Strawberry Faces Another Crisis

Sunday, July 30th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Hat on backward, sun glasses in place, shirt draped over his shorts, Darryl Strawberry looked cool and confident, a man without a care.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Here was Straw, back in the headlines, his picture all over the front pages as he was questioned by Florida authorities investigating whether he had violated his probation for drug abuse.

And that was the least of his troubles.

A couple of days earlier, Strawberry learned that his cancer was back, that it had spread to his lymph nodes, that once again he would be in a battle for survival. He thought he was past that hurdle after surgery for colon cancer in October 1998 and months of chemotherapy.

Then came a CAT scan that revealed its return. Dr. John Lepook said the test ``suggests the possibility that his colon cancer has spread to his lymph nodes,'' near the original tumor. Further tests are scheduled this week.

For Strawberry, it was just one more turn in a troubled road that has included legal problems, substance addiction and the grimmest of health issues.

In a lifetime that sometimes seems to be constructed of one crisis after another, Strawberry tries to be upbeat. It is a challenge of huge proportions for this man-child with the compelling name and a sweet swing that has produced 335 major league home runs.

He shrugged off reports that he left his drug rehab program too early and that he has been frequenting a topless club in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. And when reporters questioned him Friday as he left a meeting with his probation officer, he dropped the news about his health casually, almost as an afterthought.

``Physically, I have some situations coming up right now that's going to be real difficult for me,'' Strawberry said. ``So I have to deal with them at this point.''

What did that mean? Was the cancer back?

``Yes,'' Strawberry said quietly as he walked away.

There was no emotion in the words, no tears like the ones he shed almost two years ago when he first talked about his health. It was if his roller-coaster life had steeled him for still another crisis.

``I knew something wasn't right a few weeks ago,'' Strawberry told the Daily News of New York. ``I had a lot of pain in the side of my kidney area. Something wasn't normal. I didn't think about it until yesterday (Thursday).

``Yesterday was the first day they discovered it had gone into the lymph nodes. There's a tumor in there that they're going to have to go into and take care of.''

And then, Strawberry fully expects he will be welcomed back to baseball as he ends his third suspension in five years for drug abuse and go back about his business of hitting home runs.

At age 38.

After sitting out most of the 1999 season and probably all of 2000.

``Maybe next year I'll be back,'' he said. ``I'm not going to give up. Maybe this will be another story for me to redeem myself. I'm going to give it everything I have. I do have another story in me.''

So far, his stories have mostly been tragedies, sad epics about what might have been.

The Strawberry saga began in 1983 when he was promoted to the majors at 21 by a New York Mets team desperate for a star. The Strawberry spiral began not long after that.

By 1987, there were domestic problems. His wife, Lisa, charged that he had broken her nose. After repeated separations and reconciliations, she filed for divorce. Later, there would be charges of failed child support.

By 1990, he was in New York's Smithers Clinic, being treated for alcohol abuse.

He left the Mets for a $20 million free agent contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers that year but injuries limited his production. On the eve of the 1994 season, he failed to show for the final exhibition game and was released.

Within days, he was in the Betty Ford clinic for substance abuse treatment. The San Francisco Giants had him for 29 games that season. But a year later, he was suspended by major league baseball for failing to follow his aftercare treatment program, and the Giants released him.

In 1995, he pleaded guilty to tax charges and was placed on three years' probation. He pressed on, trying to reconstruct his career by playing for St. Paul in the independent Northern League. His ability to hit home runs earned him a contract with the New York Yankees and five seesaw seasons during which he was in and out of their lineup, limited by more injuries, more substance troubles and the cancer diagnosis.

Last year, when the Yankees celebrated their third World Series championship in four years, Strawberry sobbed as he thanked manager Joe Torre for having faith in him.

Now, as he faces his latest crisis, he will need all the faith he can find — in his doctors, in his family and in himself.