What I remember most about Darryl Strawberry’s one summer in Jackson was the explosive sound of his bat launching the baseball. It was shocking, really, no matter how many times you heard it. And we heard it often in 1982.
When “Straw” got hold of one, it sounded more like a rifle shot than a home run. His home runs left Smith-Wills Stadium so quickly and often went so high and far into those pine trees behind the right field wall. Remember? We called that area behind the right field fence “The Strawberry Patch.”
In all my years of covering Class AA baseball teams in Jackson, there have been two players I would go to the ballpark to watch take batting practice, even when I wasn’t working. Jason Heyward was the other. I told Heyward one time that his home runs were the loudest I had heard since Strawberry’s. I meant that as the ultimate compliment.
This comes up now because of Strawberry’s visit to Biloxi this past week to speak at the splendid “Our Love Affair With Baseball” exhibit at the Ohr-O’Keefe Art Museum. Strawberry told Biloxi reporters that his 1982 season with the Jackson Mets was what made him a baseball player.
Strawberry was a shy, slender 20-year-old at the time, a nice kid. I thought back then he might set all kinds of Major League records for power hitting.
With the JaxMets, Strawberry hit .283 with 34 homers and 97 RBIs. But those numbers, without perspective, do not tell the story. Smith-Wills is a ridiculously hard ballpark in which to hit home runs. The power alleys are vast, the air usually thick. Can’t tell you how many times what looked like a sure home run turned into F-9 or F-8.
The fact is, nobody in Jackson Mets or Jackson Generals franchise histories ever came even close to Strawberry’s 34 home runs in a single season.
Strawberry had hit only .255 with 13 home runs the year before in Class A ball. He had hit only five homers in Rookie League ball the year before that.
As Strawberry told Patrick Ochs of the Sun-Herald, “I can truly say that if it wasn’t for Jackson and what I did in the Texas League that year, I probably would have quit baseball.”
Strawberry had been the first pick of the 1980 Major League Baseball draft after a storybook high school career at of Crenshaw in Los Angeles. Those first two seasons in A-ball were a shock to his system. In Jackson, under manager Gene Dusan, Strawberry’s talents were on full display. Not only could he hit, but he could run like a sprinter and was an excellent outfielder.
Nothing happened that summer to predict the future problems Strawberry would have with drugs and alcohol. Heck, Strawberry couldn’t even legally buy a beer at that point.
No telling how great Strawberry could have been. As it is, Strawberry was a career .259 hitter with 335 home runs over 17 seasons, eight with the New York Mets, three with the Los Angeles Dodgers, one with the San Francisco Giants and five with the New York Yankees. He made millions, squandered millions.
As Strawberry once put it, “When I look in the mirror, I look at the enemy. There is nobody to blame for this but myself. I should have bought myself a mirror a long time ago.”
Those 17 years in the Major Leagues weren’t the focus of Strawberry’s speech at Ohr-O’Keefe. No, Strawberry, an ordained minister, talked about the 13 years he has been sober.
Barry Lyons, Strawberry’s former Mets’ teammate and guest curator of the Biloxi baseball exhibit, calls Strawberry’s comeback in life “just amazing.”
Good for Strawberry. He did not have the Hall of Fame career some of us expected. But these days, he doesn’t mind looking at himself in the mirror.
Rick Cleveland is a syndicated columnist and historian at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. His email address is email@example.com.