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Free Darryl


Where Lupica, the consummate insider, is full of warm nostalgia in Summer of '98 -- ultimately, he paints Strawberry's resilience as an inspirational parable for his three sons -- Dean Chadwin, watching on TV and from the right-field bleachers, is all joyless scold in Those Damn Yankees. Chadwin's politics are old-school, eat-your-peas Upper West Side liberal, and he sees the Yankees' long, dominating run as based entirely on interrupted thievery and conspiracy. In Chadwin's view, Strawberry is merely a capitalist tool.

It's too bad Chadwin makes so many factual and logical mistakes, and that the facts he has right must be made to serve his anti-Yankees polemic, because his book is a useful corrective to the cheerleading mythology that hypes the Yankees as America at its best. Chadwin makes a thorough, though not exactly new, case that what's good for the Yankees is bad for the baseball industry, that by refusing to share more TV and promotional revenues, the Yanks are selfishly starving teams like the Expos and the Twins. But by indicting Steinbrenner as a one-dimensional ogre who is single-handedly ruining the game, Chadwin, a lawyer, reveals his misunderstanding of the dynamics of baseball. It's the greed of 30 owners, not just one, that's at fault.

One thing Lupica and Chadwin agree on is Steinbrenner's misuse of Strawberry. Last October, just three weeks after Strawberry had cancer surgery, Steinbrenner hauled the outfielder to the front of the Yankees' victory parade -- then, weeks later, tried to wriggle out of paying Darryl once his usefulness as a P.R. prop had passed.

In Tampa last month, Strawberry slumped in a cushy couch, weary from chemotherapy, and talked gratefully about the surprise birthday party Derek Jeter had thrown for him the night before.

"When I came to New York, everybody expected so much out of me. I wasn't able to just slide in, like the normal guys, like a Jeter. The expectations and the pressure took me away from who I was, the person I truly wanted to be," Strawberry said. "I made mistakes, but it doesn't make me a bad person."

Self-serving? Sure, but at that moment, he sounded like a man who knew he needed to be protected from himself. A man who, after years of being a symbol, needs us more than we need him.

Maybe George Steinbrenner is motivated by altruistic impulses, as he proclaimed when he signed the outcast Strawberry in 1995. If he's not just using Strawberry the way he used Billy Martin -- to feed his savior complex -- Steinbrenner should do something truly difficult now: Regardless of Strawberry's legal guilt or innocence, Steinbrenner should keep him on the Yankees payroll. Cut his salary, but don't cut Strawberry loose. Require him to get psychological help, and have him travel the team's minor-league circuit, tutoring young players not just on the subtleties of hitting the slider but on the dangers of jock celebrity . . . Oops, now I'm guilty of using Darryl Strawberry as a symbol. Just like everyone else.


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