CINCINNATI -- The new Darryl Strawberry, long promised by the enigmatic outfielder and even longer awaited by the New York Mets, finally seems to have arrived. The permanence of this striking metamorphosis from pouty, vindictive trouble-finder to mature, determined professional is questioned, but for now Strawberry's teammates and bosses are content to revel in its majesty and be swept along by its power.
The new Strawberry doesn't rip his teammates in the newspapers or berate them to their faces. He wouldn't even consider punching one in the face on team photo day. The new Strawberry is a positive force in a clubhouse that suddenly has become cohesive and boisterous.
The new Strawberry spends the better part of his day on road trips sleeping and watching movies at his hotel with room service meals at bedside. He arrives at the ballpark four or five hours before game time and goes about his business in an orderly manner.
The strongest drink that touches his lips with any regularity is the coffee he now consumes with a passion. Cigarettes have replaced alcohol as his vice of choice -- still an unhealthy habit, he concedes, but a step in the right direction nevertheless, since both used to accompany him at bars late into the night.
"I've committed myself to being the best baseball player and the best person I can be," Strawberry said in the visitor's clubhouse at Riverfront Stadium, where the Mets and Cincinnati Reds gathered over the weekend for a series with playoff-like intensity. "For me, the two go hand in hand. . . . I was scared of the direction things were headed."
Finally, the new Strawberry hits like never before. Oh, does he hit. With a vengeance. With relentlessness and a flair for the dramatic. In a stretch ending Friday, he had six home runs and 12 RBI over nine games, 19 homers and 45 RBI over 43 games, and had hit safely in 31 of 36 games.
In June, as the Mets began a torrid run that saw them win 28 of 36 games through yesterday's loss to the Reds and climb back into contention in the National League East, Strawberry hit .376 with 10 homers and 27 RBI. On June 8 he began an 18-game hitting streak -- second-best in the NL this year -- with two home runs against first-place Pittsburgh.
He hasn't looked back. He is hitting .302, with 23 homers and 58 RBI. He is among the league's top 10 in home runs, RBI, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, walks and total bases. "I feel like I'm going to hit one out every night," he said. "I go out there and I don't think anyone can get me out."
Said Mets first baseman Dave Magadan after Strawberry smashed a Tom Browning pitch off the wall so sharply Friday he was held to a single: "It's downright scary. As hard as he's hitting the ball, I think I'd wear a batting helmet if I were playing right field against him."
The new Strawberry also is about to become quite a bit richer, perhaps the wealthiest player in baseball. He is in the option year of a six-year contract that pays him $1.8 million this season, and he and the Mets have conducted on-again, off-again negotiations that could lead to an agreement that approaches or even surpasses Jose Canseco's five-year, $23 million deal with the Oakland Athletics.
Strawberry has not committed to remaining in New York -- and contracts talks were suspended Friday until the fall -- but he has recanted his previous contention that he certainly will leave the club via free agency after the season. He has said he deserves at least $4 million a season over four years or more, and given his recent, frightening binge, some among the Mets' leadership privately agree. The Talent
What scares everyone associated with the team about the new Strawberry is that the transformation into a steady, even-mannered cornerstone for success has been promised many times before. His skills are so vast, so awe-inspiring, that he never has been able to shake the tag of an underachiever failing to reach almost limitless potential.
He was the No. 1 pick in the 1980 amateur draft out of Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, and by the time he reached the Mets three years later the expectations had soared immeasurably.
"Of all the players I've ever seen come into baseball, Darryl Strawberry had the most potential," New York General Manager Frank Cashen said. "They talk about the five points -- run, field, throw, hit for average, hit with power -- and he could do them all. . . . It's a heavy burden to carry. It took us awhile to realize we had to stop worrying about his potential and deal with him as the player he is."
The burden of expectations is one Strawberry did not often carry gracefully. He hit 215 home runs in his first seven seasons; at 28, he entered this year with just four homers fewer than Joe DiMaggio managed by the same age. He was a rookie of the year, a six-time all-star and the league's most feared hitter.
But he also was the most feared man in his clubhouse. His concentration lapsed during games -- particularly in right field, which he sometimes patrolled indifferently while averaging six errors and numerous misplays a season -- and his degree of commitment to the ideals of a team was suspect.
He sulked after the Mets' miraculous win in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series because he had been removed during the contest. He proclaimed before the 1988 playoff series against Los Angeles that he'd like to play for the Dodgers one day.
Hustle often seemed foreign to Strawberry's carefree style. "Darryl got by on talent for a long time," said Mets Manager Bud Harrelson, a coach from 1985 until succeeding Davey Johnson May 29. "He thought he didn't need anything more -- and to be a very, very good player, he didn't. But to be a great player, which I think he is, he needed more than just raw ability."
