Darryl Strawberry Is Not Trying to Save You

by Pelican Press
93 views 9 minutes read

It was a lazy, humid weekday afternoon at Citi Field, and the early birds were taking a steam bath. Ed Kranepool, an original Met, was on the field near the Mets dugout, shaking hands, making the scene. Charlie Hayes, the old Yankee third baseman, was sitting on a cushioned field-level seat near third base. In a few hours, his son, Ke’Bryan Hayes, would be playing third and batting third for the visitors, the Pittsburgh Pirates. Nearby, on the field in foul territory, Jay Horwitz, Mets PR man since 1980, was doing the Jay Horwitz Pregame Shuffle, toes out, head bobbing, checking on this, checking on that.

It only seemed like Old-Timers’ Day.

And then, three hours or so before the night’s first pitch, an icon of New York baseball strolled into this summer-in-the-city scene. Darryl Strawberry, his own self. Forty years ago he was a Mets rookie with a 30-inch waist and about six feet of shoulders. For a long time, Strawberry wasn’t an active Mets alumnus, but under the team’s newish ownership — Steven A. Cohen, take a rare bow in this dismal season! — Strawberry has been coming around, at least now and again. The owner remembers Strawberry in his prime. He roots for him as all New Yorkers root for him. Darryl Strawberry — there was always something about him. You could see it in his face.

Strawberry can’t tell you much about the Mets’ left-handed bats off the bench. His life in baseball has come and gone. But he knows and appreciates the doors baseball opened for him, and he was at the ballpark on that recent night to meet and greet some big-check donors to the foundation he runs with his wife, Tracy Strawberry. Among other things, the foundation helps pay for treatment programs for addicts of every kind. Strawberry knows such programs intimately. So does his wife. Tracy Strawberry is an ordained minister, has a doctorate in theology and, like her husband, is an addict in recovery.

“Seventy-eight, Jay?” Strawberry said. It was Jay Horwitz’s birthday, not that he wanted anybody to know. “Man. Happy birthday, Jay.”

Strawberry is tall as ever at 61, with a slight paunch, but with the same bashful smile and powerful arms and how-you-doin’ manner that made him an adopted son in Queens (eight years with the Mets) and the Bronx (five with the Yankees) and across the city’s three other boroughs, plus Long Island and North Jersey and the parts of Connecticut that New York claims as its own.

Horwitz looked up at Strawberry, a member of the Mets Hall of Fame, though his number has not been retired. Strawberry looked good. He’s been clean and sober for — he doesn’t put a date to it, like some in recovery do. “Ever since I found God,” he’ll tell you. He’ll talk to anybody.

Strawberry watched the Pirates-Mets game from an open-air private suite where passing fans could snap photos of him or ask him to sign things, his 2.0 reading glasses perched on the top of his shaved head all the while. The suite’s owner, a self-made building-services entrepreneur named Michael Rodriguez, stood beside Strawberry and said, “If you walk into a room, and Darryl Strawberry says, ‘M-Rod!,’ there’s no better feeling.” Connecting with people is more than a personality trait for Strawberry. It’s almost a calling. At Strawberry’s invitation, Hayes was taking in the game from the suite, too, and when his son stroked an opposite-field single, Strawberry said, “Just like his daddy!”

When the Yankees won the 1996 World Series in six games over the Atlanta Braves, clinching it at Yankee Stadium, Hayes caught the final out. Strawberry, the Yankee left fielder, came dashing in to the victory pile. Dwight Gooden, who came up in the Mets organization alongside Strawberry, pitched for the Yankees in 1996 but wasn’t on the postseason roster. Fatigue, the team said. They will always be linked, Strawberry and Gooden. Gooden’s struggles with alcohol and drugs, money and relationships have been just as well documented as Strawberry’s. But for New Yorkers of a certain age, Doc and Straw and all their long-ago promise is a feel-good dream that will not die. There’s a certain wistful loveliness in all of that, the mind drifting to what could have been.

Darryl Strawberry has no holy roller in him. He’s not trying to save you or to convert you. (Most of his friends are Jewish, he says.) There’s no spittle coming out of his mouth when he cites Matthew or Abraham. He grew up in Los Angeles. He became a star in New York. He and Tracy live near St. Louis. In their blended family, they have nine children.

