The way Strawberry remembers it, his first experience with cocaine occurred in 1983, soon after he was promoted to the major leagues. He liked to drink beer and he had smoked pot sometimes, but now two of his veteran teammates were asking him to try something new. "There's a couple of lines in the bathroom for you, kid," he remembers them saying. "This is the big leagues. This is what you do in the big leagues. Go ahead."
On the field, Darryl Strawberry was like no one else: his swing was an aberration, the reconciliation of an impossible baseball body with an unprecedented, even bizarre, natural skill.
Strawberry was first and last a power hitter. The usual baseball form for such players comes in bulk, in the form of squat, compact muscles, in the midsection and the arms. There is a thickness to the midsection of power hitters and power pitchers alike, it is the form of a baseball player and it is a rule to which there are few exceptions--Darryl Strawberry is the ultimate exception. The oddity of the success a man with that build found on a baseball field, his towering, lanky form, combined with the gimmick of his name, gave him a presence all his own over the course of his playing days. Later in his career, this memorable persona became compounded by the image of him as the posterboy lowlife scumbag, who squandered a god-given gift for drugs and criminal mischief.
At a perplexingly thin 6'6, Strawberry's strike zone was enormous. Anyone that tall is doomed to strike out a lot, and just about everyone else that tall was and will continue to be doomed to remain a low-impact hitter, that his strike zone is so easy to approach. But Strawberry's hokey, wild swing, so incomparably long and reaching, with its immense, ridiculous circumference, somehow prevailed in the end, and for ten years of baseball and 4 world championships. And this was not because Strawberry understood conditioning, or because he was a student of the game: it was because he fit into the game perfectly, inexplicably, like so few other players of his creatine, weight-training generation. He fit in on a baseball field in a way that he fit in no where else; indeed, he fit in on the field so well because he was able to escape his problems in the world and in his own mind.
The Straw was born excelling at the game of baseball. He did not work his way into it. He did not have the physical gifts that baseball players ought to be born with, but rather just some magnificent instinct. His swing looked like a mistake, but it just worked. He was not a strong man, he just generated power with his long limbs and pivot. He was great, on the field.
Off the field, Strawberry could do nothing right. His abusive father abandoned the family to poverty when Strawberry was 13. His mother struggled to feed her 5 children alone, and Strawberry grew up brooding and restless, confused and alone. He found his escape in high school baseball, but this was an escape, and not the confrontation nor the overcoming of the problems developing within him. Considering the neighborhood in which he grew up, it is highly unlikely that his experiences with cocaine in the New York Met clubhouse were his first encounters with the substance--though he claims they were, he is an inveterate liar.
Strawberry's legal problems include, over the course of the past 20 years, assaulting his wife, cheating on his taxes, possession of cocaine, drinking and driving, propositioning a prostitute (who happened to be an undercover police officer), and being kicked out/fleeing a number of substance abuse centers. He himself admits that he has "played games when I was drunk, or just getting off a drunk or all-night partying or coming down off amphetamines." There were times when he would oversleep for games, and it was not uncommon for his fellow teammates to have to rouse him with a phonecall from a hangover to get him to show up at the stadium. This resulted in the occasional fine, benching or suspension, but was never punishable by anything that might keep his mighty bat out of the lineup for too long. His NY Met manager Davey Johnson claims that he would refuse to bench Strawberry when he saw him show up drunk, or with a hangover, as a means of punishing him for showing up in such a state. The relationship of the Straw and his manager was such that teammate Ron Darling remembers having broken up what would have become physical altercations between the 2 "about 20 times" over the course of his time on the team.
Virtually everyone who knew Strawberry at the high point of his baseball career remembers him as a brutal, malicious drunk--so much so that in 1989, during Spring training, Strawberry "came out of nowhere" in throwing a punch at teammate Keith Hernandez, yelling "I've been tired of you for years!" There are rumors of Hernandez being the very individual who invited the Straw into the clubhouse bathroom that fateful night for his first line of white.
Strawberry was an emotionally unstable kid, thrust into the limelight and given millions of dollars and a cocaine problem that he could not manage, and all of this in 1983. Since then, it has become fairly standard for him to show up on the front page of the sports' page from time to time, a picture of him with a sheepish look on his face illustrating his latest lowering of the basement of human depravity. It is not infrequent for these articles to coincide with other goings-on that make apparent the reasons for his latest lapse into horrific drug abuse: after not making the Yankees opening day roster 1999, marking the start of the Yankees first drive to a world championship without him, or his diagnosis with cancer, each marked another slip into drug useage.
Strawberry has become a posterboy for the widespread phenomenon of athletes who, having grown up poor and in difficult environments, develop drug problems to parallel their limelight successes--athletes whose problems are not as simple as the poverty in which they were raised, but which are frequently compounded by tangential psychological problems.
Straw's clownish relapses into drug abuse are either the result of his inability to approach his problem seriously, either an incomprehensible thick-headedness which has already robbed him of a family he loved and a lucrative career and, occasionally, his freedom, or Strawberry is simply doomed to an impenetrable depression, which will run its natural and painstaking cycle, occupying him unto an early and empty death.
In March 2002 Darryl Strawberry was kicked out of his halfway house for 11 violations of the house rules. Though he has been clean of coke and alcohol for over a year, he is awaiting a trial that may sentence him to jailtime for not completing his stay in the rehab clinic. The violations of house policy include the repeated shaving of his head despite regulations, having sex with a fellow resident, and sneaking outside to smoke cigarettes. Personell furthermore describe Strawberry as irritable and "threatening".
One can consider an individual of Strawberry's ilk either the ultimate lowlife, or just a hopeless victim of depression, loneliness, and substance dependance, depending on how deeply one opts to delve into the understanding of the conditions of his choices.
This ambiguity is mirrored well in a picture of Darryl Strawberry crying, on the steps of City Hall, as the Yankees 1999 World Series victory culminated in a parade ending there. Strawberry had not been able to play for the Yankees at all that season, due to his repeated cancer surgeries. He had also missed the postseason. As Joe Torre put an arm around him and wiped away his tears with a fatherly understanding, one was made to wonder whether these tears represented tears of victory and joy, or tears of obsolescence and of recurring, unending failure.