Darryl Strawberry’s Renaissance and Reality in 1998

The following is an excerpt from Jack Curry’s recently released book,The 1998 Yankees: The Inside Story of the Greatest Baseball Team Ever,” available now.

Darryl Strawberry was at peace. Finally. The swing, that sweet, powerful and majestic swing, was back and he was an instrumental and beloved player for the 1998 Yankees. Strawberry, a magnetic name in New York for more than a decade, was thriving and he felt at home on the Yankees, these formidable and ferocious Yankees.

Back in 1995, Strawberry thought his career was over after he was suspended from baseball for 60 days because of cocaine use. Who would want to take a chance on a player with Strawberry’s troubled resume? George Steinbrenner did. The principal owner instructed the Yankees to sign Strawberry, admitted the Yankees had not even scouted the player and simply said he wanted to give Strawberry a chance.

“Maybe I’ll be disappointed, but I think that Darryl Strawberry can turn things around and be a great lesson for young people to say that you shouldn’t do it,” Strawberry said. “Anyone who hasn’t done it can get up there and tell kids that. But someone who has been through the terror and almost paid with his life can really get the point across.”

Strawberry was forever thankful that Steinbrenner offered him a lifeline.

“He didn’t just sign me,” Strawberry said. “He cared about my struggles and he knew they were real and he understood them. And I think, a lot of times, people didn’t give him enough credit for understanding people’s battles and struggles.”

In 1998, Steinbrenner’s decisions looked masterful as Strawberry was a force and an enforcer for the Yankees, without being a full-time starter. Strawberry belted 24 homers in a mere 345 plate appearances, including two pinch-hit grand slams.

After one of Strawberry’s grand slams helped the Yankees score nine runs in the ninth inning to defeat Oakland, 10-5, in August, Manager Joe Torre said his Yankees reminded him of the 1976 Reds, one of the greatest teams of all-time. The Big Red Machine was guided by Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose and Tony Perez and swept the Phillies in the playoffs and swept the Yankees in the World Series. Not only did Torre compare the Yankees to the powerful Reds, he added, “And we have better pitching.” The Yankees did. And, of course, they had Strawberry, a man who had turned his life and his career around.

Strawberry had lived a complicated life, a tough life. And, when you’ve lived a tough life and your baseball career has been in tatters and you’re in the middle of an amazing run with an amazing team, you keep playing. At least that’s what Strawberry did that year.

As the days and nights rolled past and the Yankees cruised to wins at a rapid rate, Strawberry was producing. But he didn’t feel right. He had stomach pains, he felt fatigued, he was losing weight and, most alarming of all, he also had blood in his stool. Strawberry knew something was wrong. But he kept playing though the pain for about two months.

“I was a ballplayer so you don’t go to the doctor,” Strawberry said. “If it’s not broken, you don’t go to the doctor. You just work through it. And I worked through it. I was drinking Maalox every day because of the stomach cramps.”

Near the end of the regular season, Strawberry finally reported his symptoms to the athletic trainers. The trainers and medial staff were concerned and told Strawberry he needed to be examined and tested immediately. Strawberry nodded.

A compromised Strawberry was on the roster for the Division Series against the Texas Rangers, but he didn’t play in the opener and his pain was so excruciating that he told Torre he couldn’t play in Game 2. The Yankees won both games. David Wells tossed eight scoreless innings to usher the Yankees to a 2-0 victory in the opener and Andy Pettitte followed with seven one-run innings in a 3-1 win in the second game.

Before the Yankees traveled to Arlington, Texas for Game 3, they announced that Strawberry had a CAT scan and, based on the results, he would remain in New York to undergo a colonoscopy.

“And, little did I know, after I got checked, there it was,” Strawberry said. “I had colon cancer.”

Cancer. A frightening word for anyone to hear and a word that Strawberry had obviously feared. Doctors at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center told Strawberry he had a walnut-sized tumor in his colon and would need to have surgery to remove it. According to the doctors, Strawberry’s tumor had likely existed for about two years and had developed from a polyp. Post-surgery, Strawberry also needed to undergo chemotherapy.

