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The baseball diamond was his oyster, and in 1980 the New York Mets made him the first overall pick in the draft. The only person not impressed with his athletic prowess, it seems, was his father, an alcoholic who abandoned the family when Strawberry was twelve.
"When I was a kid, my dad beat the crap out of me, told me I would never be nothing," remembers Strawberry. "Those scars stay with you."
In his 1999 book, Recovering Life, co-written with then-wife Charisse Strawberry, he maintains that his paternal grandfather was also an alcoholic, and was said to have beaten his wife to death, although charges were never filed.
Strawberry was 21 when he was called up to the bigs by the lowly 1983 Mets. The Straw Man quickly lived up to his hype and won the Rookie of the Year award. Three years later, he led the motley crew of cocky upstarts, first into a recording studio where they recorded a rap song called "Let's Get Metsmerized" and then to a world championship, the team's first in seventeen years.
"Nothing tops that," says Strawberry. "We reached full circle. It wasn't just good players, it was our chemistry. We believed in ourselves as a group, knew that we could make it happen."
The string-bean-thin, six-foot-six right-fielder stroked a career-high 39 home runs for the team a year later, a feat that he matched in 1988, when he finished second in the Most Valuable Player voting. Still, the lanky lefty often felt underappreciated as a Met and took to badmouthing teammates to the press.
After second baseman Wally Backman took potshots at him for spending lengthy stints on the disabled list, Strawberry purportedly threatened to "bust that little redneck in the face." In the spring of 1989, he decked first baseman Keith Hernandez at a photo shoot.
A year later Strawberry was arrested for assaulting his wife and threatening her with a handgun. Yet not long after a month-long alcohol-rehab stint at the Smithers Center in Manhattan, he made the first of many high-profile comebacks by signing a five-year, $20.25-million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, making him the Senior Circuit's highest paid player at the time.
Per usual, though, Strawberry remained a train wreck waiting to happen. In 1993 he was arrested for allegedly hitting 26-year-old Charisse Simons, the woman he lived with and later married. Then came an IRS investigation for tax evasion, followed by a month at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California, for substance abuse.
Lacking star power on their roster and hoping to fill empty seats at Candlestick Park, the San Francisco Giants took a chance on Strawberry, inking him to a contract for the 1994 season. Strawberry played just 29 games with the team, though. He was suspended for 60 days after testing positive for cocaine, whereupon the Giants bid him a speedy farewell. Always, in the end, the demons prevailed.
By 1995 Strawberry's stock had reached an all-time low. When no major league club expressed any interest in him, he was forced to turn to an independent minor league outfit, the St. Paul Saints, from whom he earned $2,000 a month.
But after he blasted tape-measure home run after tape-measure home run during his dues-paying two-month stint in the bush leagues, the Yankees' bombastic owner, George Steinbrenner, decided Strawberry might be ripe as the Giants wrongly figured for reclamation.
Back in his adopted hometown, Strawberry donned the pinstripes and swatted 24 dingers in only 295 at-bats with the 1998 Yankees squad, despite playing much of the year with excruciating pain in his gut.
"It was fun to watch him in batting practice. He hit some of the longest homers I've ever seen," recalls Jeff Nelson, a former teammate and recently retired middle-reliever with the Mariners and Yankees. "It's just amazing how he was still able to compete at a high level, despite what happened to him. You're surprised he can do anything, considering what he went through." On the day before the Yankees' first-round playoff game against the Texas Rangers in October 1998, Strawberry went in for a check-up with the team doctor. He was diagnosed with colon cancer and, within days, Columbia-Presbyterian surgeons removed sixteen inches of his large intestine to eliminate a walnut-size tumor.
Nothing made fans and the baseball establishment more anxious to forgive Strawberry's past than his bout with cancer. There wasn't a dry eye in the Bronx clubhouse after manager Joe Torre broke the news to the team before the start of game two. For game three, they wore caps with Strawberry's number, 39, stitched into them.
Letters of support poured in from around the country, and the Yanks eventually went on to sweep the San Diego Padres and win the World Series. "We rallied around him," says Nelson. "We went out and did it for him."
But Strawberry's accumulated goodwill dissipated after his arrest for cocaine and soliciting a prostitute in April 1999. Though Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig suspended him for 120 days, Steinbrenner brought him back for the team's world-championship run, and the 37-year-old cancer survivor hit .333 in the playoffs, with a pair of home runs.
Alas, a positive cocaine test and another suspension the following season effectively ended his career.
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