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Clock strikes 440 feet for Strawberry

Strawberry's story one of unfulfilled potential
By Mike Puma
Special to

"All that was left now was to blow his brains out and hope the life insurance policy would take care of his family," says Bergen Record sportswriter Bob Klapisch on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Darryl Strawberry
Strawberry helped the Yankees win their first World Series in 18 years with their victory over Atlanta in 1996.
What he didn't achieve in baseball was more the story of Darryl Strawberry's career than what he actually accomplished. His 335 home runs and 1,000 RBI seem impressive until one considers how many more he might have recorded had he avoided drugs and alcohol.

In his 17-year career with the Mets, Dodgers, Giants and Yankees, Strawberry was suspended three times by Major League Baseball for substance abuse. The Mets' all-time leader in homers (252) and RBI (733), the lean rightfielder burst on the scene in 1983 as a 21-year-old rookie who became revered for his smooth left-handed swing, with a sweet last name impossible to forget.

He was part of four world championship teams, settling into a complementary role with the Yankees after starring for the Mets for eight seasons. Assorted injuries, drinking and a cocaine addiction sabotaged the 6-foot-6, 215-pound Strawberry in his prime. Over his final eight seasons, he averaged only 42 games and finished with a .259 lifetime average.

An eight-time All-Star, Strawberry also drew the wrath of teammates and fans for what was perceived as a lackadaisical attitude. Davey Johnson, his Mets manager for seven seasons, said Strawberry was comfortable hitting 30 homers a season and stealing 30 bases, even when he could have accomplished more. "He had the swing, the grace, the power," Johnson said. "When he wanted to be, he was as good as it gets."

Although Strawberry was one of the game's best power hitters, it was his unfulfilled potential that frustrated many. "He can be the most exciting player in the game when he feels like it," teammate Mackey Sasser said. "The situation is whether or not he feels like it."

Strawberry disliked the expectations and pressure that came with playing in New York early in his career. He admitted the fans got to him. "The drinking and drugging, that was a way of punishing myself and the fans, too," he said. "I figured, 'If you want to get negative on me, you won't get the best out of me.'"

By the time Strawberry received his last drug suspension -- a one-year ban in February 2000 -- he was in a new kind of battle, one for his life. Stricken with colon cancer in 1998, Strawberry has twice undergone surgery to remove cancerous tissue.

The youngest of Henry and Ruby Strawberry's three boys -- two daughters came later -- Darryl was born on March 12, 1962 in Los Angeles. When Darryl was 13, Henry, a postal worker who enjoyed gambling and drinking to excess, separated from Ruby, a telephone-company employee. They would divorce.

Darryl Strawberry
L.A. got to see Strawberry at his best for only one season -- when he hit 28 homers in '91.
Before high school, Strawberry's prodigious homers made him a local playground legend. At Crenshaw High, in one of the city's toughest neighborhoods, Strawberry channeled his energy into basketball and baseball. He made the varsity baseball team as a sophomore, but after his coach disciplined him for an incident in which Strawberry didn't hustle, he quit the team and wasn't allowed to return until the next season.

Crenshaw High baseball games became a gathering place for scouts as Strawberry hit .371 as a junior and .400 as a senior. The Mets made him the No. 1 pick in the 1980 free-agent draft.

He spent 2 years in the minors before joining the Mets. Playing 122 games, he hit .257 with 26 homers and 74 RBI and was voted the National League's Rookie of the Year in 1983. The next season, he again hit 26 homers but with 97 RBI. In May 1985, he underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb suffered when he made a diving catch and he missed 43 games. Still, he rapped 29 homers that season.

The Mets rolled to 108 victories in 1986, with Strawberry hitting 27 homers and knocking in 93 runs. Though he batted only .217 in the postseason, he hit two homers and had five RBI in the NLCS victory over Houston and homered in the Game 7 win over Boston in the World Series.

While Strawberry had emerged as one of the game's brightest stars, his personal life was a mess. His first wife, Lisa, filed a petition for legal separation in January 1987, accusing him of breaking her nose the previous year.

