The Last Straw
Published in The New York Times Magazine
April 15, 2001, Sunday
Darryl Strawberry was beautiful.
That was the first thing you noticed. A pure physical glory. The
young slugger was long and lean and popping with sinewy muscle, not
the kind manufactured in the weight room or purchased from the
supplement aisle at the vitamin store, but the real thing.
God-given, if you believe in that.
At 18 years old, he stood
six-foot-five and weighed 180 pounds. He had the body of a
basketball forward and the swing -- a powerful, looping uppercut --
of a historic home run hitter. He made normally cautious baseball
men gush. "The best prospect I've seen in the last 30 years," the
legendary scout, Hugh Alexander, said in 1980, when Strawberry was a
senior at Crenshaw High in Los Angeles. Sports Illustrated profiled
him that spring, and sportswriters began to refer to him as "the
black Ted Williams."
One afternoon at Crenshaw, a big
white Lincoln pulled up beside the practice field, and a man in an
expensive-looking suit got out and approached the star while he was
shagging fly balls. Strawberry talked to him; he was no good then,
or ever, at telling anyone to go away. His coach, Brooks Hurst, came
sprinting out to right field.
"Who the hell are you?" shouted
Hurst, who considered the ball field sanctified ground. "Get off my
field and don't ever come back!" The man took Hurst aside, told him
he wanted to be Strawberry's agent. "Would you be interested in
going to Palm Springs this weekend?" he asked the high-school gym
teacher. "I could put you up."
Hurst chased the would-be agent
off. "But there was this circus around Darryl," he says now. "It
just kept getting bigger, and he was the last person in the world
who could control it."
The New York Mets, then a lowly,
bad-box-office franchise, chose Strawberry with the first pick in
the June 1980 amateur draft. They paid him a $200,000 bonus to forgo
a college scholarship, flew him to New York and proudly showed him
off at a news conference and luncheon -- an event that began with
the playing of the Beatles song "Strawberry Fields Forever." Even in
his jacket and tie, and with his mother, Ruby, affixed to his side,
Strawberry moved with a lovely athletic grace. "He had a certain
majestic quality to him that you see only in a few young players,"
recalls Frank Cashen, the former Mets general manager.
A great many New Yorkers fell hard
for Darryl Strawberry that summer, fell just for the news of his
arrival before ever seeing him play, because that is what sports
fans do. They hook onto a young player, the showier and more
ballyhooed the better, and give him their hope and devotion. The
ballplayer stays a part of their lives for years. He outlasts
marriages. The fan invests in a narrative and in return hopes to
follow it to its natural, not unnatural, conclusion.
We imagined Darryl Strawberry,
awaited his thrills, and then watched as his life unfolded in fast
forward, as the young man who rippled with greatness became sick and
confused and old. Late last month, he fled his court-ordered drug
treatment program in Tampa and descended into a four-day
crack-cocaine binge -- in motel rooms in Tampa and Orlando -- with a
female friend and five armed men who he said robbed him of his
He fled rehab one day before his
once-a-week chemotherapy treatment, a highly toxic experimental
regimen to treat his virulent colon cancer. These sessions left him
violently ill, not just after the treatment but also sometimes
before it -- from sheer dread. He ran as the Yankees got ready to
head north at the end of spring training and leave him behind, a
moment when he had fallen into trouble before.
And there was one other marker:
Darryl Strawberry ran just one day before he was to receive a
"sleepover pass" that would have allowed him, for the first time in
five months, to spend the night at home with his second wife,
Charisse, and their three young children, who have been living
nearby while he undergoes treatment.
What made him run? "You can't ask
that," says his close friend Ray Negron. "He's a junkie. There's
never a rational explanation."
"Where is the good stuff?" asks
Darryl Strawberry, who has hit home runs in World Series games, made
millions, fathered children.
It is April 14, 1999, and he sits
behind the wheel of a gold-colored Ford Expedition. Strawberry
carries no cash / save a $20 bill rolled around half a gram of
cocaine / just credit cards, in his Louis Vuitton wallet. His left
hip pocket is stuffed with a wad of bills, $1,159.
If Crenshaw High was the beginning
of the legend and the promise of Darryl Strawberry, superstar -- the
first flash of the phenom who would open our eyes to what was
possible on the field of play -- this is the beginning of the end.
And in between? Let it be said,
just for the moment, that Darryl Strawberry delivered. He truly was
epic. Larger than life and achingly human. So much so that sometimes
you wanted to avert your eyes.
"I am the good stuff," says Kellie
Daniel, as she sidles up to the vehicle.
Strawberry is parked near Caf 1/8 Con Trey, which shares a stretch
of highway on the outskirts of downtown Tampa with a bail bondsman,
a liquor store and a billboard that asks sinners to turn to Jesus.
The area is a geographical void, a space, a nowhere land. How does a
famous American find his way to such a place? Darryl Strawberry is
drawn here, utterly defenseless against his worst impulses. He
suffers a version of a compromised immune system; he cannot fend off
the bad stuff.
Strawberry, at this point in 1999,
is 37 years old and still a valued member of the world champion New
York Yankees. The team has left Florida to begin the regular season.
