When a ballplayer is barely 22 years old, hits for power, and is coming off a season in which he was voted National League Rookie of the Year, it's easy to speculate about him being baseball's next Ted Williams. Besides, that kind of publicity might sell a few more newspapers in New York City, where Darryl Strawberry plays right field for the Mets.
Actually, the 6 ft., 6 in., 190-lb. Strawberry does have a willowy-type physique much like that of the famed Splendid Splinter in his younger days. One can see similarities, too, in his king-size hands and in his knack for waiting on a pitch before transporting it into the middle of next week. Of course Darryl has a lot of years to go before anyone could even think of making more than these surface comparisons, but meanwhile he can be enjoyed in his own right as one of today's most exciting young hitters.
''When we recalled Strawberry from our Tidewater farm club last year on May 6 , we knew we were rushing him,'' explained Mets' General Manager Frank Cashen. ''But at the same time we also felt he had the ability and the temperament to handle big league pitching. We had a coach then named Jim Frey (he's now the manager of the Chicago Cubs), who took Darryl under his wing and made things easier for him.
''But the pressure was still there, the way it would be for any kid with only three years of minor league experience,'' Cashen added. ''That was something Strawberry had to adjust to himself. But if it bothered him, it never showed. Anyway, by the end of the season fans all over the league were coming out to see him hit home runs (26 in 122 games), and he wasn't disappointing them.''
Strawberry, who is left-handed all around, does strike out a bit too frequently, but Mets' hitting coach Bill Robinson thinks this tendency will decrease as Darryl gains experience. And even now he hits the ball hard with a fair degree of regularity - getting good wood on the ball and driving it somewhere on an average of twice a game.
''I've got this dialogue going with Darryl in which I'm telling him to watch his strikeouts at the same time I'm also telling him to be more aggressive at the plate,'' Robinson said. ''He's a smart kid, so he knows the difference. But with the kind of physical tools he's got and the quick bat, I don't want him taking any reasonably good pitches for called third strikes when there is a chance that he can drive in a run for us.
''Like a lot of good kid hitters, he has a tendency sometimes to take it easy the day after he's had a big game at the plate,'' Bill continued. ''But that's why I'm here, to help him maintain his concentration and also to remind him on days when he does go 0-for-5 that the best hitters he's ever heard about have all had games like that. The important thing is how you handle it - what you do to get back on track the next day.''
Strawberry, who carries himself ramrod straight, resembles nothing so much as a lean strip of rawhide. While the shoulders don't necessarily suggest tape-measure home runs yet, the size and quickness of his wrists tell another story. If Darryl had remained strictly a pull hitter (which he was for awhile), he'd still be some player. But the way he has learned to hit to all fields without sacrificing any power makes him All-Star material.
Asked why his offense sputtered so badly his first month with New York in 1983, Strawberry replied: ''When the Mets called me up, I figured they had made their decision on the basis that they needed someone who could hit the long ball.
''So I tried to give it to them, only the pitchers were so much smarter than I was that it took me a month to admit to myself what was happening. Other people had told me what was going on, only I didn't believe them. Instead of taking things slowly until I'd learned the pitchers, I ruined my timing by trying to do too much.
''Eventually I stopped trying to pull every pitch and began using the entire field. What was crazy is that I'd never tried to be a pull hitter in the minors, so why would I do that up here? I guess I still don't know why, but I do know that once I stopped, I became a hitter again.
''When pitchers would fool me before, I used to think they were lucky, and continued to make the same mistakes against them. But now I'm capable of adjusting on every pitch if I have to, and, while I've never set goals for myself, I know I'm going to have a good year.''
Elsewhere in the majors
St. Louis Manager Whitey Herzog, asked recently to evaluate the National League's best pitchers, put Cincinnati's Mario Soto at the top of the list.
''Get him a couple of runs early and he'll make them stand up for you,'' Herzog said.''Mario is very consistent about staying ahead of the hitters and if he needs a strikeout in a clutch situation, he can usually get it.''
Soto certainly confirmed Whitey's estimation in his next outing against the Cardinals, not only defeating them 2-1 but coming within one strike of a no-hitter before George Hendrick broke it up with a solo homer on a 2-2 count with two outs in the ninth inning.
Overall, Mario is off to the best start of his career this spring. He ranks among the league leaders with a 6-1 record and is tied with Nolan Ryan for strikeout honors at 65.
* The Pittsburgh Pirates, who allowed outfielder Dave Parker to become a free agent and sign with the Cincinnati Reds, can't be too happy that they still owe Parker $5.6 million in deferred salary. Dave will be collecting from the Pirates through the year 2008.
* The Oakland A's have abandoned their extensive computer program of a year ago that included the rundown of A's hitters against every rival pitcher in the American League. ''The idea was and still is great, but now we're putting the information on file cards which I usually keep myself,'' Manager Steve Boros told me. ''People don't believe me when I tell them this, but cutting out computers will save our ball club more than $100,000 this year.''
* Shortstop Bill Russell, a 15-year veteran with the Los Angeles Dodgers, didn't balk at all this year when Manager Tommy Lasorda began using him occasionally in center field. Although Russell last played there in 1971, he showed he had not forgotten any of the fundamentals. Asked if he minded the switch, Russell replied: ''Not a bit. If playing two or three different positions occasionally can keep me with the Dodgers another three or four years, I'm happy to do it.''
* Ace reliever Rollie Fingers of the Milwaukee Brewers, after an absence from baseball of more than a year with arm problems, already has seven saves this season. Often talked about as the best fireman in the history of baseball, Fingers says his best pitch is now a forkball, which he developed while he was in limbo. Rollie has 308 lifetime saves, nearly 100 more than Bruce Sutter of the St. Louis Cardinals, his closest pursuer.
* Third baseman George Brett of Kansas City recently signed his second lifetime contract with the Royals - if such a thing is possible. Brett, whose . 326 average for the past five years is the best in baseball, reportedly is locked into a package deal worth about $900,000 a year.