Free agent outfielder Darryl Strawberry terminated his stormy career-long relationship with the New York Mets last night by signing a five-year, $20.25 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Strawberry, who made $1.8 million last season, had been seeking a contract similar to Jose Canseco's five-year, $23.5 million deal with the Oakland Athletics. He rejected a three-year, $9.2 million offer from the Mets in July and said that what the Mets termed their "best offer" was a four-year, $15 million deal he spurned several days ago.

"They never made any offer like they were interested in me," Strawberry said. "It was a choice the Mets had to make and it shows me it wasn't in their interest. I can't understand it. They just let me walk away."

Pitcher Dwight Gooden, one of Strawberry's best friends on the Mets, agreed.

"The Mets should have taken care of it much sooner, and that's what surprises me," said Gooden, whose contract expires after next season. "If there's blame, it's got to be them. I'm surprised and shocked. It's going to be strange walking into the clubhouse and he's not there."

Strawberry, whose new contract will make him baseball's second-highest-paid player, will receive a $1.5 million signing bonus and salaries of $3.5 million in 1991, $3.75 million in '92, $3.5 million in '93, $3 million in '94 and $5 million in '95.

His decision was not a surprise. He grew up in Los Angeles and reportedly had informed the Dodgers during the negotiations that he would be willing to move to center field from right field, the position he played almost exclusively with the Mets.

Strawberry signed with the Dodgers more quickly than some expected, but still carts away a vault of money. But some wonder if he's worth it.

Mets General Manager Frank Cashen said: "I don't say that you can replace that kind of talent overnight, but I think that we have enough resources to win without Darryl, and I think we have a chance to even be a better team and organization within a couple of years than if we were with him."

Dodgers General Manager Fred Claire said: "This contract is a major one for the Dodgers, but Darryl is deserving. I really feel Darryl's best years are in front of him."

There are those who consider Strawberry a career underachiever and those who wonder about the effect he has on teammates. He also has been treated for alcoholism. Escaping New York's media scrutiny may be a relief, but doubters say a return to his home town may be as much of a toxic as it is a tonic.

In his eight-year career, he has averaged .265 and a little more than 30 homers and 90 RBI a season, never having fewer than 26 homers or 74 RBI. Last season: .277 with 37 homers and a Mets-record 108 RBI.

With Strawberry in center, the Dodgers could leave Kal Daniels in left and Hubie Brooks in right. Just signing Strawberry reduces the Dodgers' need to re-sign free agent outfielder Kirk Gibson.

"I'll do whatever it takes for this team to win," Strawberry said. "I don't want to be labeled as a person with an attitude. I've gotten a bad rap. I'm not that bad of a person."

Joe McIlvaine, the Mets' vice president for baseball operations until Oct. 1 when he became the San Diego Padres' general manager, articulated the Strawberry conundrum.

Asked whether he thought Strawberry never had any intention of signing with the Mets, McIlvaine said: "He's been a little enigmatic up to this point in his career. Things changed from day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year."

Cashen, in an interview with New York radio station WCBS-AM, said: "At the time that we signed him, and after watching him for a year, he had more potential than any ballplayer I ever saw. I don't think that he's ever reached his potential."

"He's established himself as one of the best players in the game," McIlvaine said. "If that's not living up to your potential. . . . I mean, it depends on your definition of potential, how much he's capable of doing.

"He's only 28 years old. The best years of his career are in front of him. And he's always had a tough row to hoe, right from high school when he was the number one pick in the whole draft. He's always been under the microscope, and it's double in New York. I want to see what happens in Los Angeles, where he'll have a little less media attention. He's got a new life right now."

..............TOP SALARIES..............

Player, Club.................Avg. salary

Jose Canseco, Athletics.......$4,700,000

Darryl Strawberry, Dodgers....$4,050,000

Don Mattingly, Yankees........$3,860,000

Will Clark, Giants............$3,750,000

Kevin Mitchell, Giants........$3,750,000

Dave Stewart, Athletics.......$3,500,000

Andre Dawson, Cubs............$3,300,000

Nolan Ryan, Rangers...........$3,300,000

Mark Davis, Royals............$3,250,000

Mark Langston, Angels.........$3,200,000

SOURCE: Associated Press. Figures obtained from player and management sources and include all guaranteed income, but not income from potential incentive bonuses.