Strawberry's second wife, Charisse, and their two children (they now
have three) await him in their New Jersey home. Rehabilitating an
injured knee -- but well enough to play after colon cancer surgery
the previous October -- Strawberry is expected to rejoin the Yankees
in a matter of weeks. His agent tells him earlier that evening:
"You're going to have a great year, Darryl. You're going to be
healthy. You're going to put up numbers. You're going to make $2.5
Now, just two hours after that
conversation, he is bantering with Kellie Daniel, Officer Kellie
Daniel of the Tampa police, a decoy in a prostitution sting. "How
can I get some good stuff to party with?" Strawberry asks.
From anyone on the street, she
He says he wants to "party" with
her; she asks what exactly he wants.
"I want it all," he says.
"You mean you want straight sex?"
"Yes," he answers, and when she
asks how much he is willing to spend, he says $50.
Officer Daniel gives a hand signal,
and her superior officer drives up. Sgt. Marc Hamlin, five years
younger than Strawberry, grew up in Queens and cheered him maybe a
couple of hundred times from the cheap seats at Shea Stadium. He has
seen Strawberry at nightspots. He's a huge fan. "Oh, my God!" the
officer says to himself as the spotlight from a nearby squad car
illuminates the sad, ashamed face of Darryl Strawberry.
A search turns up the half gram of
cocaine in Strawberry's wallet, as well as traces on his Automobile
Club of Southern California membership card. He is charged, and
ultimately pleads nolo contendere to solicitation of prostitution
and cocaine possession. This is the incident for which he will break
parole three times. Hamlin's report states that Strawberry
"continually apologized and was very remorseful. . . . He asked
several times if there was anything that we could do to change the
situation because this was going to ruin his career."
"One Steinbrenner Drive," he says.
The address of the Yankees spring training site.
"I had a cloudy day today," Darryl
Strawberry tells me one evening in late March. "You know, I woke up,
and it was all gray outside. And that's how I felt all day. I was
kind of down."
As we talk, it is one week before
he will flee Healthcare Connections, his drug-rehab program. He says
he has no thought of playing baseball again. It has been more than a
year since he even held a bat in his hands, and he has lost a lot of
weight; he now weighs about what what he did in his early years with
the Mets. He has been living in an apartment near the center with
three other men. "We have to do for ourselves," Strawberry says. "We
clean. We cook. We grilled some steaks the other night, and they
came out pretty good."
His free time is spent reading the
Bible and various meditations on the subject of recovery. He can
watch TV only on weekends. His family visits regularly, and he has
been permitted to spend some time with them at the home they rent in
nearby Lutz, Fla. He tells me that he is looking forward to his
sleepover pass, that he has worked hard and pushed himself in rehab
to earn the privilege. "You get to certain steps in your recovery,
more privileges come along with that," he explains. "You always want
things sooner than you can have them, but that's not their agenda
here. They don't want to work you back into life too fast."
He has had countless hours of treatment for substance abuse,
starting in 1990. I ask if it ever bores him. "I'm not gonna sit
here and tell you it doesn't," he says. "I'd be tellin' a tale if I
said that. But when it gets boring is when you really have to sit
there and hear what has to be said."
The conversations I have with
Strawberry take place over the telephone, because contact with the
media is one of the many things his addiction counselors want to
eliminate from his life. (They believe it is at cross purposes with
the therapeutic goal of "ego deflation." ) A couple of times when we
talk, I can hear Motown music - the Supremes, the Four Tops --
playing in his room. It reminds me how old Strawberry is, how long
he has been a part of the landscape.
There are people like him in every
generation -- Charlie Parker, Judy Garland, Robert Downey Jr. --
artists and entertainers who bring great pleasure to everyone but
themselves. Stone-cold addicts who can't keep it together. They
rarely have insight into their own lives, and never a satisfying
answer to the inevitable question: how could you throw it all away?
If they did, they wouldn't be in the spot they're in.
Strawberry doesn't have answers; he
has feelings: sadness, faith, fear, regret, love, shame, hope,
resignation, gratitude. "I'm not in a disappointment part of my
life," he says when we first begin talking. It is his way of saying
that he will not deal in sharp angles or blame, that he will do only
so much revisiting of fact.
The restrictions on his freedom and
the drug treatment were imposed as part of a two-year "community
control" sentence imposed last November, after he broke his
probation on the 1999 cocaine and prostitution solicitation charges.
A handful of friends sat in a small courtroom at the probation
hearing in which he narrowly escaped jail. Among them was Dwight
Gooden, who long ago in 1980's New York shared with Strawberry
searing stardom and a sense of youthful invincibility. Gooden
listened impassively as his old teammate told Circuit Court Judge
Florence Foster: "I'm not a danger to society. I've never harmed
nobody. I never will. . . . I'd rather go ahead and kill myself, but
the reason I haven't killed myself is my five children. It wouldn't
be fair to them."
Ballplayers live by statistics, and
Strawberry still does -- although now by an entirely different set
of them. His urine is tested three times a week for drugs. Until he
tested positive for cocaine after his most recent spree, he had been
clean since he entered rehab in November. "I'm putting together a
lot of time clean," he says, as if recounting a long hitting streak.
