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Darryl, A Hero Made of Straw

The Greene Line

By Jamal K. Greene

Well now you've done it, Darryl. You've snorted away your last chance, and I'm afraid I can never believe you again.

There aren't many abusive baseball players I have ever been inclined to defend. Until a week ago, Darryl Strawberry was one of them.

His history of drug and alcohol abuse is well-documented, both his wives' noses probably still sting from all the punches they've taken from Strawberry, and he is a convicted tax cheat. Yet, I am not the only New York skeptic who honestly thought the man had redeemed himself.

Maybe the fact that he was on my baseball team clouded my common sense. A Yankee never cheats and a cheater never...Yanks?

Or maybe I simply believed too strongly in the healing powers of colon cancer. Once Straw became a victim, his turbulent past was quickly forgotten. "No one with cancer can do something bad!"

Strawberry's latest transgression made me realize what really was behind my confused reaction to this confused man--he's a myth.

From the day he first set foot onto the "strawberry patch" in Shea Stadium's right field, with the long, lean frame of Ted Williams and the prodigious speed of a young Mantle, the man with the fruitiest name in the game was the ultimate baseball hero.

His rise to fame was engineered before it even happened. Said the New York Times in February, 1983, before his Rookie of the Year campaign, "Strawberry's record had preceded him and there was no doubt that a potential star had arrived."

Larger than most of the population at 6'6, by the end of the 1986 World Championship season Strawberry also cast a shadow over life itself. And that's just the way the media wanted him.

You see, the more they build up an image in the good times, the deeper the grave they dig in the bad. Sports media works in black and white--you win or you lose; you're quiet and hard-working or you're disruptive and lazy; you're Jordan or you're Iverson, hero or villain.

Straw started doing coke in 1983. He wasn't caught until '95. Cocaine was pretty cool in the '80's, but by the '90's its time, and Darryl's, had passed.

It was time for him to fall, and fall he did. With his failed drug test in 1995 and concurrent tax evasion charges, all the skeletons came out of the closet. Strawberry had never fooled anyone into thinking he was an angel (that spin didn't come until he joined the Yankees), but suddenly, in 1995, he was beyond salvation.

The Yankees drew heavy fire for signing him in 1995 and again in 1996.

At the time, I thought he deserved another chance.

He received a 60-day suspension for his positive drug test in 1995, and he has sounded like a changed man since. He backed up his words with heavy and active charity participation, a sedentary public life and a crystal clean rap sheet. He looked and acted sincere.

He convinced me that his discolored public image was the natural result of America's associating him with his colorful '86 teammates, and its psychological linking of him with that other black, drug-using Met, Doc Gooden.

By 1991, nine members of the 1986 Mets had been either arrested for alcohol abuse or battery, or failed a baseball drug test. David Cone, who joined the Mets in 1987, has been elevated to the status of civic hero and all-around swell guy within the short memories of New York fans, but was pubic enemy number one with the Amazin's. He survived an accusation of exposing himself to three women during a game in 1989, as well as an unsubstantiated rape charge in 1991.

Strawberry, it appeared to me, was a victim of "just another one of those Mets" syndrome. What he is actually a victim of is overreaction to everything he does, good or bad.

When Strawberry joined the 1996 Yankees, a team well entrenched on the "white" side of the journalistic dichotomy, his story became one of redemption. Hercules rises and Hercules falls, but in the end an ordinary man with really big muscles is redeemed.

Any editor with a heart simply cannot resist the Darryl saga. As a role-player on the 1996 and 1998 Yankees, he seemed a man humbled both by his own mistakes and by media villainization. By the time the 1999 season began, most of us had forgotten that Strawberry had ever transgressed.

Watching the slugger repeat from his hospital bed that he was a changed man, we could not help but believe him. If only Strawberry were a real actor, and not just a puppet (I hear cocaine is once again chic among the Hollywood set).

We believed in his redemption because it fit the story we were spun. In the role of fall guy, Strawberry gave a performance that would make Lee Majors proud.

With the public thus fooled, and with his image on the media's A-list, Strawberry could have rent his strings and made himself whole again. He was finally in a position to define himself--the special magic of media spin doctors does not work on an honest and upright man.

Instead, he used our trust as a cloak, and crept back into the shadows. The press built up a straw hero, but instead of becoming real for the first time in his baseball life, Strawberry simply blew away.

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