All-around star Darryl Strawberry emerges as team leader, too

He is the Straw that stirs the Mets. Darryl Strawberry is developing into the most feared power hitter in baseball, which is the main reason his New York team is holding on to first place in the National League East.

The season is approaching the two-thirds mark, making it a good time for taking stock of individual statistics. Straw, as his teammates call him, leads the league in home runs with 26 and is among the leaders in runs-batted-in and slugging percentage.

Like most sluggers, Darryl gets plenty of walks; unlike many of them, he knows what to do when he gets on base - as evidenced by his 20 steals so far. Over the past five years, in fact, he is the only man in the major leagues to average more than 25 homers and 25 stolen bases - a record he is already assured of extending this season.

His manager, Davey Johnson, talks about Strawberry's diverse value in basketball terms. ``Just give him the ball,'' he says.

Adds fellow outfielder Mookie Wilson, ``We look to Straw for the big hit now. He's cleanup hitter, and he's producing. When we're up with two out and a runner at second base, he wants the bat in his hands.''

Wilson and other Mets know it wasn't always so. Strawberry, burdened by unrealistically high early expectations, avoided the pressure of being the team leader until this year.

In 1980 as an 18-year-old phenomenon out of Los Angeles, Darryl was selected by the Mets as the No. 1 overall draft choice. New York's demanding fans expected instant greatness, but Strawberry managed it only in streaks.

``You can't force stardom on anybody,'' he says. ``I had to mature and gain confidence. You need experience until you get to a point everything clicks into place.''

There were times when Strawberry struck out on bad pitches. When he sulked. When he complained too loudly.

Today he gets along better with Darryl Strawberry.

``I'll make mistakes, but I'll keep my head up and my mouth shut,'' he says. ``I don't doubt myself any longer. I know my capabilities and will continue to use them.''

Physically, Strawberry is a striking athlete. At 6 ft., 6 in. and 200 pounds, the former basketball player is also a conspicuous one. His play is a rare mix and match of power and finesse; he hits with tremendous authority, and moves as gracefully and vigorously as a gamboling antelope.

Baseball people talk about the five things a player has to do to be truly great: run, throw, hit, hit with power, and field. The left-handed Strawberry excels at all five.

He covers his position in right field with exceptional range and ease, gliding under long fly balls and commanding the respect of opposing base runners with his howitzer arm. He cuts a fine figure working in front of the massive Shea Stadium scoreboard.

As for rising to the occasion in pressure situations, the record shows that for the past five years Strawberry's batting average is 50 points higher when men are on base. Those who have questioned his ability to hit in the clutch may not have been paying close enough attention.

Strawberry would almost surely be hitting even better this year if the players batting behind him in the lineup were more consistent. How do you pitch to Strawberry? The same way you pick up a porcupine: very, very carefully.

That's why he walks so frequently. He no longer waves weakly at low outside curve balls from left-handers who get ahead of him in the count.

In one recent game, partly fooled by a low, soft pitch, Darryl almost lazily lashed out with one hand and nearly drove the ball over the center field fence. His swing is long and smooth, like a successful golfer's, but it imparts tremendous power.

``For a long time I just played on natural ability,'' he says. ``Now I'm learning what I have to do against different kinds of pitching. I'm playing with ability and smartness. I'm figuring out who I am and what I can accomplish.''

If he plays as well the rest of the season as he has so far, he will be a leading candidate for Most Valuable Player.

And this Straw could stir the Mets right into the World Series.

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