The cancer calls forth more
numbers, not good numbers. When colon cancer recurs somewhere else
in the abdomen, as it did in Strawberry's case, surgeons succeed in
getting it all out less than 20 percent of the time, according to
Dr. Carmen Allegra, a colorectal cancer specialist at the National
Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md. And even when they do, the median
survival rate is no better than five years. For the majority of
patients, those with the less successful surgeries, the median
survival rate is between 14 and 16 months.
Strawberry is remarkably sanguine
about the statistics. When we talk, he sounds sad and brave at the
same time. "I know my odds aren't very good, but that's O.K.," he
says. "I accept that. Each and every one of us will come to a point
in our lives where the odds are not in our favor."
Look at any picture of Darryl
Strawberry. It's remarkable how often it looks as if in the next
instant he might cry. He is perpetually on the verge. Of tears,
laughter, a life-wrecking lapse, a game-breaking home run.
Even his batting stance was built
for drama. He waggled his bat as the pitcher began his windup, set
his weight back, lifted his right foot high and then, as the ball
sped toward the plate, explosively fired his hips and whipped the
bat through the hitting zone. There are less complicated ways to hit
-- fewer moving parts, a more compact swing -- but Strawberry always
resisted them. His approach produced towering home runs, bushelfuls
of strikeouts, prolonged droughts and sizzling streaks. When his big
frame and big swing were in rhythm, he was fearsome.
"There was a certain way Darryl
looked when he was really locked in," says a former Met teammate,
Hubie Brooks. "It was like his whole body was alive. When he was
like that, you just knew all hell was going to break loose." Once,
when he was on one of those streaks, the St Louis Cardinals'
manager, Whitey Herzog, had him walked intentionally with the bases
His inventory of troubles over the
last decade has been staggering: knee and back surgeries; arrests
for spousal abuse (no charges were filed) and for failure to pay
child support; a federal conviction for tax evasion; serial episodes
of substance abuse. It's hard to say what is the greater marvel:
that Strawberry laid waste to his career or that he managed to have
one at all. Only his prodigious talent kept him in the game. "I
never had a problem hitting," Strawberry says. "I had a problem
When George Steinbrenner first came
to his rescue in 1995 -- after the player was no longer young and
had undermined his body and career in a dozen different ways --
Strawberry began his Yankee habit of resurfacing at some point in
the summer to make memorable late-season contributions. He even
began 1996 with the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern
League, a baseball equivalent of dinner theater in Trenton, and by
season's end was swatting October home runs and leading the Yankees
into a World Series.
But the big New York stage and late-season heroics served only to
highlight what could have been. In Strawberry's eight seasons after
turning 30, he played a substantial portion of only one, when he in
played 101 games (of a 162-game season) for the 1998 Yankees. In six
of those seasons (including two shortened by strikes) he played in
fewer than 50 games. Since 1992, he has hit just 52 home runs.
His career home run total stands at
335. In what should have been his late prime, the ballparks were
getting smaller, the pitchers more hittable and, by many accounts,
the ball livelier. Five hundred home runs punches a ticket to
Cooperstown. Six hundred enshrines a player among the greats of the
greats, the pantheon of Mays, Ruth, Aaron. How many, in the natural
order of things, should Strawberry have hit?
"Six hundred," says his old Mets
manager, Davey Johnson. "He had the swing, the grace, the power.
When he wanted to be, he was as good as it gets. But the thing is, I
don't think he was hungry or mean enough to do the 600-home-run
deal. Darryl is no dummy. He was comfortable hitting 30 home runs a
year and stealing 30 bases. He knew what it would take to do more,
and he didn't want to do it. He made a calculation. To be one of the
real greats, it has to be your whole world, and Darryl had other
worlds going on."
A real superstar is mean in a
particular way. He is Michael Jordan or Cal Ripken, greedy for
records and history. Armored and self-contained, his inner core is a
hard knot of physical talent and fierce will. Nothing penetrates
that core, and anybody or anything that gets too close is out of his
Strawberry had none of that. Not
the inner core or the greed, and especially not the armor. Sometimes
he was too nice. Always, he was too sensitive. "Darryl feels
everything," says Hurst, his former high school coach. "He absorbs
everything. That's how he goes through life."
Fans, particularly those of
opposing teams, sensed this. As early as 1984, Chicago Cubs fans
were derisively chanting "DAR-ryl, DAR-ryl," a haunting chorus that
was picked up by crowds around the league -- even in his home park.
Much of what Strawberry felt so
intensely, and could not repel, were the wants and needs of those
around him. In many ways, the financial devastation of his life is
as astonishing as the emotional devastation. And they are connected.
Whatever belonged to Darryl -- his career, his good name, his money
-- he did not adequately value. Everything that was his, he let
others get at.
Strawberry made about $30 million
in baseball and has virtually nothing left. Much of what he made he
gave away. To his mother, his father and his four siblings. To his
first wife, Lisa, whose clothing business, Strawberry Patch Kids,
He gave to Darryl Strawberry
Enterprises, another money pit, which provided salaries for his
mother and siblings after Ruby Strawberry convinced him that his
fame made it impossible for his brothers and sisters to get jobs. "I
told her that was ridiculous," says Richie Bry, Strawberry's first
agent. "I told Darryl that. But they started a business with
Darryl's money, and all it did was suck money from him."