Strawberry defends his career -- "I only had one bad year, last year; people wanted too much" -- but allows he could have done more. He had back-to-back 39-homer seasons in 1987-88, but followed with a .225 average (albeit with 29 home runs) last season.
His career average before this year was .260, and he never had topped .284 for a season. Combined with a slump early this year, Strawberry had totaled six homers in 237 at-bats by May, and Mets officials were beginning to hedge on their policy of not criticizing him publicly.
The pressures of playing in New York had gotten to him. Strawberry's private life made headlines, and the stories were not pleasant. The Controversy
Strawberry reportedly broke his wife Lisa's nose during a fight at home four years ago. He blasted teammates in an Esquire article, claimed he was misquoted, then admitted the story was accurate. He swung at first baseman Keith Hernandez after an argument ensued while posing for the team picture, and he called second baseman Wally Backman a "little redneck."
He was late for a spring training practice, explaining his alarm clock had failed; when he was fined, he walked out of camp in a rage. He was named in a successful paternity suit, though he denies fathering the child.
In January, Lisa Strawberry called Los Angeles police to the couple's Encino home and told them her husband had hit her and threatened her with a pistol. He was arrested, but she did not press charges.
In February, Strawberry checked into the Smithers Institute in New York for 28 days of treatment for alcoholism. He said he emerged a new man. At a news conference he called upon his release, Strawberry said: "I'm not a bad person. I'm a sick person getting well."
He talks openly about his struggles with alcohol, saying he's winning the battle but treatment taught him the fight never is finished. He believed before he went to Smithers he had nowhere to turn with his problems, he said.
It took Allan Lans, the psychiatrist who counsels the Mets, three days of consultations to convince Strawberry to seek treatment. His relationship with most of his teammates was distant and uneasy. Strawberry's father found out he was checking into Smithers from a television newscast.
"Straw doesn't really confide in a lot of people," said Reds outfielder Eric Davis, Strawberry's partner in a retail store in the neighborhood where they grew up together. "Being under the pressure he's been under in his career kind of hardens you.
"I think he felt like he was alone. He had to be this rock who took care of himself, who could never be weak. When people attacked him, he had to attack back. . . . All that happened to him made him realize all the money and fame is temporary. Baseball is temporary, so he'd better give it all he has while he still has the chance." Talent Sans Controversy
A kinder and gentler Strawberry appeared at spring training. A gold cross had been added to his chains and a tattoo that read "Lisa" to his left arm. His marriage was healing. He was among the first Mets to report to camp, and teammates immediately noticed a change.
"Darryl had always had this angry streak in him," third baseman Howard Johnson said. "You could tell right away it was gone. He's the difference in the change of mood in this team."
Said infielder Tim Teufel: "Straw had this way of being kind of mean when everyone was joking around. He'd kid you, but in a hurtful way. He took things a little too far. . . . Now he's more laid-back. He can take criticism without lashing out. And, really, there hasn't been much to criticize him about lately."
But Strawberry's season didn't begin as if it would be above reproach. He was hitting .247 with seven homers and 19 RBI through May, and the Mets were floundering in fourth place. Strawberry had threatened in the offseason to play out his option and leave town, and he repeated the intention when Davey Johnson was fired.
"I was frustrated," Strawberry said. "I tried to remember the promises I made to myself -- to let things go by, to be dedicated to the game -- but it was hard in the atmosphere around me."
Harrelson moved quickly to put out the club's internal fires, particularly Strawberry's. He massaged Strawberry's ego, even asking him to carry the lineup card to home plate before games. He built up rather than tore down.
"The feeling around here has a lot to do with it," Strawberry said. He resisted mechanical adjustments to his swing, and he caught fire without warning. The rest of the Mets followed suit, and New York had produced a .309 batting average in the 30 games before Browning shut them down Friday.
The Mets have dubbed themselves the team to beat in the NL East, and most opponents find it difficult to differ. "I wouldn't bet against them," Cincinnati pitcher Danny Jackson said. "The way they're hitting the ball, especially Strawberry, they'll be tough to beat."
And Strawberry may be tough to uproot. He said he never had a timetable in mind for his contract negotiations, and that it's just as well things have been put off until after the season. He contended Friday that the Mets might force him into free agency if they don't better their offer of a three-year deal, adding, "I could leave."
But a day earlier, he had given a lengthy monologue about how he is, "by far," the happiest he's ever been in New York. Perhaps the Mets are dangling the contract in front of him in an attempt to assure continued production, he suggested. "I want to stay," he said. Several teammates said, however, they fear the dispute will sour Strawberry's more pleasant disposition.
He still is capable of alternating brilliance with bungling in short order, as in last week's All-Star Game when he made the night's best and worst defensive plays within an inning. But Strawberry is more likely to shock people with the positive than the negative these days, and he's enjoying the feeling.
"I don't want to think about the money right now," he said. "I'm just glad to come to the ballpark again. . . . I'm more mature. I'm content. I've found my peace."