 16 games. New York's newest star had arrived less than three years after his high school graduation.

"I took some lumps," he said of the Minor League experience. "It was important for me to struggle in Lynchburg. I came back the next year and it all clicked, but I had plenty of help. I don’t care how much talent you have, if a young player doesn't have the right coaching, it's going to be very tough."

Success is rarely linear. It wasn't for Strawberry, even during the best of times, but the Minors paved the way to an on-field career any player would be proud of, even if it didn't live up to what might have been unreal expectations.

"I really enjoyed my time as a Minor Leaguer," Strawberry said. "Riding the bus, especially those long rides in the Texas League where you're on the road for 14 hours. I enjoyed that experience. I played with a lot of good players and made a lot of friends. I felt like I was just one of the guys."

Michael Avallone is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @MavalloneMiLB.