It has never been easy writing about Darryl Strawberry.
It has never been easy being Darryl Strawberry.
The albatross of great expectations has weighed heavily on him since he was the first player selected in the 1980 draft out of Crenshaw High and was playing right field for the New York Mets at a vulnerable 21--tempted by the neons and taunted by the tabloids.
He is 37 now and faced with another controversy, another crucible and crossroads.
Where does it end? How does it play out?
How many chances does one person get to sustain his gift and career, to display the maturity and responsibility normally associated with age, particularly a person rescued so often from the abyss and who has so many to thank--primary among them being his current boss with the New York Yankees, George Steinbrenner?
It was Steinbrenner who gave Strawberry a $2.5-million contract last winter when there was no certainty Strawberry would be able to return from colon cancer.
It was Steinbrenner, at a time when Strawberry was deep in debt and no one else in baseball was interested, who rescued Strawberry from the halfway house that is the St. Paul Saints in 1995 and gave him another shot at the major leagues--warning him at the time that he would be Strawberry's worst nightmare if his drug problems resurfaced or he embarrassed the organization.
Strawberry responded. A good teammate and productive player when physically fit. An apparently good citizen--until late Wednesday night, when arrested in Tampa for cocaine possession and solicitation of prostitution.
If Strawberry pleads guilty or is convicted on the drug charge, he is almost certain to be suspended and penalized by baseball as a repeat offender, having been suspended for 60 days in 1995 after testing positive for cocaine--a second offense.
If it is determined that he has violated the behavior clause standard in almost all baseball contracts, Steinbrenner could void the 1999 commitment and possibly end a career plagued by drug and domestic problems, tax and legal issues.
This latest incident in an ongoing melodrama occurred as Strawberry continued to work out at the Yankee training base in preparation for joining the club's triple-A affiliate, a possible steppingstone to his rejoining the Yankees. His spring work was delayed by chemotherapy treatments, an arthritic knee and his recovery from a January surgery to break adhesions left by the removal of his malignant tumor last October.
In a February interview with this reporter, Strawberry mentioned how longtime friend Eric Davis had recovered from a similar illness to resume his baseball career and become a positive example and motivating influence for cancer victims.
Strawberry said he wanted to be a similar example.
"My goal is to help others suffering with this disease," he said. "By being on the field, I can send a message of hope and faith. Believe in yourself and don't give up. No matter what you have to deal with, you still have to move forward. I draw my own support from the comfort I give others."
While innocent until proven guilty, Strawberry seems to have reneged on that goal, spitting again on his responsibility to family, friends and organization, along with the spirituality that he had so often cited as key to his recent growth.
Medical people say it is not unusual for cancer patients to experience depression and mood swings--which the Yankees claim Strawberry exhibited throughout spring training--as they cope with the chemo and their own sense of mortality. Nor is it unusual, they say, for a recovering addict to experience a relapse when confronted by the severe stress of cancer or another illness--to regress out of a feeling of futility or a sense they are being punished and opt to reward themselves.
When the Yankees headed west to open the season, Strawberry remained in Tampa to work out on his own, undoubtedly wrestling with his emotions. He returned to Yankee Stadium last weekend for presentation of the 1998 World Series rings but appeared distant, according to reports.
Is what he has been through recently and what he continues to go through justification for his actions Wednesday night?
According to the Associated Press, Sgt. Marc J. Hamlin wrote in a report that Strawberry "continually apologized" and was "very remorseful" for what he had done, asking several times "if there was anything we could do to change this situation, because this was going to ruin his career."
He maintained that he was merely joking with the undercover officer about sex and that the cocaine was not his, possibly being left wrapped in a $20 bill by his wife's uncle, who used the vehicle the night before.