As often as not, Strawberry did not
have to be asked -- he just gave. He gave away a Mercedes, a Jeep
and, after he got tired of living in it, a house. He gave to his
inner circle of friends and to his outer circle. Strawberry was
hardly the first or last athlete to turn his pockets inside out for
those around him. "I have seen it a hundred times," says Bry. "A guy
makes it, and the people back home get hungry."
But his giving was extreme. He was
a big, generous sap in the Joe Louis mold, helpless against grasping
hands. "I gave from my heart," Darryl says now. "If people took for
the wrong reasons, that's on them."
Court documents show that in one
month alone, April 1992, he wrote $22,000 in checks to various
relatives. That same month, he paid an American Express bill of
$65,616, wrote an $11,650 check to a BMW dealership and a $20,000
check to a jeweler. This was during the peak of his playing and
earning power -- Strawberry in 1992 was in the middle of a
five-year, $20 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers -- but
even so, the ballplayer and his first wife "basically blew threw
every penny they had," says Robert Gaston, who was Lisa Strawberry's
"Darryl picked up the tab for
everyone," Gaston says. "If he wanted to go to Las Vegas, he would
charter a jet and fly a bunch of people with him. He would think
nothing of it."
The squandering of talent, career
and money were all of a piece. "It drained him financially, and it
drained him emotionally," says Eric Grossman, Strawberry's current
agent. "There was always this pull on him to be a gravy train even
when his own life was in chaos." By the time he came back to New
York in 1995, "he was paying debt after debt after debt. They lived
paycheck to paycheck."
In recent years, Darryl, Charisse
and their children / Jordan, 7, Jade, 6, and Jewel, 9 months --
lived in a rental house in Fort Lee, N.J., a modest place near the
George Washington Bridge that shared a driveway with a next-door
neighbor -- hardly a deprivation, but a comedown for a lavishly paid
"So many people fed off Darryl," says Jay Horwitz, the Mets longtime
publicity director. "Even his mother, may she rest in peace."
The last remnant of the Strawberry
largess is a house in the San Gabriel Valley about one hour east of
downtown Los Angeles, a four-bedroom split-level with mountain views
that Darryl built for Ruby, who died of breast cancer in 1996.
Nine people live here now: Darryl's sister Michelle and her
daughter; his sister Regina, her husband and their four children;
and Anthony Strawberry, Ruby's 19-year-old adopted son. The house is
pleasant but shows signs of wear and tear. The roof appears to need
work. A green shag carpet in the living room is tired-looking.
There's a little Darryl shrine
around a fireplace, pictures of him at various stages of his career.
In one, a very young-looking Darryl is posed in a Mets uniform with
his arm around his mother. They're standing in front of a new Buick
Riviera, the first car he bought after he signed out of high school.
When I knock on the door, I am told by Anthony that no one else is
home, but a few minutes later Michelle, 36, Darryl's youngest
sister, comes to greet me. She is broad-shouldered and skinny and
has the same expressive face and openness of her famous brother.
Darryl was the middle child of Ruby and Henry Strawberry's five
children, between two older brothers and two younger sisters.
When I ask Michelle who the owner
of this house is, she says: "Basically, us. We are. The house is
free and clear. There were too many things attached to him," which I
take to mean that this house is beyond the reach of anyone who might
like to seize it. "This is the foundation right here. It's not going
anywhere. This is where all the grandkids grew up. This is where
they all still come. You know, this place is for everybody. This is
Darryl calls every week or so, she
says. "He always asks, 'Are you guys O.K.?' That's what he wants to
know. Even with everything he's been through, his addictions and
everything, we don't feel he's let us down."
(When Darryl was on the lam,
Michelle says, he called the house and spoke to his sister Regina.
"He called here one time and one time only," she told me at one
point, while he was still missing. "The only thing we know is he's
safe, and it wasn't drug-related. That's what he said.")
Ruby wanted her children to have
togetherness, and they do. Michelle likes to believe that when he is
free to, Darryl will plop himself in a chair in her living room,
unfold his long legs and sit for hours watching televised sports
while the women lavish him with home-cooked food.
It is easy to see why Darryl would
feel at home here, where he is measured by his devotion to family
rather than by his lifetime home run total. Here, an alternate
reality is observed: Darryl didn't blow a Hall of Fame career; he
just had too much to handle. He was blinded by New York, buried by
sports-page hype. Darryl was more a bystander than an actor in his
own life. He was awesomely powerful from the left side of the
batter's box, powerless everywhere else. Things happened to him.
"Darryl is a passive person,"
Michelle says. "The Strawberrys are all passive people."
