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It's Unseemly To Cast Stones at Strawberry

To read the stories following his arrest in Florida, you would think the guy had committed mass murder.

April 20, 1999|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. E-mail:

Let's say it wasn't Darryl Strawberry, the famed-if-fading outfielder for the New York Yankees, who was caught in that Tampa, Fla., police sting operation.

What if you heard that the guy down the block who is in the middle of chemotherapy for colon cancer was set up by a cop posing as a prostitute, and in the course of being arrested for that clearly victimless crime was found to have .3 grams of cocaine on his person? Might your response not be a sympathetic variant of, "Whatever gets you through the night?"

But to read the stories following Strawberry's arrest in Florida, you would think the guy had committed mass murder. "The signposts along that dangerous road," the Yankee hometown paper Newsday sanctimoniously intoned, "were visible weeks before Strawberry steered his sports utility vehicle into the cross hairs of a police sting operation."

Just what was that "dangerous road" that put him in police "cross hairs"? Nothing that isn't done every day by thousands of respectable businessmen wandering from their hotel rooms in search of sex.

Strawberry's mistake was in talking about sex with a cop who evidently had nothing better to do on official time. It was she who posed as a prostitute, then reported to her backup team, after Strawberry drove off, that she had got her man because he had agreed to have sex for money at a motel nearby.

But the blatant attempt at entrapment failed when Strawberry got back in his car and drove right past the motel, supporting his claim that he had only been kidding about buying sex. Nonetheless, he was stopped by police, who then found an amount of cocaine equal to less than a third of a packet of Sweet 'n Low.

What is the "crime" here? Why is his personal struggle, which hurt no one--he was sober while driving, after all--the concern of the law? Instead of outrage over this government intrusion into the lives of individuals, we are told in shocked terms that Strawberry betrayed his fans and, more important, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, who is reported to be "livid."

This is the same Steinbrenner who was suspended from baseball but allowed to return because he is, after all, the owner. But now he is pictured as an idealist who took a chance on a player who failed him. Owner Steinbrenner, who was in seclusion avoiding reporters at his horse farm some 60 miles away from the site of Strawberry's arrest, might as well have been pondering a leg fracture in one of his thoroughbreds. This notion of ownership is what gives sports team owners the right to test the bodily fluids of athletes for drugs.

Ironically, in Strawberry's case, the gateway to illegal drugs was alcohol, for which he was treated at a detox center five years before his first public tussle with illicit drugs. Ironic, because if Strawberry had been charged in Tampa with drinking beer instead of using cocaine, he would have perfectly represented the role model of sports TV advertising--the guy who gives up his clothes in the Arctic for a bottle of beer, or the two shmoes who use their last dollars for a cheap six-pack instead of a roll of toilet paper.

When a pathetic son tells his father, "I love you, man," as a ploy to get his favorite beer and a laugh from the viewership of Monday Night Football, the hypocrisy surrounding addiction in this country is made sadly clear.

The fact is that sports has become a horrid metaphor for life, its much proclaimed value system a tissue of lies. What is asked of athletes is not that they be good in their personal lives but only that they be discreet. If they keep up the pretenses, they are admired, but when they falter, they are bitterly scorned.

Instead of sympathy for a cancer patient coming to grips, at the early age of 37, with mortality, we have been treated to incessant tongue-wagging about how Strawberry has failed us as a role model, unable to stick to the stoic script the culture provides.

I, for one, didn't play it any way but desperately scared when they cut a tumor out of my stomach, and I have no right to demand an athlete, even a famous one, do better. I hit that hospital morphine button as often as I could, and if the doctor had prescribed cocaine, I would have used it to get me through the night.

What right do baseball owners, the government or any of us have to so harshly condemn Strawberry for the same escape?

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