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BASEBALL BUDS; DARRYL STRAWBERRY AND ERIC DAVIS FORGED A FRIENDSHIP ON THE DIAMOND.

Byline: Mike Fitzpatrick Associated Press

There was a time when Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis turned the National League into their own personal sandlot.

There was that series at Shea Stadium in 1988 when Davis robbed Strawberry of a home run one day, threw him out at third the next. One buddy outdoing the other as if it were a neighborhood ballgame for bragging rights.

``Yeah, we still laugh about it all the time,'' Strawberry says.

That was a decade ago - an eternity in professional sports - and before the injuries, illness, suspensions and personal problems knocked the longtime friends out of the game.

``We came in with the same amount of hype,'' Davis says. ``Stars headed for immortality. But for different reasons we went on different roads to where we didn't do the things people thought we should have done.''

Now, both 36 and in the AL, they're reminding fans how good they were. And still are.

Davis is coming off a 30-game hitting streak, the longest in the majors this year and the best in Baltimore Orioles history.

Strawberry leads baseball's best team in homers and set a league record with two pinch-hit grand slams for the New York Yankees.

``We're not looking for stardom - we've done that already,'' Strawberry says. ``It's just fun that we might have the opportunity to be on teams and win.''

Rarely have two players so physically gifted burst into baseball just a year apart. And their careers have paralleled each other like guard rails on the California freeways near their childhood homes in Los Angeles.

Strawberry, called the next Ted Williams after being drafted No. 1 overall by a struggling New York Mets franchise in 1980, was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1983. He led the Mets to a World Series title in 1986 and by 1988 his sweet left-handed stroke had produced consecutive seasons of 39 homers.

Davis broke in with Cincinnati in 1984 and in his first full season two years later he hit 27 homers and stole 80 bases. A year after that he hit 37 and swiped 50, and soon people were saying he would become the first 50-50 player in history.

``We stepped into the league and we made some names for ourselves,'' says Strawberry. ``Doing a lot of things that probably were not seen for a long time in baseball.''

In 1987, they were teammates on the NL All-Star team and both seemed headed for Cooperstown. Not bad for a couple of kids who grew up 20 minutes apart, met in Little League and forged a friendship while rooming together at a Connie Mack tournament.

But neither could have foreseen the troubles that would follow, especially after they returned home to fulfill a dream and play together for the Dodgers.

Plagued by back injuries, Strawberry hit a total of just 10 home runs in 1992-93. The Dodgers released him in May 1994 after alcohol and substance abuse problems, an arrest for domestic assault and tax trouble.

He signed with San Francisco but the Giants terminated the deal before the next season when he was suspended by baseball for cocaine use.

Davis led the Reds to a championship in 1990 but it was downhill from there as an assortment of injuries began to take their toll. He was traded to the Dodgers before the '92 season and, like Strawberry, hit just five homers that year.

``They never really got a chance to enjoy the two players they brought,'' Davis says. ``That's the only disappointment I've had in my career.''

By opening day 1995, both were out of baseball, with Davis having announced his retirement. And there was no reason to expect that either would be back.

Fast forward to 1996. Given a chance by George Steinbrenner, Strawberry became a key member of the Yankees and helped them win the World Series. Davis returned to the Reds and hit 26 homers.

``Me and E-D,'' Strawberry says, ``we're like brothers. We've been together so long, it's something that goes way past baseball. We have like the same type of heart.''

Then 1997 delivered even more obstacles.

Davis was diagnosed with colon cancer and endured exhausting chemotherapy treatments that limited him to only 42 games. Strawberry's knee injury allowed him to play in just 11 games.

But this season has brought a remarkable resurrection.

Davis was batting .331 with 24 homers and 69 RBI through Thursday, and has been solid in the outfield.

Strawberry is generating the same excitement in the Big Apple that he did as a Met.

Davis and Strawberry, who will not play against each other again until Sept. 18, stay in contact in the winter and when crossing paths during the season.

No matter how much they talk, though, their bond is unique. They've come from the same place - in more ways than one.

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PHOTO Eric Davis and Darryl Strawberry teamed up with the Dodgers in 1992.

Daily News File Photo
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 30, 1998
Words:829
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