Home run to redemption

close-up : Darryl Strawberry A place in the World Series is paradise regained for a reborn New York baseball hero. Rupert Cornwell reports
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The Independent Online
For those tortured souls who write the headlines on the sports pages of the New York tabloids, paradise has returned in the person of Darryl Strawberry. You may love him for what he achieved in the 1980s, or hate him for the spoiled, self-destructive abandon with which he almost wrecked one of the greatest talents in baseball. But to the wordsmiths of the Big Apple, Strawberry's redemption with the New York Yankees this autumn, when the World Series is back in the Bronx, just makes the job that much easier.

A "Man Of Straw" may let the Yankees down, but "Straws In The Wind" are those soaring trademark home runs which made him baseball's most exciting newcomer when he broke through with the New York Mets in 1983. A couple of them, and an enemy ballpark becomes a "Strawberry Field Forever", leaving the opponents, one might say, "Straw-buried". Let not these feeble puns, however, obscure a sporting parable in the making. Having tasted hell, Darryl Strawberry this weekend is sampling heaven.

Such stories are universal - indeed there are elements of Paul Merson in the Strawberry morality play. However Strawberry's greatest years are over. He never perhaps sank quite as deep into the hole of betting, drink and cocaine as the Arsenal forward, but the lost years of the early 90s should have been Strawberry's prime. He still swats a baseball with an elegant and terrifying power, but while a Merson liberated from booze, drugs and gambling has the potential to establish himself in the England side, Strawberry will never repeat the 39- home-run seasons of yesteryear.

He is 34 now, no greybeard by baseball standards, but his excesses have taken a subtle but irreversible toll. When he left the Mets for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1991, the sport had no greater star. Now only Indian summers remain. Even that prospect, however, was enough to have 35,000 Yankee fans glued to their seats until his final out when he returned from the minor leagues on 7 July. Today, you pay to watch Darryl Strawberry for the same reason you went to Craven Cottage in the mid-70s to see George Best play for Fulham: for the memory, and the hope that lightning will strike twice. And when Strawberry came to bat last Sunday, at the end of the third innings in the American League Championship game which would send the Yankees to the Series, it did.

It is a mark of the great hitter in baseball to be able to "go the other way" - in cricket parlance, not to pull the ball either side of midwicket on the on side, but to hit to the off side, far more difficult in a sport in which the ball must be struck on the full toss. For a hitter, equal power "the other way" is rare. Unless, of course, you're the likes of Strawberry. Scott Erickson of Baltimore Orioles threw a decent enough pitch. Languidly yet with blinding speed, Strawberry lashed it in the direction of deep mid-off, where it landed 448 feet (138 metres) away. The blow was like clearing the pavilion at Lord's.

That was Strawberry's third home run in two nights. It put the Yankees an uncatchable 6-0 ahead, and would have almost certainly earned him a place in the starting line-up for last night's World Series before the clouds arrived at the Yankee Stadium to rain the game off. Most of all, though, baseball, as forgiving to its errant players as its fans are to an errant sport, had proved once more that the Almighty does not have the monopoly of resurrection.

Discarded by the Dodgers, Strawberry was picked up by the San Francisco Giants. In 1995, he was acquired by the Yankees, but after a nondescript season that produced a respectable batting average of .276 but a mere three home runs, they let him go. And then the phone went silent. All that remained was the elephants' graveyard of the independent Northern League and a $2,000 (pounds 1,250) monthly salary with the Saints of St Paul, Minnesota. "I wondered if I'd ever walk on a major league field again," Strawberry admitted after the triumph in Baltimore. "I had tried to do too much and be too much, and it led me down the wrong road. But playing up there [in Minnesota] was great because it brought joy back. Baseball became fun again, and I hadn't had fun for a while."

The transformation was not lost on George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' owner, previously noted for sacking managers on sight and trying to blackmail the good city of New York into building him a brand new $1bn stadium in downtown Manhattan at taxpayers' expense. The Yankees were short on raw power, especially from left-handed hitters, but up in the frozen north Strawberry averaged an astronomic .435 (more than four hits for every 10 at-bats) with 18 homers in just 29 games. On Steinbrenner's orders, the Yankees offered him a single-year $300,000 contract, plus a signing bonus of $260,000 which the club paid directly to his first wife Lisa to keep its new acquisition out of prison for missed alimony payments. Compared to the $5m Strawberry earned annually with the Dodgers, it was peanuts. And at least until the Yankees lose the Series, everybody in the Big Apple loves George Steinbrenner.

And this time perhaps Strawberry has got his life together. He has remarried, and acquired two young children and an unwonted humility. He sounds as if he is at peace with himself. But the story has its melancholy side. In terms of a sporting idol's sins, he is batting a perfect 1.000. He has gambled. He has been an alcoholic. He has used drugs, beaten his wife, brawled with teammates and the press, and run foul of the Internal Revenue Service for tax evasion. But for those wasted years with the Dodgers, for whom he hit a paltry 14 homers between 1992 and 1994, Strawberry could be on course for one of the greatest careers ever - 500 home runs or more and certain entry into the Hall of Fame, baseball's Valhalla. His transgressions ensure neither will happen.

But for the first time since 1986, when the Mets beat the Boston Red Sox, he is back in a World Series. Once again he is the toast of a New York crowd - with the crucial difference however that in the post-game dressing room celebrations, the champagne runs off his back, not down his throat. "I've always liked it here, the New York fans seem to like me, and understand all I've been through," Strawberry said last week. "But I'm not going to push things; this time I'm not going to get over- excited." For as Strawberry realises, another personal failure and even this most gifted of prodigal sons can expect no second comeback.

Life and strife of a wayward hitman

1962 Born 12 March, south central Los Angeles.

1983 Debut season with the New York Mets. Hit 26 home runs; voted National League's Rookie of the Year.

1986 Won World Series with Mets against Boston Red Sox.

1988 Lost in National League championship series to LA Dodgers. Beset by more visible alcohol and drug problems over next few years.

1991 Moved to LA Dodgers. Hit 28 home runs that year, but career then disintegrated, amid divorce, cocaine, and a federal tax fraud conviction.

1994 Traded to San Francisco Giants, but released after more drug abuse.

1995 Played briefly for Yankees, but not given new contract.

1996 With no major league team showing interest, spent two months with minor league St Paul Saints in Minnesota. Reacquired by Yankees 7 July. Hit 11 home runs in remainder of regular season, plus three in two championship series games. Yankees reach first World Series in 15 years.

1983-1996 regular season career home-run total: 308 (65th in all-time rankings).