• Sal Maiorana

Back where he said he belonged, Strawberry lights up New York with walk-off blast

NEW YORK (July 28, 1996) – Shortly after hitting one of the more memorable home runs of his career, Darryl Strawberry – as troubled a soul as baseball has ever seen with a rap sheet to prove it – was holding court in the Yankees clubhouse.

“I was wondering if I’d get it back,” Strawberry said, reporters scribbling down every word, TV cameras recording every sound bite as he recounted the 300th home run of his career, a majestic two-run bomb to right-center that enabled the Yankees to walk off the Kansas City Royals 3-2. “Today is even more special because this is New York. This is where I started my career. It’s where I’ve had all of my success. It’s a wonderful story. You guys should write it.”

Oh, the voracious New York media did write it, just as they had been writing about Strawberry for years, not all of it in a positive light.

He was indeed back where he felt he belonged, in New York City, but for Strawberry that was always a blessing and a curse because this was the town where he’d experienced his greatest highs – in more ways than one.

During his time in Gotham, playing over in Queens for the wildly talented and turbulent Mets teams of the 1980s, Strawberry was a transcendent star on the field. He was the 1983 rookie of the year, an eight-time All-Star who averaged 31 home runs and 91 RBI per year, and of course, a 1986 World Series champion.

But once he left the ballpark, the darkest recesses of New York’s nightlife stirred his demons – and just like his old Met and now current Yankee teammate, Dwight Gooden – it ultimately prevented him from being the Hall of Famer player he was on track to becoming.

Recounting Strawberry’s missteps of the previous decade – with the Mets, the Dodgers, and very briefly with the Giants – reads like a Michael Connelly law novel. Strawberry could have filled an entire season of America’s Most Wanted with all the time he spent talking to cops, lawyers and investigators.

There were two known and reported incidents of physical assault, one against his wife and later against a woman he had been living with, though charges in both cases were ultimately dropped;

There was a rehab stint in Smithers for alcohol addiction, and one at Betty Ford for substance abuse;

After relapsing into cocaine usage he was suspended 60 days by baseball;

He was investigated by the IRS and U.S. Attorney’s Office, and later indicted, for failing to file tax returns and reporting $500,000 of income derived from autograph and memorabilia shows for which he served a six-month home confinement sentence;

And just prior to joining the Yankees he was charged with failing to pay child support totaling approximately $300,000.

What a guy. But hey, his left-handed swing was tailor-made for Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch and George Steinbrenner – just as he couldn’t resist signing Gooden – saw Strawberry in the same way, a reclamation project worth the risk.

After he’d been released by the Giants and served his 60-day suspension, the Yankees signed Strawberry in June 1995 and he played 31 games at three minor-league levels before joining the Yankees in early August.

No matter how the Boss felt, Buck Showalter didn’t buy in to the experiment. Strawberry batted only 89 times – including just two in the playoff series against Seattle – and the result was three home runs.

Even after Joe Torre had replaced Showalter, the Yankees appeared to be done when they didn’t re-sign Strawberry for 1996, and when every other team also took a pass, Strawberry ended up with St. Paul in the independent Northern League.

It’s the kind of place where the wayward sons of baseball go in order to hang on for one more chance, and almost none get that chance. But Strawberry wasn’t the typical Northern Leaguer, and when he hit 18 home runs in 29 games, Steinbrenner – noting that his first-place team was near the bottom of the American League in home runs – came calling.

Of course, this went directly against the wishes of general manager Bob Watson. When rumors began flying of George’s infatuation less than a week before Strawberry’s Fourth of July signing – Steinbrenner’s birthday present to himself – Watson had said Strawberry would not fit on the roster, mainly because they had a left-handed DH in Ruben Sierra. Naturally, Watson was forced to walk that back when the Boss wielded his power.

“You recall my statements that he didn’t fit and I would have to see a big improvement in Darryl,” said Watson. “Well, our scouts have been there over the last couple of weeks and I stand on the statement that I can change my mind. The man has put up some serious numbers. We’d like to see if he can provide that kind of punch for us.”

Whether Watson truly believed that, who knows, but he was looking vindicated when Strawberry went hitless in his first three games. He had a two-homer breakout on July 13, part of a huge four-game sweep of the Orioles at Camden Yards, but in the two weeks between then and his walk-off blast against the Royals, Strawberry hadn’t homered, was hitting just .224, and Torre had benched him for the first two games against Kansas City.

Back in the lineup as the DH for the series finale, Strawberry continued to struggle, but all the Yankees struggled against Kansas City starter Kevin Appier as they had just four hits and were down 2-1 going into the bottom of the ninth.

But with Appier at 125 pitches, Royals manager Bob Boone summoned lefty Jason Jacome to pitch the ninth because the first two hitters were lefties, Tino Martinez and Strawberry. Jacome walked Martinez on five pitches, then ran the count to 3-2 on Strawberry before serving up a meatball which Strawberry destroyed.

“It’s a little bit easier if you have a guy that can pop three or four runs in one shot,” Torre said. “We haven’t been able to do that. He’s a home run guy, and that’s one thing we’ve been lacking. We’ve been a good hitting club, but we knew from spring training we weren’t going to have the one guy who’s the power threat. We’re hoping Darryl is the one guy who will give us the threat.”

Gooden, who despite eight strong innings would have been on the hook for the loss, missed the theatrics. He was back in the clubhouse when the dugout emptied to greet Strawberry at the plate.

“I would have been, but I was undressing in here,” Gooden said. “I was in here screaming and yelling. I was jumping up and down for him. To do what he did in New York, that was great. What a way for him to get his 300th, by hitting the game-winner and here in New York. He hit a lot of big home runs for the Mets, but this one was special. This performance was like when I threw the no-hitter, except it happened for him.”

Three days later, the Yankees went all in on Strawberry. They traded Sierra to the Tigers for slugger Cecil Fielder and gave Strawberry the job in left field until Tim Raines returned from the disabled list in mid-August.

Clearly pumped for the opportunity, Strawberry hit three home runs against the White Sox on Aug. 6 in a 9-2 win, then hit two more on Aug. 8 in an 8-4 victory, five homers in a span of nine at-bats which gave him eight in 89 at-bats.

“If I swing at strikes, things will happen,” he said. “I feel good. I feel at this point I can get the job done. There’s no second-guessing in my mind. I know it’s not going to happen every time. But if I get my pitch, I know what to do with it.”

Fielder, who hit two home runs in his first three games after the trade, shook his head at the splendor of Strawberry when he was at his best.

“I appreciate Straw,” Fielder said. “We’re not all saints. We all make mistakes. For a guy who did what he did to get back to the majors means something. A lot of people didn’t want to give him a chance, which I think is unfair. He’s Darryl Strawberry. He’s a superstar.”

NEXT post on May 11: A walk-off loss in Kansas City starts a major slide.