Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda talked much this spring about the tremendous impact that a healthy Darryl Strawberry might have on the National League West race. Now, he can only hope that he was wrong.
Strawberry has joined forces with the enemy. He signed last month with the struggling San Francisco Giants and -- unless this is just some amazing coincidence -- has helped raise them from the lower reaches of the division standings in surprisingly short order.
Welcome to a Dodger Blue nightmare. Strawberry, who was released by Los Angeles on May 25 after he acknowledged having a substance-abuse problem, is expected to be in the San Francisco lineup tonight when the Dodgers visit Candlestick Park for a possibly pivotal three-game series.
"I know I'm on a team they truly hate," Strawberry said. "They probably hate the fact that we're winning, but we're back in the race. It's going to be fun."
Fun? Depends on whom you talk to. The Dodgers can't be relishing the prospect of seeing Strawberry in uniform again. The last time they saw him in uniform was April 2, the day before he went AWOL and ended up in a drug treatment center. He was released by the team a few weeks later at considerable expense, and it was thought that he would not attempt to return this season.
That was then, before the Giants decided that their desperate situation required a desperate solution. This is now, after the Giants reeled off nine straight victories to vindicate the decision to sign Strawberry and rush him into the major-league lineup.
The Dodgers are struggling. The Giants are streaking. But neither Lasorda nor Dodgers general manager Fred Claire expresses any second thoughts about the decision to move Strawberry and his troubles out of their clubhouse.
"No, because that was done with a lot of thought and lot of evaluation," Claire said recently. "We gave Darryl a great opportunity. We know that, and he knows that. You can't be concerned about [what he's doing now]. You have to make judgments that help your team."
The Giants look at it the same way. Strawberry is a premier power-hitting outfielder who became available at a time when they were getting by without injured mainstays Robby Thompson and Willie McGee. He spent a couple of weeks getting into shape, played three minor-league games and had an instant impact on the San Francisco lineup.
Manager Dusty Baker inserted him into the fifth spot in the lineup and saw an immediate upturn in production from the heart of his batting order. Barry Bonds already had rebounded from an early-season slump and Matt Williams already led the league in home runs, but Strawberry still managed to have a catalytic effect on the performances of both.
"I don't want Darryl to feel like he's the Messiah, but right after Darryl came in, Matty hits two home runs in a game and Barry has a couple of two-homer games," Baker said. "Part of that is probably fate, part of it is that everybody was due and part of it was that Darryl took some pressure off of Matt and Barry."
Strawberry also has made a major contribution himself, particularly during the four-game series in Montreal after the All-Star break. He drove in five runs with a grand slam and a single in the opener and went on to collect nine hits in 18 at-bats, as the Giants knocked the Expos out of first place in the NL East.
He has provided a tremendous boost, both on the field and in the collective psyche of a team that not only had lost several key offensive players, but also has put eight pitchers on the disabled list this season. Baker immediately compared it to the blockbuster deal that sent Fred McGriff to the Atlanta Braves last year and almost certainly cost the Giants the division title.
"I was hoping it would happen that way," Baker said. "I said at the time that I hoped that having another big bat in the lineup would take pressure off Barry and Matt the way that McGriff took pressure off [David] Justice, [Ron] Gant and Terry Pendleton in Atlanta."
Baker says that is exactly what has happened. So does Bonds, who had back-to-back two-homer games against the Expos and homered twice in the ensuing series with the Philadelphia Phillies.
"Yeah, he's important," Bonds said. "You give credit where credit is due. We had that 3-4-5 combination with Will Clark. That's what made us so strong. Now, we have it back."
Williams would have had a hard time improving on his league-leading home run pace, but he also has made some statistical strides since Strawberry entered the lineup. He has not, however, received the same benefit as Bonds, who has both of them batting behind him.
"We certainly didn't expect Darryl to hit this well this early," Williamssaid. "Is it a pleasant surprise to have him producing this way immediately, yes, but guys aren't going to start throwing me fastballs down the middle. The way he's been hitting, it's nice to have him in the lineup, but it doesn't change anything for me."
Does any of this surprise the Dodgers? Not after the way the often-injured Strawberry performed for them during spring training.
"Hey, Darryl has got a lot of ability," Lasorda said. "Sure, he could help them. He already has."
"I think he will," Claire added. "He had a very good spring. He worked hard. He had his legs underneath him. He's an exceptional talent."
In a strange sort of way, they are rooting for him.
"I don't care if he had gone to the Giants or the Orioles or whoever, you want to see that person succeed," Claire said. "You don't want to see anybody fail. Of course, I hope Darryl goes 0-for-the-Dodgers, but that doesn't mean we don't want to see him succeed. If he succeeds on the field, that should help him succeed off the field."
If the Giants put Strawberry back on the field in a hurry, they also have gone to great lengths to support his attempt to get his life back together. The club is footing the bill for the support group that travels with Strawberry and working to alleviate the media attention he receives.
"This isn't a one-way street," Baker said. "As much as Darryl is getting from us, we're getting a lot from him. We needed some offense, and he was the best deal available to us. We needed an immediate fix. I have to commend [owner] Peter Magowan and [general manager] Bob Quinn. The average baseball person might have said, 'Don't take a chance on him.'
"We needed something. We're not out of the woods by any means, but we can see some light. It's a big difference being 4 1/2 out vs. 12 1/2 down with time running down."