In recent years, Strawberry has been visiting churches, schools, hospitals — and, most especially, prisons — about 200 days a year. “I’m happiest when I go through a prison gate and I see people who might never see life outside again,” he said. He sees himself in these people. He sees their promise. He was on his way to a late-summer Monday-night baseball game, but the game itself was about the last thing on his mind.

Strawberry was staying with a friend, Nelson Braff, in Demarest, N.J., and driving to Citi Field via the George Washington Bridge. His ride was a large, boxy BMW rental, with air conditioning he could not control. Braff is an owner of the Hunt & Fish Club, the Midtown restaurant popular with ballplayers of a certain standing and men with made-to-measure shirts. It’s a world Strawberry knows. But he’ll tell you he’s more comfortable in a prison rec yard, and he means it.

“I preach hope,” Strawberry said, a greater New York road map on the screen of his phone. He can talk baseball, of course, his electrifying at-bats in the Mets-Houston National League Championship Series in 1986, his .435 batting average during a brief comeback stint with the St. Paul Saints 10 years later, all of that. But spiritual comebacks and second chances are the themes that interest him most.

He sometimes makes these prison visits with his personal manager, John Luppo, a 56-year-old break-dancing, sports-mad Bronx native and a former Wall Street trader with his own harrowing story of addiction and a path to recovery that started with Strawberry. Luppo sets up the prison visits. The clearances and the bureaucracy can be daunting. Luppo is ill-suited to it. Still, he gets it done.

About five years ago, Len Vanden Bos, then the Chicago Bears chaplain (now the Buffalo Bills chaplain) asked Strawberry to join him on a visit to Louisiana State Penitentiary, the notorious but evolving maximum-security prison often called Angola. Angola is larger than Manhattan and has more than 6,000 prisoners. Vanden Bos had brought many N.F.L. players there, but Strawberry was the first former major leaguer.

Through Vanden Bos, Strawberry met an Angola inmate named Keith Morse, serving a life sentence for the 1994 shooting death of his son’s aunt. Morse entered prison at age 19. He had been an outfielder at Airline High in Bossier City, La. He modeled his right-handed swing on Strawberry’s left-handed one. The father of Albert Belle, the former American League slugger, was one of Morse’s coaches. Dwight Gooden was one of his baseball heroes. None of that seemed to interest Strawberry.

“The first time he came in, there was nothing there,” Morse said in a phone interview. “I thought, ‘He doesn’t like me.’” But the second time, something clicked. Strawberry gave Morse signed baseball cards. “He said, ‘What can I do for you?’ I said, ‘You can pray for me.’ He said, ‘What more can I do for you?’”

Strawberry wrote a letter to the Louisiana parole board on Morse’s behalf. He sat with the victim’s family, who supported Morse’s release, at a parole hearing. Morse was released in 2020. He and Strawberry speak by phone now and again. “Keith has his ups and downs,” Strawberry said. “Like all of us.”

When Strawberry talks to inmates, he often finds himself sharing an observation with them: We’re all prisoners, of a kind, whether you’re doing life or chasing the high life. “I’ve seen so many people, successful people, athletes and celebrities, try to buy their way out of loneliness and emptiness with their credit cards, with drugs, with alcohol, at strip clubs,” Strawberry said the other day. “I did it myself. You’re still a prisoner.” Enter God. Yes, that’s where Strawberry’s head is these days.

Strawberry said goodbye to M-Rod in his open-air Citi Field suite and left Flushing Meadows with the Mets batting in the fifth. Hayes was riding in the passenger seat as Strawberry pointed his chilly BMW rental west on Astoria Boulevard on a warm summer night in Queens. They talked about Doc. They talked about the car’s climate control. They talked about the tacos at the Queens restaurant where Hayes was headed. Strawberry wasn’t coming in.

“I’ve got to get home,” Strawberry told his old teammate. They talked briefly about the upcoming Old-Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium, on Sept. 9. “I’ll see you there, bro,” Strawberry said.

Between now and then, Strawberry will be preaching hope wherever he finds himself. No spittle. No yelling. Just Darryl, talking about second chances. Just Darryl, on Darryl, when you get right down to it.

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