When we last saw Darryl Strawberry, he was standing center stage outside New York's City Hall, sobbing. The Yankees had just won the World Series, and the aging slugger had rebounded from colon cancer and a firestorm of infractions (drug, alcohol, and spousal abuse, not to mention tax problems) that had almost immolated his career. Now, having finally, finally, finally cleaned up, Strawberry had played in the series and taken yet another slow drive down Broadway for a confetti-filled victory parade.
He was the picture of redemption. Head bowed, Strawberry wept for a full 48 seconds before wiping away his tears and managing what sure sounded like a sincere "Thanks for caring for me." The affecting scene, shown repeatedly on national television, moved me to tears too.
I'd known Darryl for a few months several years before, when he'd been exiled to the minor leagues for one of his drug offenses. Back then, he'd melted my jaded journalist's heart with his smiling kindliness to fans in small midwestern towns, and with the sighs of shame that he issued whenever his probation officer came into the locker room, tapped him on the shoulder, interrupted his conversations with teammates, and handed him a lab cup for his unannounced thrice-weekly urinalysis.
In hindsight, I thought bitterly last week, those scenes and the one at City Hall had been a bravura performance worthy of the Lunts. For the next time the country saw the troubled ballplayer was last week, in tiny rectangular newspaper photos that looked like a cross between baseball cards and mug shots. On January 19, Strawberry had tested positive once again for cocaine. Now he's been suspended, for the third and probably last time.
At first, I felt personally betrayed for allowing myself to suspend my disbelief about the redemption of this pathological liar. Despite the born-again Christian boilerplate he'd been trumpeting since 1996, he clearly showed no sense of guilt, shame, or willingness to face the consequences after his latest snort. Instead, he had pleaded with authorities not to release his dirty test results, lest they harm what now looks like the tatters, rather than the swan song, of his misbegotten career.
In the days since, however, I've realized that while Darryl was obviously no saint, he was also not the inhuman, idiotic creature that he's now being portrayed as. On the victory podium last fall, Strawberry had thanked his manager, his teammates, and the world for caring, but had we perhaps cared too much? Had we given Strawberry one too many breaks because of his extraordinary talent? Had we done him any favors by letting him off so easy, so many times, because he had for two decades the most beautiful swing in the land?
Had society's judgments bent too far because Strawberry's million-dollar home runs were so impressive that he seemed to belie Robin Williams's dictum that "cocaine is God's way of telling you have too much money"? Did it help that, last April, the second-to-last time Strawberry tested positive for cocaine, Yankees manager Joe Torre, who was counting on Strawberry's bat in the lineup, didn't call his act a relapse, tragedy, or crime but called it "Darryl's little hiccup"?
Even then, though, some of the off-field wrist-slappers had begun to lose patience. Florida Circuit Court judge Jack Espinosa Jr., who sentenced Strawberry to probation for pleading no contest to that cocaine charge and for soliciting a prostitute, lectured him sternly, saying: "This really isn't about baseball, it isn't about your job, but about you. When you stop producing, nobody will care about you."
In 1996, Darryl Strawberry already seemed so tainted that no team in professional baseball would sign him, except the St. Paul Saints of the lowly Northern League. Was it Providence or the ultimate irony that sent Strawberry to a team that takes its name from the apostle most associated with forgiving love, the one who preached that the grace of God is freely given?
That summer, I was writing a book on the team--a crew of bad-news bears owned by the comedian Bill Murray. Initially rolling my eyes at Strawberry's nonstop praise-Jesus bromides, I soon became a sneaky journalist, spying on him from behind trees when he didn't know a reporter was watching.
He made it back to the Yankees that summer. And then tested positive again the next spring, and then last week. Disillusioned with this man I used to respect, I felt like the little kid who said, "Say it ain't so, Joe," to Shoeless Joe Jackson after the Chicago White Sox star admitted to throwing the 1919 World Series and was banned from baseball for life.