The wire story was short and to the point. “Troubled slugger Darryl Strawberry, already on probation for a drug charge, was jailed Wednesday after he was arrested for allegedly testing positive for cocaine.”
So as I arrived at Shea Stadium, Darryl’s old haunt, for Game 4 of the World Series, this news was little more than prompt for a trivia question — who is the only player to win a World Series with both the Mets and the Yankees? But strange as it seems to admit it on this side of the millennium, Darryl Strawberry is my favorite baseball player. There, I said it.
One doesn’t choose a favorite ballplayer. It’s a lot more like falling in love than, say, picking a mutual fund. And 17 years ago, Darryl was easy to fall for. Four weeks younger than I, this skinny 21-year-old was, according to the scouts, the next Ted Williams. For me he was a crucial missing link in my baseball education, the opportunity to watch a real live Hall of Famer from his very first at-bat. My father had Willie, Mickey and the Duke. I would have Darryl.
It seemed like karma, and it started out promisingly enough. Strawberry won the Rookie of the Year award and started hitting home runs in bunches as the Mets began their own renaissance. And with every moon shot hit to the beat of “Purple Rain,” I believed that Darryl’s success was foreshadowing my own. He was the sweet swinger for my generation, a Big Bopper for the Baby Busters.
Of course, it didn’t go as either of us planned. What should have been a mid-’80s Mets dynasty produced only a single World Series, and Darryl chalked up only the first half of a Cooperstown career. He hit homers, but never quite enough. A bad back ruined his sweet swing. Bad decisions — drugs, guns, the IRS — ruined his life off the field.
But while many of his one-time fans turned on him, disappointed by the things he did, the things he didn’t do, and by the fact that, in the end, he was more fallible than the rest of us, I stuck by him. It wasn’t easy but I still found myself searching for his line in the out-of-town box scores every morning during his years with Los Angeles and San Francisco. “It’s a good thing he’ll be able to play DH,” e-mailed one friend, “because he hits his wife more often than he hits the cut off man.” Ouch.
A peek at Shea’s tauntingly large right-center field scoreboard this week reminded me about why I care, bringing back memories of moon shots and batting practice barrages. Even in his final, fragile seasons with the Yankees, the Strawberry Rule still applied: Never go to the fridge or the john when Darryl’s up at the plate because you might miss something you’ll never see again.
But just when it seemed time to call it a career, Darryl proved F. Scott Fitzgerald wrong, forging a second act that took him from the low minors back to Yankee Stadium, where he joined this club in time for its first championship run. In 1996, I watched as he stood just outside the clubhouse revelry, chuckling as he watched young Andrew Giuliani consolidate the dregs of spent champagne bottles. In 1998, after Darryl’s colon cancer diagnosis, his empty locker carried as much resonance as Thurman Munson’s had after the great catcher’s death in 1979.
And last year, out of respect for Darryl’s substance abuse problems, the Yanks’ celebrations went alcohol-free — albeit backed up by a few surreptitious magnums of vintage Perrier-Jouet.
But Scott Fitz never said anything about third acts. After another drug arrest this spring, a season-long suspension and a recurrence of his cancer, most dispassionate observers chalked up Darryl’s baseball life as a thing of the past, but I found it hard to let go.
Yet on an evening when the Yankees would inch closer to their first post-Strawberry title with a 3-2 victory powered by Derek Jeter’s first-pitch home run and four and a third shutout innings by four relievers, I find that I’m not the only one thinking about Darryl. Spike Lee, standing by the batting cage wearing a red Yankees cap, simply shakes his head. “It’s sad,” he grimaces. “When you have an addiction … What can you say?”
Fellow cancer survivor Joe Torre tries to walk a tightrope, being empathetic and p.c. at the same time. “I know everybody — well, not everybody but people who know Darryl — feels for him,” the Yankees manager says, diplomatically. “But knowing what he has to go through cancerwise and treatmentwise — not that you stick up for what he’s doing or what he has done — maybe half of you says that because of what he’s going through, maybe that’s part of the reason he’s doing it.”
Keith Hernandez, who batted ahead of Strawberry for the Mets, had heard the news only 10 minutes before I approached him. “I almost started crying,” he confesses. “This is life. I’m worried that this might be over the edge now, that he might unconsciously be suicidal.”
When I mention the irony of Strawberry’s lapse coming in a week when his first team is playing his last team, Hernandez stops me in midsentence. “It’s probably making it worse, having to watch.”
Seeing these reactions, something clicks. I finally realize that for better or for worse, this attachment is about more than balls and strikes, World Series rings and champagne corks. And at this moment tense becomes everything: “Darryl Strawberry,” I mutter, “was my favorite baseball player.” There, I said it.
But even if there will be no more box scores to check, I can’t help rooting for him.