Free Darryl

Most of the Yankees are on a bus to Orlando for a spring-training game, but Darryl Strawberry has been left behind. It’s a mid-March morning in Tampa. He’s recovering from colon-cancer surgery and swinging the bat well, but as the start of the regular season closes in, the signs are clear that Strawberry won’t be traveling north with the team. He’s surrounded by reporters – as he has been pretty much every day for the past sixteen seasons.

“I’m begging you, don’t leave me in Florida,” he says, addressing Yankees management through the writers. Predictably, the next day’s papers will make it into a snappy tabloid conflict, but they’ll miss Strawberry’s implicit cry for help. One month later, Strawberry will be back in print – with a mug shot from the Tampa police.

Strawberry’s career is New York’s longest-running melodrama: The Darryl Show. It has also been the city’s most involving and enduring case of public co-dependency. When it comes to Darryl, the ups and downs have always been more about us, the press and the fans, than about Strawberry.

Sure enough, the new season brings three new books, each featuring Strawberry as a pivotal character. Each uses him to construct a wildly different moral.

In Mike Lupica’s sentimental and funny Summer of ‘98, a reminiscence about fathers, sons, and “the greatest baseball season ever,” Strawberry serves as a metaphor for the rebirth of baseball itself. In Those Damn Yankees, a deeply flawed yet interesting screed by Dean Chadwin, the 37-year-old slugger is the manifestation of everything that’s venal about the Yankees; Chadwin argues that the Yankees, by widening the gap between rich and poor teams, made 1998 the worst season ever. Then there’s the amusing (and sloppily edited) Slouching Toward Fargo, by Neal Karlen. Here, Strawberry appears as a member of the last-chance minor-league St. Paul Saints, the team to which Strawberry was briefly exiled in 1996 after one of his many falls from grace. This time he’s a vehicle for the author’s goofy quest to rediscover his own soul.

It’s all a lot of weight to put on someone who grew up poor and undereducated in South Central Los Angeles, whose only real talent is to hit a baseball very hard and very far, and whose impulse-control problems are utterly unremarkable. Strawberry has been a useful foil for a long time now, his career conveniently coinciding with the country’s confusion over sex and drugs. The sports world is even more conflicted: Mark McGwire, last summer’s homer hero, is still juiced with androstenedione. Strawberry came of age in a mid-eighties Mets clubhouse where amphetamines were a routine pregame pick-me-up. So now, after having sixteen inches of intestine sliced from his innards, he’s not to be forgiven for allegedly scoring a little illegal painkiller?

Lupica, the 47-year-old powerhouse Daily News columnist, has frequently defended Strawberry in print, but in Summer of ‘98, as he rediscovers his childhood love of baseball, he recounts an old flap, when Strawberry denied making nasty comments that Lupica faithfully rendered in print. Ten years later, Lupica still takes Strawberry’s lies personally, indicative of the excessive public investment in one damaged ballplayer: “Darryl let me down the way he would let down just about everybody in his life before he was through.”

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 sonsDean 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.

Free Darryl