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Ball Four for Darryl Strawberry
Is Baseball Sheltering Him From Consequences Of Drug Use?

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 11, 2000; Page C01

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.—Nikiara Hollmon cut the article out of the newspaper with a ballpoint pen, the point making a ragged, inky frame around the words. Then Nikiara, 12 years old, wadded up the piece of paper in her palm and brought it here, to the Southside Boys and Girls Club, where she has spent her afternoons for nearly six years.

"What's wrong with Darryl?" she asked Carl Lavender, the club's executive director, on that afternoon late last month. Darryl was Darryl Strawberry--baseball star, drug addict, and, to Nikiara Hollmon, the guy who plays basketball with her out in the yard. The article said he had failed a drug test. That failed test would lead to a one-year suspension from baseball, Strawberry's second drug-related suspension in as many years and the third of his career. Strawberry met Nikiara during last season's suspension, when he fulfilled 150 hours of assigned community service by working with the children here in Jordan Park, one of St. Petersburg's worst neighborhoods.

Nikiara says she forgives Strawberry for the latest of what he always calls his "mistakes." She is not alone. Ever since the news of Strawberry's failed test hit in late February, the debate has raged: Should he get another chance? Should baseball be his haven? Should the league--as argued by Strawberry's doctors--continue to provide him with what they told both Commissioner Bud Selig and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner the necessary "structure" Strawberry needs in his life?

Or, as some have argued, is baseball itself Strawberry's greatest enabler? Is the endless support provided by the game--the job, the money, the adoration, the feeling that you are bigger and stronger and better than anything the world can throw at you--is that what makes it so easy for Strawberry, who turns 38 tomorrow, to keep failing? Is it because he believes, deep inside, that there will always be another chance, another contract, another opportunity, no matter how many times he puts coke up his nose? Is it because he has never hit what drug and alcohol counselors refer to as "rock bottom," and never will, as long as baseball and its supporters continue to prop him up?

Those who preach the former are clearly winning out.

"It's a legitimate argument, it really is," says Yankees star pitcher David Cone, who has known Strawberry since the outfielder's days of drinking hard--and playing hard--for the New York Mets more than a decade ago. "I can understand the feeling that baseball can be an enabler. . . . But I have to lean toward Darryl. . . . He can still turn it around, and baseball can be a part of that."

Oh, there are those who are tired of Strawberry and his failures. Fans who call talk radio here in spring training land and in New York and rant about "the bum." Tommy Lasorda, who stopped feeling sorry for him six years ago, when Strawberry left the Dodgers--the team Lasorda managed--for his second stint in rehab. Dexter Manley, a former Redskin and junkie athlete himself, who is sympathetic to Strawberry's plight, but finds it foolish to believe a month in a clinic and a return to the baseball diamond will do anything but continue to feed Strawberry's problems. And Tim McCarver, former Cardinals and Phillies catcher and now one of the most thoughtful and respected television analysts in the game, who says the words used to describe athletes like Strawberry should not be "sad" and "unfortunate"--the ones we hear most often in our culture--but rather "pathetic," and "maddening," and even "despicable."

These, though, are the rarities. Most look at Strawberry, think of Strawberry, and see that incredible, room-altering smile, that sweet nature--under it all, Strawberry is a truly likable man, by virtually all accounts--and, yes, that breathtaking ability to hit a baseball.

And so they want him in Newark, N.J., where Rick Cerone, a 17-year major leaguer who now serves as president of the independent Newark Bears, is willing to offer Strawberry a contract when he gets out of rehab. Ditto for the New Jersey Jackals, and the Atlantic City Surf and a host of other professional teams not governed by major league baseball's ban.

They want him in the Yankee clubhouse, where Steinbrenner insists he has not given up on Strawberry and his teammates routinely talk of their hopes for his return.

Charisse Strawberry wants her husband back in their Tampa home, where she is "bunkered down" with her two children, according to one family friend, and is nearly six months pregnant with a third--a baby they considered their little miracle, given Darryl's battle with colon cancer less than 18 months ago. Frustrated, perhaps even angry, Charisse continues to believe in the man she has sheltered through drug and alcohol addiction, a conviction for tax evasion, and an arrest for cocaine possession and soliciting prostitution just one year ago.

And they even want him back here in Jordan Park, where crushed glass and torn paper and empty ketchup packets litter the ground alongside the basketball court outside, and posters of famous black Americans hang on the blue-and-gray walls. There is Jackie Robinson, and Martin Luther King Jr., and Wilma Rudolph. There is a sign promoting a "drug-free environment." And, a few feet away, there are pictures of Strawberry, surrounded by kids, an arm on a shoulder, a hand on a head, a smile on all of their faces.

