The irony of the timing was too sweet -- as sweet, in fact, as was Darryl Strawberry's wondrous left-handed swing. On the day baseball finally revealed what most of us suspected all along -- that too many of its players are juiced -- a tragic figure who embodies the depths to which illegal drugs can take a man was welcomed back to the sport.
Strawberry, one of the most popular and dynamic players of his era, was hired Thursday by the New York Yankees as a player development instructor. The twist, of course, is that Strawberry's legacy now is less defined by his gifts than by his sordid off-the-field problems which have been lowlighted by too many public reminders of his addiction to cocaine. In April, he was released from the Gainsville (Fla.) Correctional Institution after serving 11 months for violating probation on cocaine possession charges.
And that wasn't the worst of it, really. Since leaving the game in 2000, Strawberry has also been treated for stomach and colon cancer. It was such that every time I saw his name in a headline, I halfway expected the story to be an obituary.
Now Straw says he wants to be a "positive role model for somebody."
My instinct says he will be just that.
Perhaps not for the 70 to 100 Major League Baseball players who failed the sports' recent steroid tests. (According to reports, a total of 1,438 tests were conducted in 2003 and between five and seven percent came back positive.) They're as lost as a homer launched into McCovey Cove, having flunked even though they knew they had an appointment with Dr. Sample. One editor at Sports Illustrated mused that the tests weren't as much drug tests as intelligence tests.
No, Straw is more likely to influence those who may still be pondering the consumption of pharmaceuticals to gain a so-called competitive edge. During spring training he will work with the major leaguers, but once the season begins Straw will roam the Yankees' minor league system. That's where his insights, born of his experiences -- call it The Good, The Bad and The High -- will matter most.
Oh sure, I presume he'll talk hitting -- from the mechanics to the mental. During his 17-year career, Strawberry hit 335 homers, probably about 150 fewer than he should have hit. Or would have hit had he not been using coke. Straw served three suspensions during his career for cocaine abuse.
Yankees owner George Steinbrenner may be the most polarizing figure in baseball. He is both loved and hated for his free-spending ways. He is admired for his passion for winning, but hated, at times, for his public floggings of players and coaches. But you have to give him this one: On a day when baseball is trying to spin its ugly steroid numbers -- hey, at least it's not an EPIDEMIC!!! -- he goes out and hires an ex-con with a history of drug abuse, saying he would not "turn my back on someone who has failed and is doing everything possible to turn his life around."
During a conference call about his hiring, Strawberry admitted that he had not accomplished as much as he should have as a player. "I didn't reach my full potential," he said. "Hopefully I can help somebody reach theirs."
Or, at minimum, Strawberry can help prevent somebody from reaching the depths he's seen.