The Yankees were readying for an off-day workout in Texas when an emotional Torre told them their friend and teammate had been diagnosed with colon cancer. The usually bubbly clubhouse turned somber, with players wiping tears from their eyes. This was supposed to be a celebratory time for the Yankees, who were one win away from advancing to the A.L.C.S. But the mood turned dark and gloomy.

I’ve never witnessed a more subdued post-season workout than the one at The Ballpark at Arlington. The Yankees were sleepwalking through their practice as they were robotically hitting, throwing and fielding, but, most of all, they were wondering. Wondering about Strawberry’s future. The most important game of the season was a day away, but the Yankees were all concerned about Strawberry.

With glassy eyes and uncertainty in his voice, David Cone, who was starting Game 3, was as numb as any Yankee. Cone and Strawberry were friends, very close friends, on and off the field, since their time with the Mets and this haunting news leveled Cone. A few days earlier, Dan Quisenberry, the sidearming closer who had been a pitching and life mentor for Cone in Kansas City, had died of brain cancer. With so much sadness smothering him, Cone needed a shoulder to lean on or to cry on and he found the most comfortable shoulder of all. Ed, Cone’s father, happened to be at the workout so Cone sidled up to his father near the front row seats and talked about Strawberry.

“We were all scared for Darryl and worried about Darryl,” Cone said. “But the doctors said the prognosis was very good and that’s what we tried to focus on. But it wasn’t easy. Straw was such a big part of that team and we all felt for him.”

Cone mentioned how he planned to write Strawberry’s number 39 on his cap, a wonderful idea and a perfect tribute. But, by game time the next night, the Yankees’ clubhouse attendants had stitched 39 on the back of all of their caps. The Yankees wanted to win for themselves, but now they had another motivation: win for Straw

In a videotaped get-well card of sorts, the Yankees appeared on ESPN’s SportsCenter to send positive thoughts to Strawberry. Tim Raines was the team’s spokesperson and, with Jeter standing to his left, Chuck Knoblauch standing to his right and the other Yankees surrounding them, Raines said, “We just want to send a message to Darryl that we’re all behind him. We know he’s strong enough to get through this and we’re behind you.”

Before Strawberry underwent surgery the next day, he actually responded. In a 45-second video message that teammates described as upbeat, Strawberry implored the Yankees to finish their series against the Rangers and ended his pep talk with, “Go get ‘em tonight, guys. Get ‘em.”

And the Yankees did. With Cone’s focus shifting between sliders, splitters and Strawberry, he twirled 5 2/3 scoreless innings to help steer the Yankees to a 4-0 win and a three-game sweep. During the game, Torre actually thought his players looked tense so had a rare in-game meeting, met with them in the runway behind the dugout and reinforced that THEY were the team with the 2-0 series lead. It was a long and soggy night as the game featured a rain delay of three hours and 16 minutes and didn’t finish until almost 2:30 in the morning. As much as the Yankees wanted Strawberry to see their conquest of the Rangers, he was surely sleeping by then. But the Yankees had heeded his advice to “go get ‘em.”

“I really felt Straw had turned his life around and then, bang, that happened,” Cone said. “Colon cancer? He was too young for that. The timing of it all and the shock of it all was a lot for us to take. I was overwhelmed by it. I had felt so good about Straw coming to the Yankees and getting another chance. I knew he was a good guy. I knew he had some demons. But he was clutch. He was perfect for us.”

Not long after Strawberry was finished with surgery, he remembered being hungry and woozy. His eyes were closed and the room was quiet, except for the beeping of the monitors. He was in his own world, a pensive and silent place. Then Strawberry sensed someone’s presence in the room and opened his eyes. Sitting beside him was Steinbrenner.

“He just showed up unannounced,” Strawberry said. “The Boss walked in by himself and was right there. He said he wanted me to know he was thinking about me and the team was thinking about me, too.”

After Steinbrenner reiterated how much the players cared about Strawberry and how hard they were working to honor him in October, the Boss said, “And they’re going to win. They’re going to win it all.”

Strawberry smiled for the first time in a while and said, “I know we are.”

And the Yankees did win it all. Strawberry was strong enough to participate in the ticker tape parade. He was a champion again.

Jack Curry’s new book,The 1998 Yankees: The Inside Story of the Greatest Baseball Team Ever,” was released on May 2.