24 Jul

summer of straw

In the summer of 1982, Cal Ripken started his consecutive games streak and Gaylord Perry won his 300th game. Dale Murphy and Robin Yount were putting up MVP numbers for postseason-bound teams in the big leagues. Forty years ago, Oil Can Boyd was blowing away hitters in the Eastern League, Buck Showalter was cranking out hits in the Southern League and Brian Snitker was managing his first team in Anderson, S.C. In Jackson, Miss., at Smith-Wills Stadium, 1982 was the Summer of Straw. Darryl Strawberry made his Double-A debut with the Jackson Mets that season. He was 20 years old, a California kid starting just his third pro season in the New York Mets’ system. No one really knew what his future held — but a lot of folks thought it would be special. “There was a tremendous amount of hype when he arrived,” said Bill Walberg, longtime radio broadcaster for Jackson’s Double-A teams. “He was the No. 1 overall pick (in the 1980 MLB draft). The unusual name was another thing that attracted attention. Plus, he was tall (6 feet 6), he hit with power, he could run and he was a plus-defender in the outfield. … Clearly, he was as hyped as any player who ever came into Jackson in the Texas League era.” Strawberry’s numbers at Class A Lynchburg in 1981 weren’t jaw-dropping: .255, 13 homers, 78 RBIs, 31 steals. And he was joined in the 1982 JaxMets outfield by two other former first-round picks and well-regarded prospects, Billy Beane and Terry Blocker. But Strawberry, presaging his impact in New York a few years later, immediately became the straw that stirred the drink. He hit for the cycle in his first Double-A game. Jackson’s home field, Smith-Wills, had a reputation as tough park for hitting home runs. It was no problem for Strawberry. “He hit these towering home runs,” Walberg said. “People might remember the old Marlboro Man sign out in right-center field. He came close many times to hitting the man in the head. Another player told me that Strawberry had heard the ball didn’t carry at Smith-Wills and he wanted to prove he could make it carry.” Strawberry finished that season with a franchise-record 34 homers that still stood when the team moved to Texas in 2000. He also set a record with 45 steals, batted .283, hit nine triples, drove in 97 runs and walked 100 times. He was named the league MVP. The next year, he won National League rookie of the year honors with the big Mets. At a recent reunion of JaxMets players in Jackson, Strawberry acknowledged that the summer of ’82 was when his pro career took off, when he really developed the confidence he could play in the majors. He would go on to be an eight-time All-Star, a three-time World Series champ, a seven-time Sports Illustrated cover boy. “I found him to be a likable, very mature person with immense potential as a player that he realized,” Walberg said. Strawberry had some highly publicized off-field problems during his career which he overcame through his religious faith, and he is now a widely sought-after motivational speaker. During that reunion at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, which featured a bunch of former JaxMets heroes, Strawberry was the main attraction among fans, signing autographs and posing for pictures. Forty years after the Summer of Straw.

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