Darryl Strawberry photo circa 1994 from Tony the Tiger Hayes
Darryl Strawberry – OF -1994 – # 17
He was a Giant?
By Tony Hayes
A star-crossed media magnet of colossal athletic talent and dubious lifestyle choices – the notorious Strawberry was a celebrity Big Apple slugger, inveterate booze and cocaine abuser, three-time World Series champion, Dodgers flameout, indicted tax cheat, cancer survivor, and, yes, briefly a Giant.
In mid-1994, San Francisco picked up the infamous former New York Mets superstar off the scrap heap after a disastrous four-year run with his hometown Dodgers during which Darryl seemed to spend more time in the Betty Ford Clinic than Tommy Lasorda’s lineup.
Despite all the Broadway-worthy, neon red warning signs – for awhile it appeared the Strawberry/Giants collaboration just might work as the Giants won nine consecutive games and 18 of 21 after Strawberry was added to the lineup in the summer of ‘94.
Straw’s final Giants numbers – .239, 4, 17 in 29 games – weren’t earth shattering, but the 1983 NL Rookie of the Year showed enough menace at the plate to prove he could still instill the fear of God in opposing dugouts.
More impressive was Strawberry’s disposition in his short stay in the Bay. For for the first time in his big league career, Darryl appeared comfortable in his own skin and entirely focused on baseball. There was no brooding or 911 calls to or from his residence or instances of AWOL.
But then the players strike came along in August and all the progress Strawberry had made quickly unraveled. Soon Darryl was headed back down the same dark path from which he’d just traveled.
Why Was He a Giant?
The bittersweet 1993 Giants club was just the eighth team in MLB history – and likely the last – to win at least 100 regular season games, yet not feel the celebratory eye sting of a post-season bound champagne blast to the face.
But despite not making it out of September the previous season, the Giants had plenty of buzz entering 1994. Unfortunately a good portion of the noise was focused on the front office’s immense blunder of allowing team icon and clutch hitting wunderkind 1B Will Clark to depart via free agency. The club would regret the under-valuing of the legendary “Will the Thrill” for years to come. Then, three months into the season the Giants suffered another devastating blow when stalwart 2B Robby Thompson was shelved with a season ending shoulder injury.
On the 4th of July – Robby’s last day in the lineup – the listless Giants were sinking quickly in the standings. Yes, sluggers Barry Bonds and Matt Williams were having phenomenal personal seasons, but the third place (35-48) G-Men were not winning games. Worse yet, the casual fan was losing interest. Terrible news for an new and ambitious ownership group that was still desperately drumming up support for a new downtown ball park.
The Giants needed Superman to swoop in and save the day and they settled for the next best affordable thing – a former super hero with clay feet.
Days after the Dodgers formally ate the final $5.2 million remaining on Strawberry’s contract, the Giants signed the Mets all-time home run leader to a low-money, no-frills deal for the remainder of the ‘94 season.
Though neither the player or franchise would be out much cash in the transaction, the move cost both sides plenty of face.
Strawberry and the Giants were each served a huge portions of humble pie.
The Giants in essence were forced to admit they blew it by not re-signing the Boy Scout channeling Clark – a player who not only relentlessly produced on the field but had a sterling reputation in his personal life. Not surprisingly, the inking of the shady Strawberry was met with an audible raspberry from a good deal of Giants fans.
“I’ll admit that most of the mail we’ve gotten on this subject had been against signing (Strawberry),” Giants managing general partner Peter Magowan told the press. “But it’s a small risk. I feel truly good about what could happen in San Francisco.”
Meanwhile, the once cocksure Strawberry was also forced to swallow a large amount to pride. Two iron clad aspects of Strawberry’s Giants deal included a stipulation for regular drug testing and submitting to an around-the-clock guardian. The Giants were essentially saying they didn’t trust the former five-time All-Star.
But Strawberry had little choice if he wanted to get back on the field and revive his once vibrant career.
“I had decided on retiring after everything I’ve been through,” a literally sobered up Strawberry revealed upon joining the Giants. “But today ranks for me a new beginning, a new birth.”
Both sides put their pride on the back burner and put the focus on the ball field. At the time of the Strawberry deal the Giants were dead last in the big leagues in runs scored.
“One of the major differences with our ball club from last year is a run a game,” said Giants manager Dusty Baker, anxious for the Giants to get untracked. “Darryl’s the kind of impact player that can possibly make that up.”
Before & After
Before drugs, drink and drama cratered his baseball career and came to define his public persona, Strawberry was a force to behold. In his first nine seasons of big league ball, the charismatic Darryl was among baseball’s most formidable power hitters – swatting 280 long balls with a majestic left-handed upper cut swing. He was the No. 1 factor in catapulting the motley crew Mets past the cross-town rival Yankees in popularity and splashy back-page tabloid headlines.
