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A star who can't win for losing

Friday, March 15, 2002

It's always been one step forward, two steps back for Darryl Strawberry.

It's why you cringe every time his name pops up in the news. It's why one of his teammates from long ago called him "a walking stick of TNT." Because he never lets things stay good for too long.

Until this latest commotion spilled over into the public, it appeared Strawberry might go a full year without a new entry on his rap sheet. But not, it turns out, because he wasn't trying. That's what's so maddening about guys like him: Success seems to scare them more than failure.

Strawberry celebrated his 40th birthday Tuesday in the Marion County Jail in central Florida, where he was transferred Tuesday after being thrown out of a nearby drug-treatment center for repeatedly breaking the rules. Phoenix House was one of his many shots at rehab. Even so, the infractions Strawberry was charged with in court documents left more than a few people scratching their heads.

Among them: Consensual sex with a female resident in the same treatment program. Unspecified threats to other residents and staff. Using profanity when asked to share his feelings about the Christmas holidays. Smoking behind the dormitories. Swapping baseballs for cigarettes, autographing trading cards and clothing, and giving money to residents.

In short, they were seemingly minor violations he was warned repeatedly about.

Strawberry said in a jailhouse interview with a TV crew from Orlando that he never thought violating any of them, or even all of them, would land him back in the lockup. Even as the words left his mouth, he knew they were lies.

That's another thing about guys like Strawberry. The most charming ones make the best liars. They get so good, so practiced at sinning and covering up that they reach the point where they no longer really know the difference. In that sadly charming way of his, Strawberry said that while the sexual affair could well cost him his marriage, at least he had his sobriety.

"This is the first time I'm coming out of a treatment program where I know in my heart that I don't want to use drugs," he said.

And that might be the saddest part of all. Strawberry hasn't tested positive for drugs since moving into Phoenix House last May, but his chances of extending the streak don't improve any by going to jail.

He's now gone from baseball wrecking machine to wreck, from a sympathetic figure to a pathetic one and back again so many times that it's difficult to keep count.

The rules are so simple in the games they learn to play so well. Between the lines, it's always been three strikes and you're out -- no mercy, no appeal. Then they step outside into the real world and expect to be treated differently.

That's hasn't changed. Strawberry has been charged with domestic violence, failure to pay child support and federal income-tax evasion, and spent time locked up in jails and rehab centers. He's admitted abusing alcohol and cocaine and been laid low by colon and stomach cancer.

But one thing has changed that makes you worry there will be no coming back from this: Strawberry is out of chances, out of skills to sell, out of reasons to get up in the morning and get through the day.

Ability wasn't the only thing that always saved Strawberry. Though it certainly played a part in persuading ballclubs to take a chance on him in the past, there was something noble, warm and funny about him, too, something that went beyond bravado and talent. Those traits made his teammates and managers and most of all, Yankee boss George Steinbrenner, protective of him to a fault.

It might have been the way he walked into spring training with the Mets in 1987 and discovered he had been assigned to the locker next to Doc Gooden, a similar talent with an equally troubled past, and cracked, "Look, it's Assault and Battery together." Or it might have been the way he refused just three years ago, at age 37, to quit trying to make his way back to the big leagues.

In the New York Yankees' clubhouse, where the last episode of Strawberry's comeback battle played out like some kind of cautionary tale, the news of his 1999 arrest in Tampa on drug and prostitution charges that set this latest string of events into motion devastated everybody in the place.

Five probation violations later, only Steinbrenner seems to have enough patience left to find out how many twists Strawberry's tale may yet take.

Jim Litke is a columnist for The Associated Press


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