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He may be down in the count, but Strawberry is not out

It’s quite a stretch to call someone a hero or role model after he trashed what should have been a hall of fame sports career with drugs and alcohol. And there’s his rap sheet, which explains why he spent more time behind bars than Jesse James.
Then he was diagnosed with colon cancer, underwent surgery and was told later that the cancer had spread to a lymph node and he needed chemotherapy. Finally, he refused to continue chemotherapy, which, of course, suggested that he was tired of living and no longer scared of dying.
Before Monday, if someone had mentioned his name, I would’ve wondered in which back alley this guy was passed out this time. Or which jail he was in. Or which drug rehab facility he was trying to escape from. Or for that matter, if he was even still alive.
Then Monday, a preseason game between the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves was being televised up here in the tundra. I sat down to help satisfy my hunger for warm weather and baseball. I flipped on the remote and lo and behold there he was, sitting in the New York Mets dugout. He was smiling and talking with the feel-good confidence of a guy who had just discovered that there really was a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
It was Darryl Strawberry. Yes, that Darryl Strawberry, the same guy who flushed just about everything in his life except himself down the toilet. The same guy who took a wrong turn almost two decades ago and instead of the Hall of Fame, went straight to the Hall of Shame.
Who would’ve believed it? Strawberry just might be the closest to rising from the dead of any athlete I can remember. He is back with the Mets, the team he helped win the World Series in 1986—he was a Met from 1983-90.
Strawberry, who will be 46 on March 12, reportedly will serve as a special instructor at spring training and when the season starts, as the Mets Web site put it, “a spokesman for the team’s outreach program.” In other words, Strawberry will be a walking, talking source of inspiration where needed. Not sure what that means and don’t care. At least Darryl is in his own custody for a change.
Strawberry, who is 6-6 and weighed 215 pounds in his prime, played in eight All-Star games, and from all accounts still looks as if he could put a baseball in orbit. In fact, Mets manager Willie Randolph said jokingly, “We may have to suit him up.”
Hero? Your call. But when one is a rich and famous star, it’s pretty easy to convince yourself that you are an invincible superhuman, that you can do anything and never miss a beat. Falling into that pit is easy. Getting out of it isn’t.
For Darryl Strawberry, it hasn’t been that long ago that there was only one way for him to go because he couldn’t sink any lower. Then, a couple of years ago, he told the New York Times, he visited a school for autistic children near St. Louis, where his sister-in-law teaches. He said it was a revelation that changed his life.
He told the newspaper, “It touched me. It’s made a big difference in who I am and how I see things. I really find myself doing something I enjoy, and it’s not baseball.” Indeed. Two years ago he and his third wife, Tracy, started the Darryl Strawberry Foundation to make the world more aware of autism.
Too bad he didn’t visit that school 20 years ago. Back then, Strawberry was 600 career home runs waiting to happen. He was the Mets’ No. 1 draft choice in 1980. He was rookie of the year. He played on four World Series winning teams, the Mets in 1986 and the Yankees in 1996, 1998 and 1999.
Strawberry hit the longest home run I’ve ever seen in person. It was when he was playing for Tidewater of the International League. The ball left his bat at a 45-degree angle and the Rochester centerfielder didn’t move. As I’ve said before, the baseball either went into orbit or burned up on re-entry.
In Strawberry’s first nine seasons in the majors, he hit 280 home runs—31 per season—but in the next eight seasons, he hit a not-so-grand total of 55. And in six of those, only twice did he hit as many as five.
Let’s hope Darryl means what he says. Let’s hope the party animal is dead and gone and he is a new man devoted to helping and inspiring others. Only time will tell, but if he does, Strawberry might be the comeback player of the year in the only game that really counts: life.

Rick Woodson’s column appears each Friday in the Rochester Business Journal print edition. Listen to his weekly program, “The Golf Tee,” at 9 a.m. Sunday on WHTK-AM 1280.

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