Drafted No. 1 overall by the Mets out of Los Angeles’ Crenshaw High – Strawberry was lauded as New York’s biggest home grown slugger since Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. Not surprisingly, as the unfiltered praise was heaped upon the young star, his head swelled to the circumstance of the ruby, outsized paper mache apple that rose beyond the Shea Stadium outfield fence every time Darryl crushed a home run.
Early in his Mets tenure Strawberry fell under the influence of a party of bad actors – some of them teammates- who were more than willing to ply the young star with an never ending support of cocaine and amphetamines. Strawberry’s shameful tale has been well documented in both numerous books and documentaries regarding the mid-1980s bacchanal Mets.
Strawberry’s erratic behavior was legendary. He’d show up late for games, loafed in the field and generally acted like an entitled jerk every chance he got.
Strawberry even had the audacity to gripe and grouse after the Mets’ most iconic victory ever – Game 6 of the 1986 World Series (the Bill Buckner game) – because he was simply yanked late in the contest for a defensive replacement.
By 1991, both the Mets and Strawberry had seen enough of each other. Strawberry went home to Los Angeles, signing a five-year $21 million pact with the Dodgers. The Mets were happy to let the 1988 NL home run champ slip away with little more than a wave of the hand.
At first it was all lovey-dovey between Darryl and the Lasorda led Dodgers.
“I’ve managed a lot of great players over the years. But I’ve never had one the caliber of Darryl Strawberry,” said the hyperbolic Dodgers manager. “This guy is such a threat every time he comes to the plate. I know how I always dreaded facing him when he was with the Mets. And now he’s with the Dodgers. It’s just too good to be true.”
A few years later, Lasorda flip-flopped and vociferously chirped a decidedly different tune.
In his early days as a Dodger, Strawberry yucked it up with Tinsel Town stars before games and then crushed towering long balls into the warm Southern California nights. The Dodgers were leading the race for the ‘91 NL West title before falling apart like the script of a horrible Hollywood sequel in the final days of the season.
The coup de grace was delivered by the Giants who eliminated L.A. and muted Strawberry’s bat in back-to-back wins in the final weekend of the season at Candlestick Park. The upstart Atlanta Braves took the division flag.
Despite Straw’s turtle-like performance in the waning days of the ‘91 season, the Dodgers marquee attraction refused to shoulder any of the blame for the collapse, blasting his teammates for lacking heart instead.
The following offseason Strawberry published a self-aggrandizing autobiography in which he accused the Mets of unsubstantiated racism and outed friend Dwight Gooden of being hopped up on coke during the Mets ‘86 postseason run.
Strawberry later admitted that he hadn’t actually read his own biography and implied that some of the opinions stated in the book were actually those of his co-author.
Strawberry would rarely play for Los Angeles again. A back injury and corresponding surgery were the prime culprits. But a handful of trips to drug rehab, domestic tumult – which included accusations of gun violence – and a handful of AWOL incidents kept Strawberry out of the cleanup spot in the Dodgers lineup.
Strawberry was in the midst of a month-long drug rehab stint, when the Dodgers announced in May of ‘94 they had washed their hands of the beleaguered native Angelino.
The blood was so bad between the two sides that Team Blue did not even bother to issue a “we wish Darryl well” boiler plate statement.
Lasorda was a guest on a talk show when an adamant caller labeled Strawberry a “dog.”
“You’re wrong. Darryl Strawberry is not a dog,” the garrulous Dodgers skipper corrected the caller. “A dog is loyal and runs after balls.”
But the Giants were willing to give Darryl a shot at redemption. The fact he had extra incentive to skewer the Dodgers didn’t hurt.
“We got a chance to talk to the true Darryl Strawberry, with his head right and his heart right,” said Giants batting coach Bobby Bonds, acknowledging his own past battles with the bottle. “I had a problem and it got fixed. Mickey Mantle had a problem and it got fixed. We saw the true person and he’s a hell of a human being, eager and ready to play.”
He Never Had a (Giants) Bobblehead Day. But…
Moments after walking into the field for the first time as a Giant, Strawberry showcased the power stick the club was praying for when he hammered two balls into the Candlestick Park upper deck during morning batting practice.
In his expertly tailored Giants uniform, with the sleeves cut short and pants tapered to perfection, the 6-foot-6 Strawberry appeared incredibly fit with sinewy arms and a slender waist that appeared to be no larger than 28 inches.
