Strawberry, Back Home, Needs to Relax

AS a kid growing up in Los Angeles, Darryl Strawberry dreamed of hitting a home run in Dodger Stadium - and did, in a high school championship game. His ultimate goal, though, was to play for his beloved Dodgers. Now, in his ninth major-league season, that dream has become a reality.

"I'm really excited about it," the 29-year-old slugger said in a Monitor interview before a recent game here. "It's great to be home."

During his last few years with the New York Mets, Strawberry often made noises about how nice it would be to play in Los Angeles. He was so enamored of the prospect that he antagonized some people by musing on the idea while the Mets and Dodgers were battling in the playoffs in 1988. It was a foregone conclusion when he became a free agent at the end of the 1990 season that the Mets would have to pay dearly to keep their right-fielder. When the Dodgers made him a five-year, $20-million offer, he was gon e


"It was always a special feeling to me to play in this ballpark when I was with the Mets," he says. "Now having it as my home park is a dream come true."

Strawberry's infatuation with Dodger Stadium, his desire to play half his games here each year, and the team's willingness to part with so much money to get him all fly in the face of statistics that say it has never been a good park for him. Indeed, his lifetime statistics here in his eight years as a New York Met show only a .225 batting average with six home runs and 20 RBIs - far below his usual numbers.

Furthermore, his first few weeks in a Los Angeles uniform haven't done much to dispel the doubts. So far this season, his batting statistics at home haven't been that impressive.

"I just have to get comfortable and relaxed," he says. "It takes time to make adjustments. But I know what baseball is about; I know what I have to do."

Strawberry is already comfortable off the field in this city where he grew up starring in both basketball and baseball at Crenshaw High School.

Local residents still recall the power he displayed even as a teenager, blasting nine home runs in his last two high school seasons, the big one coming in the city championship game at Dodger Stadium, where Strawberry's drive over the center field wall helped his team win the title.

"No question - that was one of my greatest thrills," he recalls.

Signed by the Mets out of high school, Strawberry moved up through their minor league system, reaching the majors in 1983 - and starting off with a bang by winning Rookie of the Year honors. In his eight years in New York he averaged 32 home runs and 91 RBIs a season, and his 171 homers over the last five years are easily the most for any player.

STRAWBERRY'S slugging helped the Mets to the world championship in 1986, ("the ultimate dream," he says).

But despite his talents and those of a great supporting cast, despite winning so many games year in and year out, the Mets only made it to the World Series that one time in his eight years there - losing to the Dodgers in the 1988 playoffs, and missing out in close division races on several other occasions.

"It was a big disappointment to me that we didn't do better," he says. "We had such a great ballclub every year, but we just couldn't overcome the pressure ... dealing with the media in New York, having that type of focus on us. We couldn't really make those adjustments and be the club we were capable of being."

During those New York days, Strawberry concedes, it sometimes seemed that no matter what he did, it was never enough for the fans or the media.

"A lot of things didn't really get recognized," he says. "If we didn't win, I hadn't done enough. But one guy doesn't win a pennant. I'm glad that pressure's off me, and I can go out and have fun."

Now it's a new team in a new city, where the focus and the pressure aren't so all-encompassing. And despite his own struggles at the plate both at home and away (where so far he's hitting for an even lower average, though with more power), the Dodgers are right up there in the National League West race - which he says is his main goal anyway.

"That's the reason for playing," he says. "Anybody who doesn't have that in his mind doesn't belong out here."

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