Darryl's pain, his sister says, has
rippled through the whole Strawberry clan. "We've been very quiet,
but we've been the backbone to Darryl. Everything he's felt, we've
In one way, for sure, it is hard to
be a Strawberry. It's an uncommon name, and every time a family
member shows an ID or writes a check they are asked about their
famous relative. They have grown weary of it over the years and do
not go out of their way to be found by the press. Darryl's father,
Henry, now lives in San Diego. One of his brothers, Ronnie, has been
in and out of jail over the years. Michael Strawberry, the oldest,
is a former minor league ballplayer and ex-L.A. cop who left the
force in the mid-90's to come out on the road to try to shield
Darryl from drugs and temptation. But he has fallen on hard times
himself in recent years. On the day I visited with Michelle, Michael
Strawberry was in Los Angeles County Central Jail, awaiting trial on
forgery charges. (Later he would plead guilty and be sentenced to
"We didn't really require a lot of him," Michelle says of the money
that flowed over the years."We just asked him to do whatever he
wanted to do. You know, we really didn't care. People were against
it. They thought we weren't his responsibility, and he didn't owe us
anything. But we never thought he did. Whatever Darryl did, he did
from the heart."
I ask how many cars Darryl gave to
family. "I don't know," Michelle says. "One, two, three, four, five
. . . it was quite a few. I really can't remember. They were always
good cars -- Mercedes, Jaguars, Porsches. You know, maybe that was
the problem. Maybe there were just too many of us. If he got tired
of something, he would just give it away. One time he didn't want a
house anymore, so he just gave it to my brother Michael. That's just
how he was."
Henry Strawberry was a postal worker and a fine athlete himself -- a
locally famous football and softball player in sandlot leagues
around L.A. Ruby Strawberry, a secretary at Pacific Bell, was devout
and strikingly pretty. The family lived in a stucco house in the
Crenshaw district in what was then a decent neighborhood. "People
assumed Darryl came from a poverty background," says Hubie Brooks,
who was raised in nearby Compton. "They tend to assume that of all
black athletes who come from the inner city. But he didn't. People
in that neighborhood went to work. They owned their own homes. They
had yards, and they cut their grass."
At 12, Darryl's life changed
abruptly after what he has described as a physical confrontation
between the Strawberry boys and their father -- over his gambling
and drinking, which were wrecking family life and finances. Henry
Strawberry left home that night, and Ruby filed for divorce soon
after. Having played a part in his father's exit, Darryl Strawberry
said in a 1992 autobiography written with Art Rust Jr., left him
feeling "wrong, shameful, guilty, and I have not not been able to
see things clearly since."
He has also said his father beat him when he was drunk, which Ruby
Strawberry denied in a 1995 Sports Illustrated story. "I'm not that
kind of mother. I would not have allowed it with my kids." But, she
added, it was important if "that's the way he remembers it."
Darryl says now: "I can't tell you
why my Mom denied that. But nobody wants to admit that they're in a
family where there's physical abuse."
The concept of punishment comes up
again and again with Darryl. The unfair punishment he was dealt at
home, he says, led to his substance abuse. "That's a form of
punishment," he tells me. "And I was very good at punishing myself."
For years after his father left home, Strawberry exuded a particular
kind of neediness that made older baseball men believe they were
filling a void, the gap left by his father. They believed this even
as they knew he was disregarding their guidance. "I'm not your
father, but I'm as close as you're going to get," Bry once told him.
Frank Cashen: "He was almost like a son to me. I felt close to him."
Davey Johnson: "I would talk to him like a friend, and also like a
Brooks Hurst first encountered
Strawberry on a day he came to pick up his brother Michael, who was
then on his Crenshaw High team. Darryl was sitting on a step outside
the house, eating a candy bar. From the very first, he struck Brooks
as a sad boy. "It was hard to get joy out of Darryl," says Hurst,
who has remained close to him. "It was hard for him to be truly
happy. I always thought after baseball was over for Darryl he would
No one can remember a time when
Darryl Strawberry did not love sports, when he did not always have
some kind of ball in his hands. But sports to him was about playing,
not striving or working. When I ask Allan Lans, the Mets longtime
team psychologist, if Strawberry really liked playing major-league
baseball, he replies: "I'm not sure. I think Darryl liked shooting
hoops in the backyard."
Hurst kicked him off the team in
10th grade for not hustling, telling him, "I hope you'll come back
next year." But the Mets rarely chanced such discipline on their
It is, perhaps, a clich 1/8 to say
that ballplayers never have to grow up, that they rarely face adult
consequences. But it is true. And the bigger the star, the truer it
is. Strawberry was coddled. He certainly became selfish, but not in
a way that served him.
Soon after he left home at age 18
for Kingsport, Tenn., to begin his quick ascent through the minor
leagues, he got a taste of celebrity -- strawberry sundae
promotions, strawberry shortcake giveaways, all manner of Darryl
Strawberry buzz in every new city he visited. And he got a taste, as
well, of the franchise player's life of entitlement.
On at least two occasions in the
minors, female employees at hotels lodged complaints against him.
The incidents were quietly handled and kept out of the news. "The
Mets would call me in," Bry says when I ask him about these
incidents. "The team would talk to the maid and the hotel
management. One way or the other, it would get taken care of. It
would get quashed. It was never anything brutal. It was obscene
language, or tiny rough stuff."
The Mets called Strawberry to the
big leagues in May 1983. He was ready physically -- ready enough
that he earned National League Rookie of the Year honors -- but
emotionally raw. The team had planned to let him mature all that
season in the minor leagues. "Cashen didn't want to bring him up,"
recalls Jay Horwitz, the Mets' P.R. director. "But we were so bad.