"Maybe the broader world wants to say, 'Put him in jail, give up on him,' " says Lavender, the club's director. "But who are the heroes for poor people, for children--like ours--who feel the whole world is passing them by?"

He doesn't provide the answer. He doesn't have to. Nikiara Hollmon already has.

Rising and Falling--Repeatedly

"Everywhere I've been, my battles have come with me. They are a part of me."

--Darryl Strawberry, "Recovering Life"

This is Darryl Strawberry's history: He was raised in South Central Los Angeles by his mother after his abusive father--also a drunk, and, in Strawberry's eyes, the main root of his problems--abandoned him before he reached high school. He was the first pick in the major league baseball draft, taken by the Mets straight out of high school. He was a star in New York before age 20.

He also has a rap sheet so long and complicated it defies description. In his eight years with the Mets, he was fined at least six times, got into a fistfight with a teammate, was arrested for threatening his first wife with a gun and wound up in Smithers Institute in New York to be treated for alcohol abuse.

In his next incarnation, with the Dodgers, after he became a born-again Christian, Strawberry was arrested in front of his kids for hitting the woman who would become his second wife, was investigated by the IRS for tax fraud (he was eventually sentenced to home confinement and fined, setting up his current financial woes), and got heavily into cocaine, resulting in rehab stint number two, this time at Betty Ford in Palm Springs in 1994.

He lasted less than a year with his next team, the Giants, after having a drug relapse that earned his first suspension from baseball.

Then along came Steinbrenner and the Yankees, who had given seven-strikes Steve Howe, a cocaine abuser, a chance to pitch for a World Series franchise and later would bring another addict, Dwight Gooden, back to the game.

Strawberry became the ultimate team player, and a beloved figure. He didn't complain about his diminished role and no longer being a star. He drew nationwide sympathy when his colon cancer was diagnosed at the start of the 1998 World Series. Steinbrenner sat with Charisse during his surgery, earning Strawberry's undying support.

Then Strawberry got arrested last spring for cocaine possession and soliciting prostitution. Baseball suspended him, then reduced the sentence, offering Strawberry yet another chance. He came back, promising he had conquered his problems. He and Charisse wrote an inspirational book, "Recovering Life," and went on a book tour last winter. He was a hero. And then he succumbed to cocaine, again.

Nobody Is Bulletproof

"To say that someone doesn't deserve another chance at redemption--that stumps me. History is loaded with examples of people who screwed up big time, but who nonetheless got another shot at starting over."

--Charisse Strawberry, "Recovering Life"

"Darryl and I were the spokesmen for second chances."

--Dwight Gooden, in his

autobiography, "Heat"

Second chances. Third chances. Fourth. Darryl Strawberry is not the only one to be given a new life. Howe, the former Dodgers and Yankees pitcher, holds the record--he was given seven new starts, despite being busted for cocaine over and over again. There are so many names that can be mentioned: Micheal Ray Richardson. Lawrence Taylor. Manley. Gooden.

Gooden is pitching for the Houston Astros now, in his fifth year, he says, of being clean and sober. He came up with Strawberry in the Mets' system, visited Smithers a few years before Strawberry did, visited Betty Ford a year afterward. For Gooden, there was a "bottom"--a moment in 1994, after he'd tested positive for cocaine, been suspended from baseball, tested positive again, been suspended for an entire season, collapsed into total addiction, missed his own daughter's birthday party in a drug-induced haze. He found himself in his St. Petersburg home holding a gun to his head when his wife, Monica, walked in the door. He thought his life was over.

"I can tell you this about Darryl," Gooden says now, as he drives from a spring training appearance in Winter Haven back to Tampa to see his younger daughter appear in her first softball game. "I'm sure that when he left his home that day, he didn't say, 'I'm going to get high.' But somewhere along the way, something happens to make you do it. And when it does, he wasn't thinking, 'I have a [mandatory drug] test in two days.' That doesn't hit until the next morning. When it's too late."

Too late, or maybe not too late. Like Strawberry, Gooden got another chance with the Yankees. He pitched a no-hitter in 1996, was a member of the best franchise in baseball. He got his life back. He's grateful, and he refuses to begrudge anyone else that opportunity, no matter what he thinks of Strawberry's inability to confront what Gooden refers to as "the trigger" to his problems.

"I don't think there should be a number set on the chances anyone gets," Gooden says. "You should be allowed to make a living, take care of your family. But should there be a punishment? Yes."