Then Darryl nearly knocked one over the fence in his Giants debut, jackhammering a long 6th inning drive off Phillies starter Shawn Boskie that appeared destined to be a round-tripper before being snagged in by a soaring Milt Thompson. In his next at-bat, the defending NL champs wanted no part of Straw and issued an intentional walk. Fueled by home runs by Darren Lewis and Williams, the Giants won 5-4 (7/7/94).
Though Strawberry had a quiet first series as a Giant – just one hit – his presence in the lineup was felt. The Giants took four straight from Philadelphia.
After the All-Star Game break, the Giants picked up the season in Montreal. The Felipe Alou led Expos were stacked that season and were sporting the best ledger in baseball (54-33).
But with Strawberry added to the mix, Giants looked like the far superior team, as they backed up their home sweep of Philly, with a four-game dismantling of Montreal. The Giants collected 44 hits and out scored the Expos 24-8 in the club’s first series sweep north of the border since 1975.
During this particular French-Canadian sojourn, the combination of Barry Bonds & Strawberry resembled a ‘90s remix of Mays & McCovey’s Greatest Hits.
Bonds battered Expos pitching to the tune of a .526 average (10-for-19) with four home runs and nine RBI. Straw backed Bonds attack with a .529 series (9-for-17), with two long balls and seven RBIs.
Strawberry had a Top 10 career game in the series opener (7/14/94), an 8-3 bulldozing of the Expos before a packed Olympic Stadium.
In his first at-bat, the new Giant racked an RBI single. Strawberry stepped up to the plate in the 5th with two outs and the bases full to face a laboring Pedro Martinez.
Strawberry connected with a fastball and crashed a scud to right field.
“… that’s hit well. And it’s gone! A grand slam for Darryl Strawberry!”, proclaimed Ted Robinson on the Giants TV feed. “He’s officially a Giant!”
Color man Mike Krukow added: “He just punched 40,000 people right in the stomach.”
A reaction shot of Baker sitting cap-less in the Giants dugout, showed the popular field general’s jaw literally drop when Darryl’s rocket blasted off. The always animated Dusty then rose to his feet before jutting two fists forward.
Strawberry would later knock in another run with a double off reliever Tim Scott, to finish the day 3-for-5, with 5 RBIs. The following day Strawberry smoked a solo tater off Montreal’s Butch Henry in a 7-3 San Francisco curb stomping, which featured a two home run performance by Bonds. In the final game of the series (7/17/94), it was Williams turn to go deep, when he plastered his league leading 34th homer off Jeff Fassero in a 6-4 triumph.
For the first time in his career Strawberry didn’t have all eyes focused on him when the chips were down.
“One of the reasons I signed with the Giants is I know I don’t have to be the one to carry the team every day,” said Strawberry relishing being part of an ensemble cast. “With Barry and Matt and me, we’ve got three guys who can do it.”
Strawberry and the Giants remained hot. After taking two of three from the first place Dodgers in late July, San Francisco pulled within a half game of their Southland adversaries.
Unfortunately, what was brewing as an intriguing pennant race between baseball’s oldest rivalry came to an abrupt halt on 8/12/94 when the MLB players union called an inconceivable strike over primarily salary cap issues.
When games were stopped indefinitely, the second place Giants had a 55-60 record and trailed the Dodgers by 3.5 games.
Disappointingly, play never resumed. What was shaping up as a career years for both Bonds (37 home runs) and Williams (who led the NL with 42 round trippers) was frozen in suspended animation with a potential 47 games scrubbed forever.
Strawberry managed to stay out of the news for the next several months until December when he was indicted on tax evasion charges stemming from gobs of unreported cash earned at card shows.
Then on 2/6/95 MLB announced it had suspended Strawberry for 60 games effective at the start of the 1995 season. Urine samples provided by Strawberry on two consecutive days in January returned positive results for cocaine use.
The Giants moved swiftly, immediately cutting ties with the player.
“Right now I’m trying to get over this feeling I have in my stomach. I’ve been walking around kind of in a daze,” said a noticeably upset Baker. “I still care for him as a person. He was good for our team. We did our due diligence.”
After serving his baseball imposed penance, Strawberry resurfaced back in New York, this time in the Bronx. Strawberry played off and on for the Yankees through 1999 – winning world championships 1996 and 1999.
In 1998, Darryl was diagnosed with colon cancer and immediately had a tumor and 24 inches of his colon removed. In 2000, a tumor near his left kidney was diagnosed and removed. Thankfully, he’s been cancer free since.
Unfortunately Strawberry’s drug issues continued for years after leaving San Francisco. He was suspended twice more by baseball and later spent a short time in prison for drug related malfeasances.
Since turning 50 however, Strawberry has kicked his bad habits seemingly for good and turned his life over to Jesus. He is now an ordained minister.