The Pittsburgh Pirates sent a scout to look at him. He left after a few minutes. Not because he wasn’t impressed, but because he knew his there was no chance the kid would still be available when the Pirates pick rolled around. A Phillies scout called him, “the best prospect I’ve seen in 30 years.”
“I’d give up five of our picks if we could get that kid,” said an Expos scout.
The baseball draft is a crapshoot. At best, it can provide a team with a future superstar. At worst it can set a franchise back years, and the team with the first pick knew that all too well. The New York Mets had owned the overall number one selection twice before. In 1966, they chose a high school catcher named Steve Chilcott, passing on a young outfielder from Arizona St. named Reggie Jackson who was snapped up by Kansas City at #2. Two years later, the Mets selected infielder Tim Foli with the first pick. The cross town Yankees held the fourth selection and took a catcher from Kent St. named Thurman Munson. Such was the history the Mets were up against heading into the 1980 draft. They couldn’t miss this time.
The kid everyone had their eye on was 18 years-old, stood 6’4″, weighed just 180 pounds. His name was Darryl Strawberry and his mom wanted him to go to college; in fact, he had already signed a letter of intent to play baseball at Oklahoma State. But the prospect of big-league baseball, and big-league money, would be tough to turn down.
Strawberry attended Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, which was familiar territory for baseball scouts. Just a year before, they flocked to Crenshaw to see Chris Brown, a 2nd round selection who would later become an All-Star with the San Francisco Giants. Eight years earlier, Crenshaw had produced outfielder Ellis Valentine, who in 1980 was patrolling the Montreal Expos outfield alongside Andre Dawson and Ron LeFlore. This year, the Crenshaw player everyone wanted was Strawberry.
But as talented as he was, the Mets weren’t certain they would make him the top pick. He slumped at the beginning of his senior season, which concerned the New York front office. Strawberry led his Crenshaw basketball team to the city championship, then went straight from basketball to baseball with almost no break and his play suffered early on. But when draft day finally arrived, the Mets decided they simply couldn’t pass him up.
“Other players may have been more polished,” said Mets scout Harry Minor. “But he has great potential.”
“I knew the Mets were interested in me because they needed a power-hitting outfielder,” said Strawberry. “I’m just glad the ordeal is over. There has been a lot of pressure on me this spring.”
Strawberry eventually decided not to go to college and signed with the Mets for what General Manager Frank Cashen called, “a considerable” bonus. The Mets wanted to hold a press conference to announce the signing, but Strawberry declined, saying he wanted to start playing right away. He was assigned to the Mets Appalachian League farm club in Kingsport, TN, which was worlds away from Crenshaw.
“The furthest east I’ve ever been is Seattle,” he told the media.