We were dying for publicity, and we had the black Ted Williams down
in the minor leagues."
Everyone was so exhilarated by the whole Darryl Strawberry package.
Massive Darryl, who could hit long home runs and steal bases. Darryl
the outfield gazelle who glided after fly balls in right field, who
gunned down base runners with his powerful throwing arm. They were
so excited that they failed to take proper notice of a disturbing
fact. Darryl himself -- the accidental grand prize winner of some
genetic lottery -- was not so celebratory of his great gift. He
treated it cheaply. It felt like a burden. He was even oddly
resentful, bemoaning that he was not loved for being just plain old
That was his one true insight into
the world of professional sports -- no one did love him for just
being Darryl. But it wasn't personal; pro athletes are loved for
what they do.
Right from the start of his
big-league career, Strawberry was drowning -- and in such plain view
that even some members of the city's other baseball franchise could
see it. "You would hear things; players, you know, we talk a little
bit," says Willie Randolph, the Yankees' second baseman when
Strawberry was a young Met and later his coach and sometime
confidant when he moved to the Yankees. "You would see Darryl out
with his entourage; even then he had a lot of people around him. It
was a shame the things that happened, but it wasn't a surprise. You
knew as a player that it was only a matter of time."
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Strawberry's own teammates didn't step in, in part because many were
living the same fast life. And besides, that is not what ballplayers
do. A major-league clubhouse is like a lot of workplaces: people go
their own way, live and let live, overlook nearly any behavior that
does not interfere with the product.
Baseball is also night work. What players do after games, what they
have always done, is drink. And stay out late. Even by baseball's
loose standards, the Mets of the mid- and late 80's, the Strawberry
era, were free-spirited and notoriously hard-living. And even by
Mets standards, Strawberry was over the top.
"A lot of us drank too much," says
Keith Hernandez, the former Mets' first baseman. "I drank too much.
You're on the road. You're with guys. They feed you in the clubhouse
after the game, and then what do you do? I could close a bar at 2
a.m. and be in bed by 2:30 and have no trouble being ready for
batting practice the next night."
Those Mets teams broke down on
generational and not, as many professional clubs do, racial lines.
Hernandez was one of the older players. He had some tread on him,
having just kicked a cocaine habit before coming to the Mets. "I
found out later that many of my teammates were running around till 4
a.m.," he says. "I found out they were crazier than I was."
The Mets of the late 80's were
lavishly talented underachievers; Strawberry thinks they were better
than even the 1998 Yankees team, which won 114 games. "We didn't win
more because we partied too hard. Whoever wants to can deny it, but
that was our downfall."
Strawberry was no thug -- he has
mainly hurt himself and his loved ones -- but he could be a mean
drunk. On team charters, a lot of players drank and played cards.
Sometimes Strawberry played cards; sometimes he just sat in the back
and drank, often with Gooden, whose own career would be sabotaged by
drugs and alcohol.
"One on one, you will never find a
nicer person than Darryl Strawberry," says Dave Magadan, who began
his 15-year-career with the 80's Mets. "You will never find a more
generous person. He was great with kids. He stood and signed
autographs until every last person had left. But when he got in that
grouping of the team and on the buses and the planes, and had a few
cocktails in him, he was vicious to a lot of guys. He was demeaning.
To coaches. Players. Front-office guys."
A particular target was catcher
Gary Carter, a star of the 1986 championship team who in the late
80's had a couple of woeful seasons as he struggled to reach 300
career home runs. Strawberry stayed on him about money and
production -- not the usual jocularity that ballplayers engage in,
but much closer to the bone. Strawberry had yet to cash in , and the
older Carter was making better money. "Darryl would be like, 'I'm
hittin' 30 jacks, and you're hittin' a buck 70,' Magadan recalls.
"It was very unfriendly abuse."
A star of Strawberry's magnitude
attracts not only a devoted fan base but a following among other
players who want to be around him for the fun, the free drinks, the
women, the perceived security of being known to management as part
of the inner circle. So Strawberry had a clique of teammates who
laughed at his jokes, even when they weren't funny. He had teammates
who agreed that he was underpaid and underappreciated. And he had,
as well, a growing cluster of nonbaseball associates at his side --
buddies, mainly from back home, who traveled at his expense, rode in
his limos, accompanied him to clubs. One friend in particular, a
childhood buddy from L.A., was suspected by teammates and some Mets
officials of procuring women for him and possibly drugs.
"He was Darryl's running mate,"
says Horwitz, the Mets P.R. director. "Darryl paid for his flights,
his hotels. We would book the rooms for him. His role, so far as I
could tell, was to go to clubs with Darryl. There were people who
tried to talk to Darryl. But he was a kid in his 20's -- you can't
tell him who his friends should be."
So eager to please with easy money
and companionship, Darryl Strawberry had one area of stinginess.
Baseball. He was miserly about parceling out his talent. It flowed
irregularly, and never in the heaping quantities it could have.
"He had 39 home runs in 1986 and
had no interest in hitting 40," Johnson says, speaking of the final
weeks of the season, after the team had clinched a playoff spot. "He
had some nagging injuries. But he could have played. It was hard for
me to understand."
