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Mets' Strawberry blossoming as hitter; rookies on star ballot

You hear the name Darryl Strawberry and right away you figure it has to be invented, a piece of Hollywood hype that somehow found its way to New York, the city that never sweeps. The name is real, though, and talent-wise the Mets' 24-year-old outfielder is also legitimate -- a smooth-swinging, hard-hitting RBI man with the potential to reach a level of 40 big league home runs in a season. With those huge hands of his, Strawberry is also able to fight off a lot of inside pitches and rap them for base hits.

When Darryl, a native of Los Angeles, first joined the Mets in 1983 after fewer than four minor league seasons, he was still learning the importance of waiting for a good ball to hit.

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At that time pitchers often took advantage of his inexperience, partly because he didn't know when not to take a big swing.

But like such other current power hitters as Dale Murphy, Bob Horner, and Pedro Guerrero, who arrived before him, Strawberry has learned to tailor his swing to whatever park he's playing in.

Chicago Cubs manager Jim Frey, who was the Mets' batting coach in 1983, speaks highly of his former pupil.

``If Strawberry continues to improve and doesn't get sidetracked with his own importance, he has a chance to be one of the best hitters of his generation,'' Frey told me recently. ``When I started working with him, the raw material was awesome. Now it's refined to the point where no pitcher can afford to make a mistake against him.''

The first time the 6-ft. 6-in., 195-pound Strawberry was told he looked like Ted Williams at the plate, Darryl didn't really know about Ted. He does now, but he'd prefer it if people didn't compare him to anyone else.

``I don't like to hear talk like that, because if your mind starts believing that stuff it can get you all confused,'' Strawberry told reporters. ``I need to know myself and I need to know all I can about the pitchers who are going to work on me. Other than that, the rest is just playing as hard as you can every day, both offensively and defensively.''

The way the Mets have started this season, as though they'd like to clinch first place in the National League East by the Fourth of July, has made Strawberry a marked man. The fortunate part is that he isn't being asked to carry the load alone -- not with hitters like Gary Carter, George Foster, Keith Hernandez, and Ray Knight also part of the Mets' RBI package. Elsewhere in the majors

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There are a record 10 rookies listed on this year's major league all-star ballot. Seven are American Leaguers -- catcher Andy Allanson (Cleveland); first baseman Wally Joyner (California); second basemen Danny Tartabull (Seattle) and Steve Lombardozzi (Minnesota); and outfielders Jose Canseco (Oakland), Mike Felder (Milwaukee), and Pete Incaviglia (Texas). The three National League candidates are first basemen Andres Galarraga (Montreal) and Will Clark (San Francisco), and second baseman Rob Thompson (San Francisco).

The game will be played in the Houston Astrodome on July 15. As usual, the managers will be those of last year's pennant winners -- Kansas City's Dick Howser for the American League and St. Louis's Whitey Herzog for the National.

Ted Williams, who was the last player to bat .400 when he hit .406 for the Boston Red Sox in 1941, thinks it can happen again, particularly if the batter involved plays 81 home games on artificial turf, which permits sharply hit balls to skip past infielders. On grass, many of those same ground balls would be routine outs. Williams also says that the slider is baseball's most effective pitch, because it looks like something it isn't (a straight fastball), thus throwing hitters off stride. Williams, incidentally, almost hit .400 in 1957 for a second time. Five more hits in the same number of at-bats and his .388 average would have been an even .400.

From new Seattle Mariners manager Dick Williams on himself: ``It's possible that I may be overdemanding for some players. But I'm not hired to be a nice guy. I'm hired to win baseball games. There is no reason why anyone should have to make excuses for ballplayers when they aren't doing the job.''

When the St. Louis Cardinals were struggling earlier this season, shortstop Ozzie Smith seemed to pinpoint the problem when he said: ``Right now we've lost our aggressiveness as a team, but we'll get it back. We haven't been getting many hits, but we could live with that if the few we did get drove in some runs. Once we start doing the things we're capable of, our division won't look like so much of a one-team race.'' Smith was referring to the Mets' super start in the NL East.

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