But his off-the-field problems didn't stop Strawberry from producing on the field. His best overall numbers came in 1987, when he led the NL with 39 homers, hit a career-high .284 and drove in 104 runs. He also became the first NL player voted to the All-Star Game in each of his first four full seasons.

In 1988, Strawberry drove in 101 runs and again hit 39 homers, and almost won the MVP award; he lost to the Dodgers' Kirk Gibson by 36 votes. The following season, Strawberry slumped to 29 homers and 77 RBI.

In late January 1990, Strawberry was arrested in Los Angeles for allegedly striking Lisa in the face and threatening her with a handgun. Eight days later, he entered Smithers Centers for alcohol rehabilitation. He stayed six days at Smithers. A month later, Los Angeles city attorneys announced no charges would be filed against him regarding the incident with Lisa.

After hitting 37 homers in 1990 and setting a Mets' record with 108 RBI, Strawberry went for the green and returned home, signing a five-year, $20.3- million contract with the Dodgers. He set a club record for most homers by a lefthanded hitter (28) in 1991, but lower back injuries curtailed his next two seasons, limiting him to a total of 75 games.

Darryl Strawberry
Darryl Strawberry has become just as associated with this uniform as his baseball jersey.
In September 1993, Strawberry, who was divorced from Lisa, was arrested for allegedly striking Charisse Simons, the 26-year-old woman with whom he lived. Later that month, Strawberry said he flirted with the idea of suicide. He and Simons married in December and they have three children. Strawberry had two children from his first marriage.

After failing to show for the Dodgers' final exhibition game in 1994 -- he wasn't located until the following day -- Strawberry admitted to having a substance abuse problem and entered Betty Ford Center, where he stayed 28 days for treatment. He was released by the Dodgers and signed with the Giants, for whom he played 29 games.

Two months after the season ended, Strawberry and his agent, Eric Goldschmidt, were indicted on federal tax evasion charges for failing to report income from card and autograph shows. Two months later, Strawberry tested positive for cocaine and was suspended 60 days by MLB. The Giants released him.

After being ordered to repay $350,000 in taxes and receiving a sentence of six months of home confinement, Strawberry's career seemed finished. Then came a call from the Yankees, who signed Strawberry on June 19, 1995. Owner George Steinbrenner made it clear that Strawberry was on a tight leash.

Hitting only three homers in 32 games in 1995, Strawberry wasn't offered a contract for the following season. He started 1996 playing for the St. Paul Saints of the Northern League, but the Yankees brought him back in July. Strawberry responded by hitting .262 with 11 homers and 36 RBI in 63 games.

In the ALCS against the Orioles, he hit .417 with three homers, including two in Game 4. The Yankees went on to win their first World Series in 18 years with their victory over Atlanta although Strawberry batted just .188.

Knee problems forced Strawberry to miss most of 1997. The next year he hit 24 homers, but his chance to play in the postseason ended when he was diagnosed with colon cancer on October 1. He underwent surgery two days later to remove a walnut-sized cancerous tumor. The Yankees dedicated their World Series victory over the Padres to him.

While attempting a comeback in April 1999, Strawberry was arrested during extended spring training in Tampa for cocaine possession and for soliciting an undercover officer for sex. He was given a four-month suspension by MLB and then returned to help the Yankees win a second straight world championship. In the postseason, he hit .333 with two homers and four RBI.

Three months later, Strawberry again tested positive for cocaine. He was suspended by MLB for one year, during which time he underwent additional cancer surgery.

In March 2001, a four-day drug binge left Strawberry suicidal. After a hospital stay, he was sentenced in May to spend two years in a drug treatment center. But the next year Strawberry was ejected from Phoenix House for repeatedly breaking its rules, including the one not allowing sex between residents. Sentenced to 18 months for violating his probation, Strawberry was released in April 2003 from the Gainesville (Florida) Correctional Institution after serving 11 months.

He rejoined the Yankees in November 2003, with duties that included serving as a spring training instructor. However, Strawberry quit three months later, saying he wanted to devote his time to Without Walls International Church.

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