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K-Mets' first season brought along the Strawberry spotlight

Tanner Cook • May 8, 2020 at 10:00 AM

KINGSPORT — The first year that Kingsport’s Appalachian League baseball team became affiliated with the New York Mets — after six seasons as an Atlanta Braves affiliate — the K-Mets were gifted with one of the game’s brightest stars. 

Darryl Strawberry was the first overall pick in the 1980 MLB Amateur Draft as an 18-year-old out of Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles. 

His one and only season in Kingsport would prove to be a stepping stone for the 1983 National League Rookie of the Year, who was subsequently selected to eight straight MLB All-Star Games. 

Strawberry would also go on to become a two-time Silver Slugger Award winner and a four-time World Series champ with both the Mets (1986) and Yankees (1996, 1998 and 1999). 

HIGH PRAISE FOR THE YOUNGSTER

Strawberry was one of three brothers and he lived in a divided family. Perhaps that made young Darryl and brothers Ronnie and Michael reach a little bit more when it came to achieving their dreams.

Michael was taken later in the same draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers, but Ronnie was a junior college player who never hit the big-time. 

Darryl was a highly touted prospect coming out of high school, often drawing comparisons to superstars of the day like Dave Parker and ones of the past like Ted Williams. 

The lean 6-5, 180-pound left-handed outfielder received the most money ever given to a Mets prospect at the time — more than $175,000. 

“It’s always been a dream for me and my brothers to play in the major leagues,” Darryl said in a 1980 interview with then-Times News reporter Ken Datzman. “We used to talk about it all the time. We would dream about it all year.”

The young Strawberry handled the local and Los Angeles media like a pro and with a lot of caution. 

“It’s been quite an experience,” he said. “I’ve dealt with the press in Los Angeles, writers and cameras.”

ROLLING OUT THE RED CARPET

In a July 17 game inside J. Fred Johnson Stadium, Strawberry got quite a welcome from the Model City crowd. 

Eastman Chemical Company had bought out the stadium for the game against the Elizabethton Twins and 11,168 people showed up to watch. 

Everyone got in for free, door prizes were given away, and there was a postgame fireworks show. The massive crowd shattered the Appy League record.

Even more impressive is that the one-night crowd outdrew the entire 1969 Kingsport Royals season when baseball returned to the city after a seven-year absence. 

The Mets ousted the Twins 9-8 in 10 innings after overcoming an early 4-0 deficit. 

Strawberry came to the plate in the bottom of the 10th with a man on second and one out. The crowd — according to Bill Lane’s game story — chanted “Strawberry, Strawberry, Strawberry” as he strolled into the batter’s box. However, Elizabethton pitcher Harry Jackson intentionally walked the top draft choice. 

Two batters later with the bases loaded, John Heller singled past the third baseman to score Leo Fuller and the game-winning run. 

STRUGGLE OF SORTS

Strawberry did not do so well in his first few games with the K-Mets, batting just .180 and hitting only three home runs. 

However, he turned it on in the last three weeks of the season and capped off his Appalachian League campaign with a towering 400-foot-plus home run to straightaway center to give Kingsport a 2-1 win over Johnson City. From Aug. 13-28, he batted .380 and belted all five of his season’s homers. 

The K-Mets finished the season 35-35, but Strawberry ended his season averaging .268 with 42 hits, 27 runs scored, five home runs, 20 RBIs and a .350 on-base percentage. 

“Naturally, I wasn’t pleased when my average was under .200,” he said. “But it didn’t bother me because I’ve always been a slow starter in everything I do.

“That last game really meant a lot to me. I’m a lefty and I hit a home run off of a left-handed pitcher over 400 feet. To be an every day player, you have to be able to handle all kinds of pitching and that’s why I was so happy.” 

After the Appy League season came to a close, he went to the Mets Instructional League in Florida. 

NEAR DECADE OF DOMINANCE

During his first 10 years in the majors, Strawberry proved to be one of the league’s top outfielders at the plate.

In 1987, he finished sixth in the MVP voting, but followed it up the next year with runner-up honors. 

His ’88 season included career bests in home runs (39), slugging percentage (.545), OPS (.911) and 165 OPS+. 

Overall, Strawberry was a career .259 hitter, belting 335 home runs, batting in 1,000 runs and recording a career on-base percentage of .359. His career WAR is 42.2.

Yes, he had quite a few off-the-field issues both during his playing days and after, but he was voted to the New York Mets Hall of Fame in 2010. 

He has written two books going into detail about his life, addictions and road to recovery. The most recent one, “Don’t Give Up On Me,” was published in 2017. 

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