Darryl Strawberry was born on March 12, 1962 in Los Angeles - roughly three weeks after the New York Mets opened their first spring training camp ever in St. Petersburg, Florida, three weeks after John Glenn circled the globe, and the same three weeks after I slipped onto the planet in the hospital just across the street from the same suburban commuter station in Bronxville where I now catch the train every morning to Grand Central. With this week's announcement that the best everyday player in Mets history was rejoining the organization as an instructor, it seems apparent to me that Straw and I have both come full circle in the middle span of life.
I've always liked Darryl - from his introduction to New York fans as a top draft pick - the "black Ted Williams," a tall, stringy outfielder with a long, loping swing - to his final last-chance at bats with the Yankees. His were the plate appearances you didn't miss, the four or five times a game when conversation stopped, when you put down the book or the paper and really watched the game, pitch by pitch, swing by swing. The slightly open stance, the unquiet windmilling of the bat, the nervous glance back to the umpire with every pitch he took - these habits revealed the unsure Strawberry, the young man in the glare not quite comfortable with his talents, not quite sure if everyone liked him. Then the swing, that explosion of wood through the strike zone, and the sound when Darryl connected - a unique sound in those pre-steroid days - a deep, maple-tinged crack. And of course, the long, arcing moonshots to right-field.
The summer of the real moonshot, just seven years after Glenn's orbit, was the time when baseball attached itself to my life like an anchor-bolt. Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones. Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. Bud Harrelson and Ken Boswell and Jerry Grote. And the others (all from eternal memory here, folks) Shamsky, Garrett, Gaspar, Swoboda, Dyer, McAndrew, Kranepool, McGraw, Taylor, Gentry, Ryan, Cardwell, Weis, Clendenon, Koonce, Charles. Gil Hodges on the bench, Joe Pignatano on the lines at first, Eddie Yost at third, and pitching coach/genius Rube Walker in the pen. Nelson, Kiner and Murphy in the booth for Channel 9. And in the stands, the New York glamour brigade of the day: Mayor Lindsay, Jackie Onassis, Pearl Bailey, Joe Namath, Leonard Bernstein. Shea Stadium was the gleaming five-year-old jewel of Robert Moses' World's Fair parkland, and the place to watch the Mets and be watched.
Strange, as Lou Reed says, how time turns around. Seven years from spring training in 1962 to a fairy-tale world championship - the time from birth to second grade for a couple of 7-year-olds - and then 17 years until the next title. At 24, Strawberry seemed to be on the edge of a Hall of Fame career. Still hidden were the demons, the alcohol and the drugs, and the violent anger. In 1986, I was the callow deputy editor of The Riverdale Press, the youngest newsroom denizen of that storied Bronx newspaper, learning the hard first lessons of management and responsibility. When she turned over the reins to me earlier that year, my predecessor - a brilliant community journalist - cracked laconically to this fresh-faced 24-year-old: "no more boy wonder, huh?" No kidding. My beat was Bronx politics and what an education the likes of Stanley Friedman, Mario Biaggi, and Walter Diamond provided on a weekly basis.
Over at Shea, Darryl Strawberry was being slowly brought along by veteran baseball man Jim Frey, who recognized his protege's sensitive nature and worried about the glare of New York. The kid showed plenty of promise and his homers were becoming legendary. The big numbers would come, if Darryl could "stay within himself." But by 1986, Frey was gone, Davey Johnson was in, the Mets clubhouse was the wild west of baseball, and the rollercoaster ride was on.
That year, my buddy Larry (he covered the schools) and I created our own partial season ticket plan at Shea, investing in tickets to a dozen games or so in advance. It was a good call. We were there all year, usually seated just above what Bob Murphy always called "the auxiliary scoreboard" just into fair territory in right-field, next to Strawberry. From those seats we watched him cover a lot of territory, fire the ball in the from the corner, send moonshots over our heads to the upper deck, and endure the growing taunts of fans he would never quite satisfy, the cowardly and mocking sing-song Darr-yl, Darr-yl. Even from the hometown guys.
You could tell that Straw had rabbit ears; he heard those taunts and it hurt. In truth, the '86 Mets were the team of Hernandez and Carter and Gooden more than Strawberry. But Darryl was the force in that lineup. And he was clutch - hitting crucial homeruns in the crazed playoffs with the Astros and the landmark Series with the Red Sox. But he was hurt when Davey Johnson double-switched him out of Game 6 after a big homerun, and he was hurt in future years by the jeers and the taunts.
And he began to hurt himself, and - on occasion - others. His first wife Lisa complained that he broke her nose in a fight in 1986. He fathered a child with another woman. In 1990, he was arrested for alleged assault with a deadly weapon during an argument with his wife; he is alleged to have hit her in the face with an open hand and also to have threatened her with a .25-caliber semiautomatic handgun, but charges are dropped. He goes to Smithers to dry out. He leaves the Mets for the Dodgers. In 1993, Darryl is arrested for allegedly striking Charisse Simons, the 26-year-old woman he lived with; charges were dropped. An IRS investigation ensues. He disappears from a Dodgers game and enters drug rehab. In 1994, he's indicted for failure to pay Federal income taxes and pays a $350,000 fine. A year later, he is suspended for 60 days for failing a drug test. More rehab. In 1995, he's charged with failure to pay child support. The Yankees offer a chance for a comeback. He battles colon cancer and chemo in '98 and '99, often heroically.
But the demons got worse. Three more drug suspensions and the cancer came back. More surgery and treatment. More arrests and charges. And then jail for two years - a real stretch. And always the promises with Darryl: this is the year I'll lead the team, this is the year I'll hit 50 homers, this time I'll stay straight, this time I'll be faithful, this time I've found the Lord.
And so it goes. When he was in jail in Florida a year or so ago, his last chances run out and his promises dim, I wrote him a quick letter. Just to say he wasn't forgotten. And because, as another 40-year-old with a different set of miles, I was well aware of the "there but for the grace of God" factor at play. Darryl could hit a fastball a mile, and I could write a line or two. His talents produced an arc of success and failure like the creaky, wooden rollercoaster at Coney Island - loud and scary and sudden. Mine produced what has been, comparatively, a series of more gently rolling hills. Who knows why.
Darryl Strawberry had the best year of his life in 1987, when he hit 39 homeruns, drove in 104, stole 36 bases, and hit .284. He was only 25, already in trouble off the field, with nowhere to go but down. He has two more similar years - in '88 and '90. He finished his career with 335 homers and an even 1,000 runs batted in. But there were more arrests than All Star appearances, more rehab stints than pennants.
It would be easy to point to Strawberry's upbringing in a tough LA neighborhood and his early success as factors in his downfall; these are the oft-cited reasons. Poor black guy from Compton had too much too soon and crashed. This is simple, too simple, and life is more complex, all myriad shades of gray. As I told Strawberry in that letter, everyone has demons, we're all in the midst of a titanic battle against them almost every day. The only path is forward. Because of his talents, Darryl's were played out in public, in the rocket's glare of his moonshots. Springsteen wrote: "Nothing is forgotten or foregiven when it's your last time around." But we're also a society of comebacks and, it seems, it's almost never too late, unless the pilot light goes out.
Darryl Strawberry and I are a couple of children of the late winter of 1962, when everything seemed possible. And I'm glad that the Straw is back with the Mets.