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Monday, November 7, 2005
The last Straw

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2

Very often, the worst thing you can give somebody is the limelight. It's true of all human flesh, from ballplayers to judges. Particularly judges.

Darryl Strawberry
Strawberry has become just as associated with this uniform as his baseball jersey.
Last week, Tampa Judge Florence Foster told Darryl Strawberry that he had to continue chemotherapy for a recurrence of colon cancer, whether he remained in jail or not. And since Straw had exhibited a tendency to also relapse into bingeing on yay-yo, the judge allowed that she wanted him kept on ice in the local lockup, so he'd be sure to get the chemo. At least that way he'd get the chemo first.

Jail and chemo.You'd have thought Straw tried to vote in Palm Beach County, or something.

"You have got to get the therapy or you are history," scolded Judge Foster.

Straw is already history, your honor. Doc was there that day when the judge made her courtroom statement. Remember, Doc? Remember back when you and Nintendo were young, when Straw first came up, in '83? You were already in the wings behind him, throwing ungodly heat and that Big Hook and even God couldn't hit you then, remember? The Mets had lost 97 games the year before. But here came Straw, a gangly, big-nosed kid from South Central L.A. with the sweet swing of life. In New York, all you need is a swing like that to see yourself painted on velvet in scenes from movies like Moonstruck.

With Doc, Straw, Nails, Mook, Kid, Mex & HoJo, it turned into a "party over here!" in the middle- to late-'80s, when the Mets were not only the best team in baseball, but a collection of arrogant superstars, accused bat corkers, camera hogs, humongous egos and borderline schizophrenic personalities. In other words, just our meat.

Cocaine is a siren's drug. Always has been. How do you think people got hooked on that certain soft drink in the first place back at the turn of the century? The same way you did? By advertising? All them cute polar bears? Not hardly, baby. It's the coca plant, stupid. And if you were famous and young in the 1980s, no matter your field of chosen endeavor, people tended to bring renderings from this plant to you in copious amounts, on plates. And you might oblige them in their curious sniffing and smoking ways, thinking it wouldn't harm anything to try it, unless you'd been taught better, or scared straight by stern warnings of death by strangulation, if ever you dared, by a bass voice from somewhere up above your head.

As Sigmund Freud and Straw both learned, any drug that takes precedence over eating, sleeping and doing the grown-up is a problem you'd do well not to ignore. You learn it isn't the drug that's the problem.

Straw didn't marry smart. Where would he have picked up that move? On the playground? His father Henry skated when Straw was a kid. Didn't look back. Instead of marrying smart, Straw married slugger. Went bimby. In the late '80s, Straw was clocked by a two-handed puncher named life. Home was a problem. Away was a problem. No wonder he said he never wanted to take his uni off.

Darryl Strawberry
Darryl Strawberry made a lasting impression in New York, using his sweet swing to help both the Mets and Yankees to World Series titles.
He could pole, though. Every so often he'd catch one flush; it was godawful majestic, watching one of his bombs skid across the sky. "One day, Straw will hit a ball further than anyone has ever hit a ball before," Tim McCarver once told me. Straw did hit one off the bank of lights attached to the roof at Montreal's Olympic Stadium. They "measured" it at 525 feet. So you know it was 600.

Whitey Herzog, the White Rat, put his feet up in the home clubbie at St. Louis in 1988 and said, "Gimme Strawberry, three jackrabbits in front of him and a plumber to hit behind him and I'd have myself a flippin' team." Only the White Rat never said "flippin." But close enough.

In 1987, Straw was three sheets at an Oakland hotel bar the night before the All-Star Game. Three sheets and alone, or three sheets because he was alone; either way, it didn't take long for the alone part to change. Soon a bevy of blow-dried bobble-heads, the entire secretarial pool from Working Girl encircled Straw like so many pigeons. Only Straw was the biggest pigeon of them all.

