Last Friday’s (Aug. 11) session of the St. Paul Saints summer baseball camp for kids wrapped up at CHS Field around the time the tall old ballplayer with the shaved head finished chatting with reporters. Most of the 80 participants grabbed their backpacks and headed for the exit, but a few approached the old ballplayer with items to sign. The oldest kids looked about 13, far too young to have seen the old ballplayer in action, but they certainly sensed the presence of someone significant.
“Could I have your autograph?” one kid asked. “What’s your name?”
“Darryl Strawberry,” the ballplayer said, without a trace of irritation.
Imagine the reaction when that kid went home and showed the autograph to his parents; even a casual baseball fan of a certain age would recognize the name. Eight-time All-Star, four-time World Series champion, the toast of New York in the 1980s and 1990s until drug and alcohol problems upended his life and career. It’s really easy to imagine the question that followed: “What the heck was Darryl Strawberry doing in St. Paul?”
Pull up a chair for this one.
For a few magical weeks in the spring and summer of 1996, Strawberry, a former New York Met, landed with the Saints in a last-ditch attempt to revive his career. It would be another decade before Strawberry finally and decisively shook his Triple Crown of addictions – booze, cocaine and sex. But for those 29 games in a Saints uniform, Strawberry regained his love for baseball while dominating Northern League pitching. He went on to spend parts of four seasons with the Yankees, a valuable role player for the team that dominated baseball through the end of the 1990s.
So when Saints decided to retired the No. 17 Strawberry wore in ’96, and general manager Derek Sharrer called Strawberry to tell him, the old ballplayer – now a clean, sober Christian pastor based in suburban St. Louis – rearranged his schedule to be here for Saturday night’s ceremony. At the same time the Saints honored original owners Marv Goldklang, Mike Veeck, Bill Murray and Van Schley, who sold the club earlier this year. That was fitting for Strawberry, who owed a debt to the entire Saints staff.
“I really had no idea I wanted to play baseball again,” said Strawberry, now 61. “The wonderful people in St. Paul welcomed me and my family at that particular time. My life was in shambles. I look at life as a journey, and you look at the role other people play in your life. They were a big part of my journey. I think that’s why I’m standing here, the man I am today.”
The basic facts of how Strawberry got to St. Paul and returned to the Yankees, who cut him loose after the ’95 season, have been out there for a while. But the full story has never been known until now.
It starts with the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and his unshakable belief in second chances, often overruling his baseball staff to acquire players with troubled pasts. Like Steve Howe. And Dwight Gooden. And Strawberry, whom the Yankees signed to a minor-league contract in June 1995 and brought up for the final two months of the season.
Six-foot-six and 190 pounds in his prime, Strawberry could do it all – run, field, throw, hit and hit with power – the so-called five tools of baseball greatness. He starred on those great Mets teams of the 1980s, a confident, rowdy yet troubled bunch that won the ’86 World Series.
Fact was, Strawberry had been abusing alcohol and drugs since high school. MLB had already suspended Strawberry once for cocaine use before the Yankees signed him – more suspensions would follow – and he wasn’t making child support payments to his first wife. The Yankees remained interested enough to ask him to play winter ball, but Strawberry declined, unwilling to leave his then-wife Charisse and two young children.
“After that, I thought it was over,” he said. “I thought my window with the Yankees was done. I didn’t really think about any other team.”
Enter Goldklang. Besides co-owning the Saints, Goldklang was (and still is) a limited partner in the Yankees.
As Goldklang tells it, in March 1996 one of his sons – Jeff, he thinks – noted Strawberry remained unsigned and suggested Marv Goldklang pursue him for the Saints. For a club known for a pig delivering baseballs to home plate and a nun giving massages, it wasn’t the craziest idea ever suggested.
Through the Yankees, Goldklang got the number of Strawberry’s agent, Eric Grossman, and cold-called him. Independent ball wasn’t a coast-to-coast thing yet, so Goldklang had to explain the Saints were a legitimate operation.
“My pitch was, the Saints would be an ideal first step back for Darryl,” he said.
At the time, Strawberry wasn’t sure he wanted to play anymore – for anyone. It took multiple calls to convince Strawberry, who had never been to St. Paul and wasn’t sure where it was.
“Most people don’t know I didn’t really want to come to play,” Strawberry said. “My agent at the time kept calling me, saying, Marv has an independent team down in St. Paul and he wants to know if you want to come play baseball there. I told him no. I thought I was completely done with baseball.
“Eric had told me about players coming here and trying to get back with a major league team. I told him I didn’t know if I want to get back with a major league team. He said, `Well, just go and see if you like it have fun with it.’ That’s exactly what I did.”
But not without one snag. The night before Strawberry’s introductory press conference, Goldklang, back in New Jersey, got a call from Strawberry and Grossman, who were already in St. Paul. Strawberry had second thoughts. Goldklang said it took 20 minutes of back and forth before Strawberry agreed to go through with the press conference.
“I never told Mike because I thought he would have a heart attack,” said Goldklang. (He finally did – last week.)
About Veeck: Turns out the one person who benefited the most from a second chance hesitated giving one to Strawberry.
