By Lindsay Toler
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In 2005, his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility, Strawberry was disqualified from future ballots after garnering less than 5 percent of the vote.
Says ESPN baseball analyst Jayson Stark, "He's just a classic case of a young athlete who had a lot of the best of what life has to offer thrown at him and made some really bad decisions about how to handle it."
Though only a .259 career hitter, Strawberry belted 335 home runs and drove in 1,352 runs. Today, he remains the Mets' all-time leader in round-trippers and RBIs. Last year he was serenaded by Shea Stadium fans at the 1986 team's championship anniversary party.
Jayson Stark contrasts his popularity with that of the much-maligned Giants slugger Barry Bonds, speculating that the two players' personalities and alleged illegal-drug use shaped public perception.
"I think it's an oversimplification, but when people think steroids, they think 'cheater,'" says Stark. "The perception of cocaine is that athletes mess around with it for recreation. They're both self-destructive, but as a society I don't think we're so judgmental anymore about athletes who use recreational drugs.
"Also, there's this tension and this dictatorial atmosphere to Barry, while Darryl is a very likable human being," Stark continues. "When people meet Darryl, they're won over by his personality, by his likability, and that's a tremendous attribute. And there's no sadder story than the guy who you remember as this young, strong, heroic athletic figure who then gets sick. That's the kind of story that touches everybody.
"I think, in the end, that's what has enabled him to survive, that there's really a good guy in there, despite all the trouble."
Throughout it all, Strawberry's star still flickers. With his ever-graceful figure and easy smile, he remains one of the most recognizable athletes ever to put on a uniform be it Mets blue or prison orange. At Church on the Rock, congregation members are known to interrupt his worship to shake his hand.
Though he's helped out the Mets in spring training camps in Port St. Lucie, Florida, for the past few years, Strawberry has pretty much turned his back on baseball. He went to the Yankees fantasy camp in January, in large part to hit up well-heeled attendees for donations to his recently established autism foundation.
"It was something that was birthed in us because of our faith in God," he says of his Darryl Strawberry Foundation. "The Bible tells you: 'to whom much is given, much is required.' Most people thought my calling was baseball, but it wasn't. That's just what I did. But my wife and I have a great vision in our life to know the suffering of autistic kids. And we're fulfilling it."
Tracy Boulware says they were inspired to start the nonprofit organization by friends with autistic children. They expect to raise more than a half-million dollars by the end of next year for their benefactor, the Center for Autism Education in O'Fallon.
A churchgoer since boyhood in LA's gritty Crenshaw neighborhood, Strawberry embraced evangelical Christianity in 1991. Today he approaches religion with a passion once reserved for chasing down fly balls and throwing back cans of beer.
He attends Church on the Rock twice a week, reads the Bible to kids confined in a Troy juvenile detention center and trades text messages with Pastor Blunt to stay abreast of church happenings.
It's clear that Blunt, whose sermons often resemble self-help seminars and tread heavily on the theme of addiction, is saying exactly what Strawberry needs to hear.
"Work is a four-letter word, but it's not a dirty word. If it was easy, anyone could do it," the shaggy-haired preacher said at a recent service, eliciting an 'amen' from Strawberry. "God has a plan for your life, and the devil has a plan for your life."
Darryl Strawberry and Tracy Boulware huddle together on this winter day in a corner booth at a Culpeppers restaurant in O'Fallon. "All their food here is good," notes Tracy, a tall blonde who seems to wear a perpetual smile. A few patrons notice that Strawberry is in the house, but no one bothers him for an autograph.
Privacy is central to the couple's recovery lifestyle these days, which is why they declined to meet for interviews at their O'Fallon home or, at least, that's why Tracy balked. She appears to run the show, acting as both Strawberry's caretaker and, for the preparation of this article, stage manager. She refuses to let a reporter talk to her husband directly over the phone.
Strawberry says he prefers his relative isolation, and that he rarely sees his old teammates, other than at an odd charity event or occasional team reunion. "I don't want them [to visit]," he says. "I'm here for a purpose. I'm here because I love God, and I've been called to do great things in the ministry."
"He's a man on a mission, and a man on a mission doesn't have time to be on a golf course playing with a bunch of millionaires," sums up Ray Negron, a special assistant to George Steinbrenner who frequently works with Strawberry on charity events.