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.
But maybe I'd been too hasty. "Would God punish Strawberry for cocaine and not bother with all the ballplayers who get drunk after every game?" asks Reverend James Nelson, a Southern Baptist minister in Minneapolis and the director of professional counseling at the Minnesota School of Professional Psychology. "Just because he hasn't told sportswriters, 'I've sinned, been wrong, and I want forgiveness' doesn't mean he hasn't asked God. And then you have to take into account that addiction is a disease. How many consequences should a man bear for an illness, no matter what its root? Again, that's only for God to know."
Rabbi Howard A. Cohen of Congregation Beth El in Bennington, Vermont, says that according to the Jewish concept of Tishuvah, or repentance, "we need to do more than just express regret"--we also have to correct our behavior. "Each time a sin is repeated, it stains the soul," Cohen says. "Eventually, a sin is so frequently repeated it leaves the person permanently stained."
Yet Rabbi Cohen isn't without sympathy for Strawberry. "One way to understand Teshuvah with someone like Darryl Strawberry," he says, "is that his expressions of remorse have each been sincere. The fact that his problem is one of addiction comes with its own complicating factors."
I felt better, less like I'd been made a fool of for falling for what sure seemed like the last act of Darryl Strawberry's road show. He has been given far more chances than most offenders, but he has paid a price for choosing cocaine over beer as his drug of choice: His too-much-too-soon career won't end in the Hall of Fame but might now conclude in an avalanche of national ridicule. The slugger who hit more home runs in his first five years in the majors than Mickey Mantle is so broke he can't even afford to have removed from his shoulder the tattoo of the name of his first wife.
The 18-year-old who came out of Los Angeles's Compton ghetto with the sweetest swing anyone had ever seen, and who was immediately snapped up as the top pick of the 1980 draft, will turn 38 next month, Paleolithic by baseball standards. He has already been suspended for a year, and sources within his team's front office say that Strawberry is about as likely ever to wear Yankee pinstripes again as George Steinbrenner is to take up Sufi dancing.
When Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, announced the suspension, he sounded a perhaps belated note of tough love. "I had no doubt that his remorse and sorrow were genuine, and I worried about the effect my decision would have on his health and the welfare of his family," Selig said. "In the end, I could not ignore Darryl's past infractions and concluded that each of us must be held accountable for his or her actions."
And so he will. And even if that Florida judge's words aren't ringing in Strawberry's ears right now, they are in mine: "When you stop producing, no one will care about you." For now, and probably forever, Strawberry has stopped producing. Say it ain't so, Joe.
Neal Karlen is the author, most recently, of "Slouching Toward Fargo: A Two-Year Saga of Sinners and St. Paul Saints at the Bottom of the Bush Leagues With Bill Murray, Darryl Strawberry, Dakota Sadie and Me," which will be out in paperback this month.