Being Darryl Strawberry

Baseball's bad boy is now doing the Lord's work in O'Fallon, Missouri. How long will that last?

Feb 21, 2007 at 4:00 am
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.

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.

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.

Despite two bouts with colon cancer — the second of which cost him a kidney — Strawberry still looks fit enough to go extra innings, even though he claims he hasn't worked out in six years. A cross pendant dangles above his hooded sweatshirt. His four world-championship rings are absent from his fingers.

While the Strawberrys pay tribute to God in nearly every other sentence, it is Tracy who tries to convert people she barely knows. She spent a good fifteen minutes trying to win this reporter over to Jesus — until Strawberry gave her a dirty look. Often, in the midst of his wife's religious diatribes, he looks distracted.

Most of the time, however, he seems comfortable and at peace, choosing his words carefully and offering an occasional belly laugh.

Drowning glass after glass of raspberry iced tea, Strawberry says he spends most of his days at the couple's O'Fallon home, praying, reading his Bible and watching Christian stations on satellite television. Of course, if his oldest son's University of Maryland basketball games are on, he'll flip the channel.

Tracy no longer sells real estate, and instead devotes her full energies to the autism foundation and scheduling her husband's appointments. The pair live off of what remains of Strawberry's $30 million in career baseball earnings. Not long ago, Strawberry gave away a house, a Rolex and his luxury cars to friends and family.

"I got so tired of it all, because it wasn't important," he says. "It's not who I am. I live a simple life now; I'm a simple man."

But he adds that he has as much money as he needs and maintains trust funds for the five children with whom he stays in touch. (He says he's never met a sixth child, Eugene Michael Strawberry, born to a Clayton woman named Lisa Clayton. She successfully sued him for paternity in 1989.)

He says he remains on good terms with both of his ex-wives, despite the domestic-abuse allegations that marred both relationships. "They look at my life today, and they see I'm a different person. We were never on bad terms. It just didn't work for me. I had to move on."

On a January evening, he's just returned from Los Angeles, where he attended the funeral of Chris Brown, a high-school teammate and former big-leaguer who died from injuries suffered when his house burned down. Obituaries remembered Brown the same way Strawberry's will likely remember him — as a player of untold promise.

Early in his big-league career, Strawberry took to the bottle, egged on by his notoriously rowdy Mets teammates, who popped greenies and kept a brew-stocked fridge in the clubhouse.

"We were throwbacks," pitcher Bobby Ojeda has told baseball writers. "We were like, 'Gimme a steak, gimme a fuckin' beer, gimme a smoke, and get the fuck out of our way.'"

Following their 1986 National League Championship series victory over Houston, they nearly destroyed an Ozark Airlines plane with a drunken food fight. Strawberry and Dwight Gooden "exposed their penises and were inviting the women to lick this and lick that," writes Jeff Pearlman in his 2004 book about the World Series champs.

"I wanted to break the cycle, because [alcoholism] is genetic," Strawberry says now. He adds that his own struggles have helped him understand the plight of his father, whom he occasionally visits in San Diego. (His mother and guiding force, Ruby Strawberry, died in 1995.)

Strawberry characterizes his drinking habit as a coping mechanism. "As long as there was alcohol in my bloodstream," he writes in Recovering Life, "I was relieved of the incredible pressure I felt on my shoulders, the pressure of being someone else's rising star."

Though a subsequent cocaine addiction was followed by more rehab and Alcoholics Anonymous sessions, nowadays the church is Strawberry's sole tool for recovery. He says he's been clean for "four or five years" and that he's never tempted to have a drink or a snort.

"I don't have these raging feelings inside like most people talk about," he says. "I don't go to nightclubs and hang out. You'll never see me down there at the Landing or places like that, because that's not how I live. I live as a believer. When you give your life to Christ and serve the Lord, you walk a different way; you're free. You're not in bondage."

Tracy says her husband's addictions are a result of the pain he suffered as a child, and Church on the Rock can help cure them. "The church offers people help though restoration," she says. "They believe in getting to the root of the problem and restoring the wholeness of an individual."

Last November Dwight Gooden was released from a prison in Gainesville, Florida, where he served seven months for violating his probation by taking cocaine.

Strawberry is rarely in touch with the man, once his best friend on the Mets, whose own career was similarly unhinged by drugs and alcohol. When asked if he sees any of himself in the former Cy Young winner, Strawberry replies curtly, "You just hope and pray that he works through it, like you would for anyone."

Strawberry is plainly annoyed by the question. "The average Joe Blow probably went through the same thing I went through and Doc Gooden went through," he says. "But his life is not publicized. You got lawyers, doctors that are addicted to cocaine, losing their licenses, losing everything because of it. I only hurt myself. What if God was to expose everybody?"

Adds Ray Negron, George Steinbrenner's special assistant: "Did he have problems in the past? Yeah, like everyone else, but he's Darryl Strawberry, so it was publicized more. He's always had this incredible heart and has always given everything of himself, but the disease of addiction makes for a demon."

Strawberry deflects questions about why he started using cocaine ("Who knows? It's just something you try.") and what he might have achieved had it not been for his drug habits.

"I don't sit around and harp on my past, saying, 'Baseball could have been....' My purpose is to help bring restoration into people's lives, to help mend the lost and the broken. My real purpose wasn't playing baseball. Most people think it was, because you get worldly status. Worldly status means nothing when it comes to kingdom status."

Yet even at Church on the Rock, the domed, sprawling house of salvation Strawberry has adopted as his own, people seem most interested in his earthly status.

Leaving the sanctuary after a recent Wednesday-night service, Strawberry's accosted by a star-struck congregation member. "Didn't you play for the Mets or something?" the woman asks, inching towards him. "My husband wants to meet you. Please, please?"

Before Strawberry can answer, she brings her wide-eyed husband over, who sticks out his hand to grasp his idol's flesh. "I really enjoyed the years you were playing," he says. "I really admired you."

"We're just here because we love the Lord," counters the slugger, still smiling.

Throughout his life, whenever things seem to be going well for Strawberry — whether it be success at the ballpark, new love or renewed faith — he turns into Bill Buckner and lets the ball go through his legs.

Even his recent incarnation in O'Fallon seems precarious and potentially short-lived. Days after attending that Wednesday-night service at Church on the Rock, Strawberry abruptly left town for Los Angeles, leaving his wife to wonder whether if he would ever return.

Tracy would not comment on the details, though she asked a week after her husband's departure that Riverfront Times spike this story and declined to disclose where Strawberry might be and why he left.

Reached by phone, Strawberry says the marriage is not in peril and that he journeyed to Southern California because of a baseball clinic and a "situation with his daughter" that needed to be resolved, the details of which he would not delve into.

"I plan to come back. That's my home. I'm just away right now. Tracy is upset because I had to take care of some personal business as far as my oldest daughter. She didn't know if I was coming back right away. I told her I'll be back."

Strawberry, meanwhile, long ago grew weary of being pegged the black Ted Williams. More recently, he's even grown tired of being Darryl Strawberry. Who among us cares to hear constant reminders of squandered potential?

The Straw Man, perhaps, has at last come to terms with his careless voyage.

"I have no hard feelings about life," he says softly. "Everyone has their own journey to go through. Everyone suffers, and everyone has problems. The real key is trying to get through them."