Michael Sokolove






Warrior Girls

 

 

 

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 jewelry.

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 million."

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 says.

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."

Local address?

"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 empty.

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 living."

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 life.

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, hemorrhaged money.

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 divorce lawyer.

"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 superstar.

"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 the rock."

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 felt."

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 probation.)

"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 son."

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 be happier."

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 prized player.

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 Darryl Strawberry.

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 York ballplayers.

"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 replace it.

"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 anymore.

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 better?"

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 struck gold."

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 drug detours.

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 Strawberry's theology.

Copyright ?2001 Michael Sokolove
 


Home | Michael Sokolove | Books | Other Writings Contact

Michael Sokolove
author of The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw
and Warrior Girls
A contributing writer to The New York Times
Copyright ?2004-2013 Michael Sokolove

Drama High
to be released September 2013

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