Strawberry never hit as many as 40
home runs in a season and drove in 100 or more only three times.
Elite athletes are never satisfied; he was easily satisfied. Some
attributed this to a lack of character, but there was something more
specific he lacked -- courage. The courage to put himself on the
line and find out if he was really as good as people believed. Or
maybe that he wasn't.
Strawberry, typically, has contradictory explanations for why he
could not fulfill his promise. He loved being so physically gifted
but hated the expectations that came with those gifts, the feeling
that he could not measure up no matter what. He loved New York and
especially New York fans -- God could not have picked a better place
for me to play" -- but hated the extra attention that comes to New
"The drinking and the drugging,
that was a way of punishing myself and the fans, too," he says. "I
figured, If you want to get negative on me, you won't get the best
out of me. Don't get me wrong, every time I stepped on the field I
gave my best effort. But I know if I did not drink and party so
much, I would have been better."
When he returned to New York to
play for the Yankees, older and already broken, he finally
understood how much New Yorkers loved him. He knew, finally, that
New York was forgiving of human frailty -- that it was as
compassionate as it was demanding. And he finally knew that he had
cheated his fans. "People cared for me as a person in New York. I
will take that to my grave, the feeling that gave me. I received so
much love from New York fans. Through everything I've been through,
when I would come back with the Yankees, they would give me a
standing ovation. I will never forget that, and nothing can ever
"I wish I was able to give more to
those fans who loved me at the time of my career when I had more to
give. I'm down in my spirit about that. I didn't give everything I
had to offer."
He rejects any notion that the city
itself was an actor in his demise -- that New York was too fast and
filled with temptation for an unsophisticated and suddenly wealthy
young man. "New York didn't destroy me," he says. "I destroyed me. I
take full responsibility for that."
Over time, Strawberry's off-field
behavior put all the questions and expectations to rest. Games and
weeks and then whole seasons vanished. He was not going to be a
once-in-a-generation ballplayer. No one had to ask him for that
The depth of his personal problems
first broke into public view on Jan. 26, 1990, when he was arrested
in Los Angeles after a horrific domestic scene -- he supposedly
punched his first wife, Lisa, in the face and menaced her with a
.25-caliber semi-automatic pistol. The argument that preceded it,
Strawberry would later acknowledge, was over his "drinking" and
"fornicating." (Blood tests had just established that he was the
father of a son born to a St. Louis woman.) Dr. Lans flew out to Los
Angeles, holed up for a few days in a hotel with Strawberry, then
flew back east and lodged him at the Smithers Alcoholism and
Treatment Center on the Upper East Side.
But Strawberry approached his
28-day interlude at Smithers more as a scam than an opportunity to
get well. Mainly, he viewed it as a convenient way to dodge
prosecution for assaulting his wife. "Going to Smithers was my
cover-up," he told Sports Illustrated years later. "I never even
bothered telling them about the drugs."
He left Smithers in time to play
the 1990 season in New York, his last with the Mets before signing
as a free agent with the Dodgers. In 1994 he failed to show for an
exhibition game, announced he was addicted to cocaine and spent the
next month at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. After
the Dodgers bought out his contract, he spent 1994 with the San
Francisco Giants. He then lost that job after testing positive for
cocaine in February 1995.
Lisa Strawberry, Darryl's first wife, has suggested that we meet for
breakfast at the Regent Hotel, which sits at the gilded intersection
of Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. The lobby is
constructed of marble and dark woods and adorned with enormous
displays of fresh flowers. But she commands the room. As Lisa
approaches, I can see that she is, in one way, very much like her
former husband: tall and lissome, an exalted physical being.
Lisa Strawberry does not like
talking about Darryl, but has agreed to an interview for two
reasons: Darryl Jr., "D.J.," the oldest of her two children with
Darryl, is a six-foot-four-inch basketball and baseball player in
Pasadena, a high school sophomore with a stackful of letters from
college recruiters. He looks so much like his father that people
stare at him, thinking they've seen him somewhere before. His mother
can see it all beginning again -- the hero worship, the sense of
privilege, maybe the money. "I want to know," she says, "what are we
going to do for the next generation? How are we going to teach them
The other reason Lisa has decided
to talk is that she knows many people in baseball are only too
willing to blame her for Darryl's troubles -- financial and
otherwise. There are many bad marriages in baseball. Darryl
Strawberry, always the one for the dramatic flair, was widely
considered to have a disastrous marriage.
Lisa and Darryl met in 1984 at a
Lakers game and married the next year. They fought, separated,
reconciled and fought some more for the whole of their eight-year
marriage. As Darryl began to negotiate a new contract during his
last year with the Mets, team executives privately urged him to
divorce before he signed a new deal -- regardless of whether he was
to resign with them. He told them that he and Lisa were working on
their marriage, that it could be salvaged.
In November 1990, Strawberry signed
his five-year, $20 million contract with the Dodgers. Two months
later, Darryl and Lisa separated, and in May 1992 she formally filed
for divorce. When the divorce became final a year later, they split
assets that included three houses and no less than eight luxury cars
- including a whole category termed "the Jaguars." Lisa says that
under terms of the divorce settlement, she received slightly more
than half the value of his $20 million deal.
