Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Rick Cleveland: Jackson made Darryl Strawberry

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 rcleveland@msfame.com.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

I practically lived at Smith-Wills with my dad that summer. And yes, his swing was a thing of beauty. The 1980s was a great time to be a young boy in Jackson, MS who loved sports....with the Mets rollin' and SEC double-headers at Veterans Memorial Stadium in the fall. Rich!

Anonymous said...

Great story!

Anonymous said...

9:27 sounds like it could have been written by my son - although I know that could be said by a lot of Jackson "dads" of my age. SW was a fun place for an outing to watch good baseball 'just around the corner' from home. And Strawberry made it all the more exciting in the summer of 1982. Good column - again - by Rick.

-W said...

One of the earliest memories I can remember was when Will Clark was hurt and rehabilitating in the minors. He played at Smith Wills and I got his autograph when he was trying to sneak out the door. I had really great memories at smith wills eating ice cream from a Jackson Mets Helmet. Baseball camps in right field. Waiting for my number to be called out of my program so I could win a TV. Nolan Ryan stopping by to see if buying our team was a possibility. Jackson Generals. Jackson Senators. Hearing "Knock eem' out John" blaring from the speakers or CHARGE!

Anonymous said...

Actually you could buy beer at age 18 until 86'.

Anonymous said...

I remember watching the '86 NY Mets come to play Jackson Mets in an exhibition game right before opening day in 1986. Darryl was taking batting practice and hit a ball so hard that it knocked off a big pine tree limb above the right field fence. Great memories....

Anonymous said...

I remember MSU playing the Mets every year in an exhibition game. Usually spanked them. Wooden bats vs aluminum = MSU.

Anonymous said...

At least it's not another piece about Coach Willie Joe Smathers who coached the Nitta Yuma High Jack-o-Lanterns to the 1928 state badminton championship.

Anonymous said...

Lived on Lakeland Drive in the 1989-1991 time frame. Spent many evenings at Smith-Wills. I can still remember the announcer calling out "Ruuddyyy Herrrnnnnaaanddeeezz" He always drug that name out!!!

Anonymous said...

3:55 : I really enjoy Rick's writings on players and teams of the past.

Anonymous said...

I still have some Jackson Mets plastic beer pitchers. Didn't Lenny Dykstra also spend time in Jackson, or is my memory fogged from drinking from those pitchers?

Anonymous said...

11:37 : I think that might have been Dave Kingman knocking a pine tree limb off a tree in left field. Remember it distinctly. Remember Strawberry trying Copenhagen for the first time while he was in Jackson shagging balls during BP... he ran from right field to the dugout fast as he could trying not to puke the whole way.

Anonymous said...

5:49, Nails did play here. Got married before a game in the outfield.

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Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).


Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.


In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.


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Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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