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Monday, April 19, 2010
From old to new: Davis stirs Straw

By Ian O'Connor
ESPNNewYork.com

The Mets have called up a kid with a left-handed swing to die for, a kid representing hope in the present and future tenses, and so the conversation naturally veers toward May 6, 1983, opening night for a slugger who had them talking before Ike Davis was born.

Darryl Strawberry, 21 years old, stepped into the Shea Stadium box. At the time, the Mets were a 6-15 team lucky to draw 11,000 fans for games Tom Seaver didn't pitch.

"It was so nerve-racking," Strawberry said Monday by phone. "Mario Soto on the mound for the Reds, one of the top pitchers in the game. Fans cheering. The stage so much bigger and more electrifying than playing in a minor league ballpark. You've got everything going, TV cameras, the whole thing."

Strawberry was recalling the moment as a favor to the 23-year-old Davis, as a way of reaching across the generations of failed and fulfilled Mets prospects and offering a helping blue-chip hand.

"Soto struck me out three times with that changeup of his," Strawberry said, "and I told myself, 'He's never going to get me out again.'"

Darryl Strawberry
Former Mets phenom Darryl Strawberry knows the weight of high expectations.

For his career against Soto, Strawberry would bat .333 and hit five of his 335 home runs.

"Ike Davis will have his struggles, because that's baseball," Strawberry said. "But the guys who are flashes in that first year and then fade out are the guys who don't make adjustments, the guys who don't remember how a pitcher got you out and then don't learn from it the next time around."

So now that the Mets are ready to play 10 consecutive home games that could shape their season and potentially doom their manager, this is the question of the Citi Field day:

What will Ike Davis learn, and how quickly will he learn it?

Monday night, Davis advanced his education with two hits and an RBI in the Mets' 6-1 victory over the Cubs, earning the pie-in-the-face treatment from Jeff Francoeur. This small-ball debut is expected to be the start of bigger things and longer drives.

"I think he's capable of hitting 25 to 30 home runs a year," Strawberry said. "It's going to take time to get there, but if Ike learns about the pitchers he's facing he's capable of driving in 100 runs a year."

Strawberry talked to Davis during spring training, and kept the advice simple and sweet: Show up early. Stay focused. Have fun.

The retired lefty slugger was asked whether the rookie lefty slugger had the potential to be as good as, you know, Darryl Strawberry, the one who stood among the game's most feared power hitters before drowning his talent in a cocktail of booze and drugs.

"Yes, absolutely," Strawberry said. "Ike's a good kid with enough talent to excel at the big league level for a long time.

"I like the pop in his bat, and he's got a chance to be a tremendous home run hitter if he disciplines himself day in and day out. … I was probably more advanced than he was at this stage because I had more experience than he does, but he's got a great upside. Ike's success won't be determined by me or anyone else; it all depends on how far Ike wants to go and how good he wants to be."

Of course, Strawberry joined the Mets at an even darker time in their history than the one confronting Davis. The team had started what would be its seventh straight losing season, and all seven of those would've been seasons of 94 or more losses had the 1981 strike not stripped 59 games off the board.

As for Davis? The Mets are coming off four winning seasons in their last five, including a trip to Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS.

But they did choke in a Heimlich-proof way in 2007 and 2008, and they did completely fall apart physically and emotionally in 2009.

"I still think Ike's going into a pretty good situation," Strawberry said, "where there are veteran guys in the clubhouse who can be the main focus. What Ike gives the offense will be a big plus, but he doesn't have to pressure himself to be the main guy.

"The expectations for me were through the roof, and that was very difficult for me to deal with. I think Ike will have an easier time fitting in."

Strawberry's early numbers don't paint the portrait of a struggling, overmatched kid. He was named Rookie of the Year in '83 after hitting 26 homers and driving in 74 runs, and he cleared the 25-homer mark in each of his first four seasons before taking his numbers to an otherworldly place.

All these years later, a survivor of addiction and cancer, Strawberry still vividly recalls the very promotion that just made Ike Davis' day. He was in Triple-A when his Tidewater manager, Davey Johnson, called him into the office.

"I'm giving you the night off," Johnson said.

"Why?" Strawberry asked. "I thought I was playing good."

"You are," Johnson answered. "So good you're going to the big leagues tomorrow."

Strawberry immediately called his mother and packed his bags. The following year, Doc Gooden would follow him to Shea, win his own Rookie of the Year award, and promise to join Strawberry on a dynastic tear through the National League.

Together, Strawberry and Gooden claimed only one championship with the Mets and are remembered more for what they didn't accomplish than for what they did. But when Strawberry rewinds his memory bank, he hears the good times at Shea.

He hears the cheers from the crowd on that first night as a Met, when Mario Soto struck him out three times.

"The fans were just happy the Mets finally brought up a good player," Strawberry said. "When I struck out they were like, 'Don't worry. This is just the beginning, and we know you're going to be good.'

"The fans love homegrown players, so it's important to develop guys like Jose Reyes and David Wright. As a Mets fan, I'm ecstatic when that happens. All you ask for is that your team gives you hope, and Ike Davis is a lot like me when I came up.

"He gives the Mets hope."

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.