Remember, EDavis, how Straw smiled at you before dropping that Ruthian schnozz into a mass of overapplied cosmetics, bulging spandex, popping chewing gum, freckled and stretched flesh? Remember smiling back, then shaking your head?

Straw hit 39 bombs in both '87 and '88, but if you've got a swing like he had, and if you're doing your swinging in New York City, for the best ballclub on the planet, then 39 bombs becomes "only" 39. Heavy as the crap rained down on Straw, he should've been wearing a hat.

By 1988, he and Lisa, parents of two, were on the serious outs. In 1995 -- after five miserable years in LA under a nasty, bad-mouthing Tommy Lasorda -- Straw came back through the St. Paul Looking Glass to the Yankees, of all teams. Steinbrenner had always lusted after that swing. Who didn't? "This guy I know with the Yankees says they believe Straw will make it," Road Dog told me back then, "but they don't know if Doc will."

Darryl Strawberry
Strawberry's five seasons with the Dodgers included few happy times.
"Well," I said, "I think they've got it ass backwards." Maybe it was because Straw flashed bravado and Doc was more quiet, reserved, but I always thought Doc would be the one who made it back from addiction. Why? Simple. Because Doc could remember his old man telling him, "Son, never be afraid to throw your breaking ball when you're behind." See, Straw could hardly remember a thing Henry told him. Bad sign. A dude's old man is the only real manager he's got.

I remember hanging with Straw a couple of springs ago as he was about to tape a segment of 20/20 with the correspondent Lynn Shearer and his childhood competitor and rival, EDavis. All three of them had battled colon cancer. Something in Lynn Shearer's and ED's eyes made you think they'd keep on fighting, right up until the end, if necessary. Nothing about Straw said the same thing. His eyes were already dead. He seemed to be waiting for people to tell him what to do, or do it for him. He was there with his second wife; they were worried about the status of their limo. Lynn Shearer had flown in from New York, and EDavis had driven himself up from Fort Laud. I doubted if Straw had so much as deposited a check for himself in 20 years.

Maybe he had. Not saying he wouldn't have been capable of it, in another life. But somebody was always there to clean things up for Straw. Henry hadn't shown him by voice or example that sometimes you've got to let people know that you can and will do things for yourself. Mighty Straw. So ironic.

When EDavis lost a brother to a cocaine overdose and contracted colon cancer in the same year (1997), he had a wife/partner, a spiritual base, and he had Jimmy, his father, to lean on. Straw didn't. Simple as that. When they tell you you've got colon cancer, then go in and open you up and take part of you out, put you back together and you wake up and know you're not whole anymore, in the acute way an athlete knows his body is not whole ... when they run the chemo, what ED calls "the snake venom," through you intravenously a couple of hours at a time while you're looking at children with bald heads and baleful hollow eyes as the venom runs through them, and it hits you that you're not this immortal slugger after all, but just a man, a sick man, a vic ... when the cancer recurs and they give you the stats, people dying 85 percent of the time on recurrence ... well, that'll make you grab a cigarette or whatever you're addicted to.

It might make any one of us tired of fighting. But maybe especially those of us who'd never learned from that bass voice from somewhere up above that at times in life, fighting for yourself, and by yourself, is all you're going to have left.

Judge Foster sentenced Straw to 30 days. With time served, that amounted to 10 days, so he left the slammer a couple of days ago, complete with one of those naggy electronic devices strapped to his ankle. He's still a walking headline, always has been, always will be. Forget home runs. All Straw has to do to get noticed now is to hit a bar, or the back room of a bar, or a darkened hotel suite, or one of those SUVs with black-tinted windows all around.

Hate to see Straw go out like that, but if Straw wants to die, there's only one person with any chance to stop him. Straw.

Don't be shocked or saddened to hear that Straw is dying. We are all dying. Straw's getting there the same way he got to the big leagues. Faster than most, and with a great deal more notoriety. Straw's already history, your honor. Better for him to live, then, as long as there's still some choice involved.

Dying is easy. It's living that's hard. That's one of the lessons fathers are supposed to teach sons.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."