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Subdued Strawberry : After Two Forgettable Seasons, Outfielder Taking New Tack

March 22, 1994|MARYANN HUDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VERO BEACH, Fla. — Look at the legs, they say, and you can tell Darryl Strawberry is back. He's running the bases with fervor, something he couldn't do before--not the last two seasons, anyway.

Strawberry says he first felt a little back soreness when he sat out the last couple of games of the 1990 season with the New York Mets. But no one thought anything about it then. Strawberry checked out fine when the Dodgers gave him a physical and was signed to a five-year, $20.25-million contract. He certainly showed no signs of a problem during the 1991 season, when he nearly took the Dodgers to a division title.

So did a little soreness later turn into a two-year debacle? Not even Strawberry is sure about that. All he knows is that he quit stealing bases after 1988, when he stole 29. The season before, he stole 36. And now, to the surprise of opposing pitchers, Strawberry is at it again, although the basepaths seem to be the only place where he is in a hurry.

Quietly, Strawberry is plodding back. He is slow to speak, slow to walk and slow to go. He arrives at the clubhouse early and lingers late into the afternoon, often putting in extra running after a game, always signing autographs for fans.

His fans? Yes. At least in Florida, the tide is starting to turn again.

Sometimes he returns to Dodgertown in the evening--only one of a few players to do so. If it's a party, he drinks soda. If it's a Bible study group, he speaks. If it's a radio show, he shows up on time. He even dresses differently. The chartreuse and red plaid number has yet to make an appearance. This is a new, subdued Strawberry.

"My wife dresses me now," he says, referring to Charisse, his wife of three months.

He has rewritten his list of friends, getting rid of many of the hangers-on, and has added some new names. They include a new baby, a minister, and Charisse, whom Strawberry said helped pull him out of despair last September when he contemplated suicide. He had virtually lost two seasons, was continually booed and jeered and was frequently in some sort of trouble.

But Strawberry hit his low point when he was arrested for allegedly assaulting Charisse, of which he was later cleared.

"I could have killed myself," Strawberry said.

"But that's an avenue that I had to go through in life because there is so much I wanted to be able to know about myself and didn't. And the whole thing about not knowing yourself was that because you have always been put on a pedestal to be this great individual where everybody expected so much out of you, and you couldn't give it to them the way they wanted it. So it wasn't appreciated, and you felt like, what's left?

"But there is a lot left."

Strawberry's surgically repaired back is apparently strong again, and to be sure it stays that way, he has made a few changes. To ease the pressure, he has changed his swing, minimizing his trademark loop. And he plays left field now, because in right field he throws more frequently across his body, putting more stress on his back.

He is hitting the ball again, although his stroke isn't quite back. There are signs of the vintage Strawberry, but not enough of them for anyone in the Dodger organization to get excited. They, too, are reacting slowly.

"It took a lot of strength to turn the page and be able to see a different sight, but that's what the whole key is, to get to the point of getting the strength and live life a different way," Strawberry said. "The most significant thing about me today is that I enjoy me for me and not for anybody else, and I choose today in my life not to share myself with others that I don't want to associate with.

"I will succeed, and with more peace about it rather than wanting to do it or having to do it. Those drives are not there. Now it's like, just do it. Go out and be an example of what life can be like when you are successful at a young age in your major league career and you deal with trials and tribulations and overcome that. It's great to be able to come and look at the whole picture differently and know it's yours, without worrying yourself about it."

Through four weeks of spring training, Strawberry has been this way. His eyes reflect new peace, his laugh is back, and his speech is more calculated. He has yet to say anything worth a headline, which is a record not found in baseball books but in the notebooks of reporters, who in years past only had to wait about 10 minutes for Strawberry to say something to lead a story with.

But for Strawberry, this respite may be short-lived. The past is threatening to pull him under again. Strawberry is facing a possible grand jury indictment for not reporting all his income from memorabilia shows from his days with the Mets. He denies any wrongdoing, but knows he is the target of an investigation that includes several players.

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