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Daniel Blunt was dumbfounded. While singing at church on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2005, he spotted one of baseball's most notorious bad boys a few rows back, mouthing a hymn.
"He was just standing back there," remembers Blunt, outreach coordinator at Church on the Rock in St. Charles County. "I was like, 'Is that Darryl Strawberry? That can't be Darryl Strawberry. Why would he be in St. Peters, Missouri, of all places?'"
Later, out in the hallway, Blunt shyly introduced himself to the storied ex-superstar and found Strawberry surprisingly sociable.
"I was probably acting like a little girl when they meet a rock star, I was so excited," recalls Blunt. "Of course, being a baseball fan, I probably got on his nerves because I was asking him baseball questions."
Pastor David Blunt, Daniel's father, also introduced himself to Strawberry and his then-fiancée, Tracy Boulware. "I told him and Tracy we were so glad they were visiting," says Blunt, who in 1983 founded the 4,000-member nondenominational church. "It was pleasant; it was wonderful."
Pastor Blunt also made a strong impression on the eight-time National League All-Star. In town to visit Tracy's family, Strawberry came to a quick decision.
"I said, 'Wow, this is where God wants us,'" recalls Strawberry, who will turn 45 on March 12. "The pastor's just down to earth, and humble. He loves helping hurting people. That's a convincing reason for us to move here."
For the umpteenth time in his life, "The Straw Man" craved a fresh start. After a memorable career though one marred by suspensions, drug arrests, slapping women around and soliciting prostitutes a quiet, happy retirement in South Florida proved elusive.
In 2002, three years after he took off the uniform for the last time, Strawberry seemed to be a man looking for oblivion. He was booted from a rehab center for having sex with a female resident and trading baseballs for cigarettes. A judge then ordered him to serve an eighteen-month suspended prison sentence from a 1999 incident, when he was caught with cocaine after soliciting an undercover cop posing as a hooker.
Delray Beach police charged Strawberry with filing a false police report in September 2005, after he claimed his SUV was stolen. (He'd actually just loaned it to a friend.) A month later his wife of nearly twelve years, Charisse Strawberry, slapped him with divorce papers.
Strawberry says the Florida press, which seized on these mishaps, became a nasty thorn in his side. "They tried to make something out of nothing," he says. "That's why I got away from all that craziness in Florida. I just wanted more out of life."
It's Tracy Boulware, a native Missourian raised in Harvester, who has tried her best to bring light to Strawberry's dark interiors. The interracial couple was introduced three years ago by mutual friends at a recovery convention in Florida organized by Narcotics Anonymous. At the time she was working as a real estate agent in Boca Raton.
"I didn't know Darryl Strawberry the baseball player," she says. "I didn't know Darryl Strawberry's tainted past, because I never followed his career. I just remember seeing a really nice guy trying to put his life together."
Like almost everyone who meets Strawberry, Boulware was immediately won over by his big heart and puppy-dog charms. She remained oblivious to his reckless past, despite early warnings from those close to her.
"My family really wasn't sure at first my father is a big baseball fan," she says. "But they don't judge a book by its cover. They met him, they watched him, and my dad would be the first one to tell you that he's the most humble, the most caring, the most generous, loving man you'd ever want to meet."
Strawberry quickly fell for Boulware and the two wed last October, a month after becoming O'Fallon's newest residents. Strawberry says the town offered quietude and close proximity to Tracy's family.
Still, "she had to twist my neck to come," says Strawberry. "I was like, 'There's no way I'm going to St. Louis' this was my rival town. But it's a place where I believe God sent me and my wife.
"I like it here. It's more home-like, has a family atmosphere. People here really are nice. It's different than anywhere. New York, Florida, California people are so rude." He adds that, apart from the Boulware clan and some acquaintances from church, he doesn't really know anyone in the area. "I don't need a bunch of friends; that's not what I'm here for. I don't want the world to know that I live in St. Louis."
One of the most feared sluggers in the game, Darryl Eugene Strawberry was "The Natural" and arguably one of the greatest ballplayers in the 1980s. Yet his seventeen-year career was often derailed by a self-destructive streak. His story contains more tragedy and rebirth than even that of Roy Hobbs, the character portrayed by Robert Redford in Barry Levinson's 1984 film.
That looping sweet swing prompted many baseball writers to call Strawberry "the black Ted Williams." As far back as his playing days at Los Angeles' Crenshaw High School, scouts took notice of the tremendous talent that would soon make him luminescent in the public consciousness.
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