Manley is different. He says he needed to go to jail--which is where he wound up in July 1995--in order to straighten out a life defined by two things: the NFL and his cocaine addiction. Manley was in Betty Ford with Strawberry in 1994. He has lived a life, he says, so much like Strawberry's, in a world where someone is always ready to pick you up and put you back on your feet. And he is here to say it is a crock.

"People have a lot of compassion for a person who is mentally and medically ill--as Strawberry is with the cancer--and so the whole country is rallying behind him, and it's easy to get caught up, to feel self-pity and believe all these caretakers," Manley says from a law office in Houston, where he has held down a job as a paralegal for 12 months now. "What Strawberry has to realize--what I had to realize--is that I am not the number that is on my back. I thought I was bigger than life, and I had radio shows and television shows and the contracts and so many people enabling me on the way.

"And the problem is," Manley continues, "none of that helped me and none of that helps Darryl Strawberry. What that does is keep Strawberry into his addiction. He thinks he's bulletproof. So did I. But we're not."

'If He Wasn't a Baseball Player . . . '

Last week, Strawberry went back to rehab, entering an undisclosed treatment center here in Florida. A family friend says he is not even thinking about his baseball future. But baseball is thinking about him. In Newark, Cerone, who has known Strawberry for years, is not dishonest about his--and other people's--interest.

"Let's not fool ourselves," he says. "He can hit a baseball as good as anybody. If he wasn't a baseball player, we wouldn't be talking about this, and he wouldn't have gotten three or four more chances."

That said, Cerone argues that baseball has done Strawberry's life good. "When he's there, when he's around the league, he's the happiest you ever see him." Some point out that Strawberry's major downfalls have almost always come during the offseason. This failed drug test came on Jan. 19.

These are the arguments for letting Strawberry back into the game, for giving him the framework to rebuild his life. It is a common argument in sports. When college football star Lawrence Phillips dragged his girlfriend down a staircase by her hair, in a not-uncharacteristic bout of violence, those close to him argued that he should not be suspended from the University of Nebraska because, as his high school coach and mentor put it, "football is the only thing saving him from the streets. He needs the game." Those on the other side argued that football's violent nature only fed Phillips's problem. Phillips came back after a minor suspension, was drafted by the pros and went on to make a mess of his every opportunity, getting dumped by team after team.

Then there is John Lucas, a former abuser who has turned his life around, and has made it his mission to help as many athletes as possible. He's now an assistant coach with the Denver Nuggets, a man who preaches second chances, who constantly reminds listeners that, for addicts, one clean day is an accomplishment.

In our world, where, as Cone put it, "people are so much more understanding and accepting of addiction as a disease than they were 10 years ago," there are few who would argue with that. Even McCarver, who is more hard-line, agrees that Strawberry is suffering from a disease. What he doesn't agree with is the way baseball confronts that disease.

"I'm tired," he says, "of hearing that it's unfortunate or sad. Sports has insulated athletes with the language it uses to address their problems and [those problems'] connection with sports."

But even McCarver has a soft spot for Strawberry.

'He's Human, Just Like Us'

In the clubhouse at Legends Field, the Yankees spring training home, Cone is trying to explain why everyone loves Strawberry so much. Perhaps it is the smile. The gentle affection. The way he takes to the younger players, like Derek Jeter, who so admires Strawberry he wrote the foreword to his book. Jeter is almost the antithesis of Strawberry--a guy who grew up with a good family environment, who has lived an exemplary life on and off the field, who currently serves as one of major league baseball's best ambassadors. Smart, attractive, extremely talented, and never in trouble with drugs or the law in his lifetime.

And he's not the one that the boys and girls in Jordan Park idolize.

In an office at the Southside Boys and Girls Club, Lavender is making the case that the "real" heroes in this world are guys like Michael Boykins, who helps run this club, a guy who grew up in this neighborhood and has stayed here to try to make a difference. In the same breath, though, Lavender is talking about Strawberry, about how he touched the kids here, about how they will welcome him back. About how he is an inspiration to these kids, no matter his failings. Boykins is trying to help.

"Derek may be their ambition," Lavender says, "but Darryl is their soul."

Boykins tries to help the explanation."The kids, they identify with Darryl," he says.

Twelve-year-old Nikiara does not disagree. She lives with her mother and older brother, has never seen her dad. She knows people on her block who struggle with addiction. She wants to grow up to be either a track star or a singer. She idolizes Lauryn Hill and her mother. As for Strawberry? She wants to see him again.

"I understand," she says, "because he's just a man who needs help. Just because he's an athlete, just because he's, like, famous and stuff, that doesn't make him any more or less than anyone here. He's human, just like us. That's why you have to give him another chance."

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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