Darryl Strawberry: Too Much, Too Soon

By Peggy Butler
Updated: November 20, 2007

NEW YORK, NEW YORK — He was baseball’s Golden Boy. A gangly outfielder with the speed of a gazelle, who could crush a homerun with one swing of the bat. Fans adored him and opposing players feared him. When he walked up to home plate, the words “Darryl, Darryl” resonated throughout the stadium. As fans and admirers fervidly noted, he seemed to have it all: fame, money, and the respect of the entire National League. Yet there was something missing.

In later years he made headlines for all the wrong reasons: drugs, alcohol, spouse abuse, and income tax evasion. But because he was such a great player, fans looked the other way, as his downward spiral continued.

Fast forward to November 3, 2000: At 38, after being diagnosed with cancer, he was no longer the great physical specimen he once was. He was moody, temperamental, and a shadow of his former self. However, the public’s consensus was that he would get himself together as he had done in the past. But this time the problems were insurmountable. And as the world looked on, a stoic Darryl Strawberry announced he had contemplated suicide, bringing an end to a spectacular career that was marred from having too much, too soon.

Darryl Strawberry was 20 when the public first began noticing him. Drafted by the New York Mets and given the nickname “Straw”, he was brash, confident, and he could play ball like nobody’s business. He was to baseball what Jackie Robinson was in the 40s and Willie Mays in the 50s, a “phenom” destined for superstardom.

And that stardom came early. In 1983, he was named National League Rookie of the Year, and more awards followed. But despite his success, there was one thing he didn’t have: a World Series ring. All that changed in 1986, when the Mets finished the season with a 108-54 record and captured the imagination of fans everywhere when they did the impossible.

In Game 6 of the World Series between the Mets and Boston Red Sox, the Mets were one strike away from defeat, when Gary Cary, Kevin Mitchell and Ray Knight hit three consecutive singles. And then came the squiggly ground ball that rolled through first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs. The Mets went on to win the game. And two nights later, they won the World Series, but not before Darryl Strawberry hit a towering homerun heard around the world.

As expected, the Mets were the darlings of baseball. But then something strange happened. The following year, the camaraderie that was there prior to 1987 disappeared. During spring training, the Mets weren’t playing well. Fans were frustrated and the players began pointing fingers at each other. At the center of the controversy was Darryl Strawberry. He seemed to have changed. No longer was he the soft-spoken player who gladly signed autographs. Instead, he was combatant and at odds with teammates. Fights and heated arguments followed. His much-ballyhooed shoveling match with teammate and Future Hall of Famer Keith Hernandez made headlines across the sports hubba.

Not surprisingly, his life off the field was just as hectic. He began drinking heavily, and found a friend whom he would come to rely on for self-gratification, cocaine. And if that wasn’t enough, his wife, Lisa, accused him of physically abusing her.

Finally in 1991, after year of bickering and feeling unappreciated by the fans, Strawberry asked to be traded. His wish was granted. He was now a Los Angeles Dodger and one of baseball’s highest paid players. Fans in LA were ecstatic. They had the Straw, and they warned other teams that Darryl was back and ready to play ball. All the bickering and bouts with drugs and alcohol was behind him. Or so we thought.

Months later, Darryl injured himself, and was out of baseball for months. He missed part of the 1992 season and all of 1993. Fans wondered if he had the strength to come back. Slowly, he worked his way back into the major leagues. His injuries healed and he was now ready to play ball. But there was just one problem, cocaine refused to relinquish its chokehold on the troubled star.

Torn between drugs and the sport he loved, the two entities collided. And on the eve of the 1994 baseball season, Strawberry disappeared, leaving family, friends and teammates frantic with worry. Hours later he was found unharmed. A meeting was called and a decision was made to have him enter a drug rehabilitation program.

Rumors abounded. When he recovered, would he return to the Dodgers? What did the future hold for him? In consequent years, Strawberry continued to play Russian roulette with drugs and alcohol. Moreover, he divorced Lisa, remarried, and became a member of the most heralded baseball team in history, The New York Yankees.

After winning two championships with the Yankees, Darryl continued to use cocaine. Then came more disturbing news. In 1998 he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Fans and teammates were stunned. But despite the presence of cancer, he was unwilling to stop using drugs.

Suspended from baseball after violating the league’s substance abuse policy, the unexpected happened. Darryl, the most prolific player of the 80s, the golden boy, the homerun king, the man who had too much too soon, stood before the judge in a Tampa courthouse and said he wanted to end his life. But the judge thought he was worth saving, and sentenced him to jail.

Now, at 38, frail, his body ravaged by cancer and drugs, Darryl Strawberry ponders his future and wonders what’s next. Like a twinkling star, his star vanished before it ever had a chance to burn. And the only person Darryl can blame is himself.