To back up her petition of $50,000
per month in spousal support, which was granted, Lisa filed papers
with the Superior Court of California saying that she had been
spending $20,000 a month for clothes, $5,000 a month for shoes and
an average of $7,000 for each purchase of jewelry, "which I have
been free to indulge myself in as desired."
"How am I the culprit?" she asks at
breakfast. "They wanted to know what was my standard of living. And
that's what it was."
Darryl, she says, insisted that she
wear a new outfit to each game, with new shoes to match. "He wanted
to have an armpiece. And I was that armpiece. People would say:
'Look at the way Lisa spends. She shops, she shops, she shops.' But
why am I shopping? Because every game I had to have a different
outfit. And I had a budget that reflected that."
The subject of Lisa is the one area
in which Darryl's equanimity vanishes. "She said I wanted an
armpiece?" he asks. "Yeah, right. She was digging for gold, and she
Lisa Strawberry says her years with
Darryl "were like a magic carpet ride. I don't regret them, because
we had some wonderful times. But we were so young. I was 20 years
old when I got married. What did I know? But if I knew then what I
know now, I would do it differently."
Darryl Strawberry probably could
not have done it much differently. Not without a lot of help. And he
was in the wrong place to get that. Baseball is no good at soothing
or saving souls. The business of the game, in the crass term of old
baseball men, is to put fannies in the seats.
There were, for sure, many in
baseball who cared deeply for Strawberry, among them Frank Cashen. A
former sportswriter and brewery executive, he counseled him as best
he knew how. Right at the beginning, he had promised Ruby Strawberry
he would watch over her boy. He meant it, and he believes to this
day he kept his word as best he could.
Strawberry had friends in the game
whom he left bewildered and exhausted. "When he came to the Yankees,
we felt like this guy is trying to get his life together," says
Willie Randolph. "He was a super guy, a model citizen. He was a guy
we wanted to embrace and help. You saw him up on a podium, saying he
had found Christ and so forth, you thought everything was cool. And
then something would happen, and you felt tricked or duped."
Mental health professionals
sometimes say that people turn to drugs and alcohol as a "coping
mechanism." Something that Strawberry could not otherwise cope with
was emotional pain. He had no place to put it and, as always, no
armor to repel it. He absorbed pain, and it ate away at him. This
was equally true of deeply painful events, like his father's
leaving, and of much more trivial hurts.
Consider Game 6 of the 1986 World
Series. Most baseball fans remember that as the wild night at Shea
when the sure-handed Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner let a
routine ground ball trickle through his legs and the Mets staged an
astonishing, back-from-the-dead comeback to set up a seventh-game
victory and World Series championship.
But as years passed, what
Strawberry recalled was that Davey Johnson had removed him late in
Game 6 in a "double switch" -- a common strategy used by National
League managers. Strawberry viewed this as an act of disloyalty, a
terrible affront -- he even, incredibly, considered it a factor that
led him to heavier drinking.
When I remind Johnson of how
Strawberry obsessed over this incident, he laughs a little. But it
is a sad laugh. "Tell Darryl that I'm sorry about the double
switch," he says. "I really am."
Even after violating probation at
the end of March, Darryl Strawberry was not considered menacing --
or, perhaps, important -- enough for law enforcement to really look
for him. "We treated him like any other nonviolent offender," Lt.
Rod Reder of the Hillsborough County Sheriffs Department, explains.
"It was, like, we'll get to it whenever. There was no manhunt."
When Darryl was ready to end his
binge, he called his friend Ray Negron, who is a consultant for the
Cleveland Indians on substance abuse issues. Negron and Ron Dock
(who works in the same capacity for the Yankees) had spent hours on
the streets of Tampa looking for Strawberry, approaching dealers and
pounding on the doors of drug dens. One night they were joined in
their grim task by Gooden, who only the day before retired after a
fine career that was brought up short of its Hall of Fame promise by
Strawberry, having been told that
his friends were searching for him, finally called from Daytona
Beach. Negron and Dock drove immediately to get him, picking him up
at a Chevron station where he had been dropped off by the friend he
was staying with. "We didn't ask him what he did for four days,"
Negron says. "When you are dealing with addicts, there is no new
story. We knew what had gone on."
For most of the two-and-a-half-hour
trip back to Tampa, Darryl Strawberry cried. At one point, Negron
says, they stopped so that he could get some fresh air and compose
himself. From the roadside, he called Gooden. "They had an embrace
on the phone," Negron says. "He just wanted to talk to Dwight."
When the drive resumed, the great Darryl Strawberry stayed focused
on the same two questions. "Do you think I'm in trouble," he kept
asking. And: "What do you think will happen next?"
The simple answer, the obvious one
for a three-time parole violator, is jail. Yet for Strawberry,
things are rarely that simple. In an earlier conversation, he had
done his best to answer that question, in his inimitable, disengaged
fashion. "God is going to deal me a hand," he said. "One way or the
other." The idea that God had granted him the power to deal for
himself in this world, to make decisions and demand respect from
himself and others; that, apparently, never became a part of Darryl