Blackballed from Major League Baseball for his part in the 1979 Disco Demolition Night fiasco with the Chicago White Sox, Veeck was out of the game for more than a decade until Goldklang hired him in 1990 to run the Miami Miracle in the Florida State League. Three years later, Veeck and Goldklang created the Saints. It’s no accident the new Netflix documentary about Veeck’s life is titled “The Saint of Second Chances.”
And yet, when Goldklang told Veeck of his plan to sign Strawberry, Veeck was against it, fearful of how Saints fans might react. Veeck was driving to a speaking engagement in Owatonna with his wife Libby when he mentioned his reticence. Libby, incredulous, called him a hypocrite. That shook him.
“I came around the next day after Libby didn’t talk to me,” Veeck said.
Amid all the goofiness and off-the-wall promotions in those early days, the Saints fielded a good team, winning two of the first three Northern League titles in 1993 and ’95 before adding another with Strawberry in ’96. Strawberry quickly showed he could still hit, belting 18 homers and batting .435 with 39 RBI in those 29 games.
He felt comfortable. He enjoyed all the gimmicks and between-innings shenanigans. He became fast friends with Dave Stevens, the congenital amputee and Augsburg grad Veeck signed for his remarkable athletic ability. Strawberry told Stevens to pinch-hit for him late in a game where he had hit three home runs, one of the most memorable unscripted moments in club history. Stevens fouled off several pitches before striking out.
And Strawberry especially appreciated the fans, who never booed him.
“That’s a miracle in itself,” Strawberry said with a chuckle.
“I came here and I realized baseball was fun again. I had never felt like that in such a long period, how fun baseball was, until I actually came to St. Paul and got around Marty Scott [the manager] and Mike Veeck. It was a fun part of my life. It brought about something good.”
In June of ‘96, Goldklang called Steinbrenner and asked him to give Strawberry another shot. So Steinbrenner dispatched general manager Bob Watson and super scout Gene Michael separately to take a look. Michael, the club’s most trusted set of eyes, recommended the Yankees purchase Strawberry’s contract, which they did on July 4 – Steinbrenner’s birthday – for $3,000. Strawberry agreed to a Class AAA deal with no guarantee of a Sept. 1 call-up to the majors.
Goldklang said the Yankees made an identical contract offer to Jack Morris, also attempting a major-league comeback with the Saints. But Morris declined, and retired.
Steinbrenner had already lucked out with Gooden, Strawberry’s former Mets teammate who threw a no-hitter in May of ‘96 after well-documented drug problems and two lengthy suspensions. Strawberry’s arrival, after a brief stop in Class AAA Columbus, was a huge deal in New York. But plenty of people weren’t sold on him.
Goldklang and his wife Sheila were in the owner’s box at Yankee Stadium with Steinbrenner when the Yankees decided to bring up Strawberry. Goldklang recalled Steinbrenner telling him, “If he [messes] up, it’s your ass.” Goldklang said he told Steinbrenner, “He won’t, and it isn’t.”
Strawberry didn’t mess up, at least not right away. He went hitless his first 10 at-bats before pulling two long homers July 13 in the second game of a doubleheader in Baltimore.
Used mostly as a left fielder and DH by manager Joe Torre, Strawberry hit 11 homers with 36 RBI in 62 games. Strawberry and Cecil Fielder, acquired from Detroit at the trade deadline, added power to an already tough lineup with Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill and a promising rookie named Derek Jeter.
The Yankees went on to win the World Series, with Strawberry contributing three home runs in the final two games of the American League Championship Series against the Orioles. Strawberry remained with the Yankees through 1999, winning three world championships and surviving two bouts of colon cancer. But by the end he couldn’t avoid drug problems, and a final season-long suspension for cocaine possession in 2000 ended his career.
“I’m thankful to the Boss [Steinbrenner] and to Joe Torre,” Strawberry said. “Joe Torre believed in me and he played me. He didn’t have to play me. But he made a decision he was going to play me and I was going to become a big part of what the Yankees were about in those years.”
In trouble with the law and in and out of drug treatment programs for the next three years, Strawberry said he finally got clean after meeting his current wife Tracy, a recovering drug addict whom he married in 2006. They run a Christian ministry, Finding Your Way, and their blended family includes nine children and five grandchildren.
“Tracy has had the biggest influence on my life, to help me find a purpose in life,” he said. “She was the only person who ever told me, `When are you ever going to take that baseball uniform off and identify yourself as someone different than a baseball player?’ And she was right. I’d never thought about that. The uniform only represents what you do, but who are you? I found myself and I found great peace.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself. I get to stand in front of 20,000 people and preach and help others now. What a joy that is, to be a person to go back and help somebody because you were helped.”
These days Strawberry says he spends more than 200 days a year on the road speaking to groups about Christ, hope and redemption. He’s grateful, knowing only too well where his life was heading. And if a kid wants an autograph without knowing his name, well, that’s OK too.
“My mother raised me right,” Strawberry said. “Don’t ever think I wasn’t raised right. I’m the one who made the decision to live a heathen lifestyle. You pay a price for that. I tell people that all the time. There’s a price to be paid for the way you live and the way you conduct yourself.
“I just hope my mother’s proud of me more than anything. That’s all that really matters at this point.”