COMMENTARY : A Sad Chapter for Strawberry

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Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden have been inexorably linked almost since the first day they were teammates. And they will remain such, just as the New York Yankees' Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford have been linked through most of the last four decades.

The major-league debuts of Straw and The Doctor were separated by less than a season, and they quickly merged to form the focal point of the New York Mets' re-emergence in the mid-1980s. "Kid and Keith are the old pros," Strawberry said in the 1986 postseason, referring to Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez. "Doc and me, we're the studs. We go together."

And now the two are linked again -- sadly, and for the wrong reason. Nonetheless, the link is greater now that Strawberry has entered Smithers Alcoholism and Treatment Center.

The similarity in this episode ends at that point, however. Gooden's problem was cocaine. Strawberry's is alcohol. The Mets thought it necessary to specify, so as to defuse speculation that drugs were the cause. The baseball world was stunned when, in spring training, 1987, Gooden entered Smithers. Strawberry's admission seems like the next natural step in his decline. No one knew it would happen Saturday. But now that it has, it's not particularly surprising.

No baseball people knew of Gooden's cocaine use, but Strawberry's alcohol consumption has been conspicuous. Alcohol has been as much a part of his major-league life as flights, hotels, home runs and unfulfilled promise.

Those around the Mets had to see this coming. The signs, which were everywhere, were not particularly becoming. I recall staying late in the Mets' clubhouse after the final game before the All-Star break in 1986. Strawberry, Gooden and the other all-star Mets had time to kill before their late flight. Strawberry filled some of his time and stomach with alcohol, drinking from a bottle in a brown bag. He was drunk before he left the clubhouse.

That day, Strawberry was a happy person. The alcohol made him happier. Three months later, according to his wife, alcohol made him meaner. She claimed he broke her nose with his fist while he was drunk during the Mets' playoff series in Houston that fall. And early in 1987, when Lisa Strawberry obtained a court order to keep her husband away from her, she cited his drinking as a problem and said he became violent at times.

There was not mention of alcohol in the Jan. 26th episode of violence and trouble in the Strawberry home. But few would be surprised if Darryl had been under the influence when, as his wife alleged, he pulled a loaded pistol from a closet and threatened her. In some ways, I hope he was drunk. I would hate to think he would do that when he was sober. I would like to think the alcohol made him mean.

Hernandez knows how mean Strawberry can be when he's drunk. Two nights before Strawberry took his infamous swing at Hernandez during the Mets' Photo Day activities last spring, Strawberry confronted Hernandez in a Port St. Lucie, Fla., bar. "I think it was better that it happened the way it did, in daylight, not in a bar and where other people could break it up," Hernandez said. "Darryl is strong, and he can be mean."

And meanness is another element that distinguishes Strawberry from Gooden. Drunk or sober, Strawberry has some meanness in him. Players involved in on-the-field fights with him will attest to that. "It's something that just comes out of him. It's scary," former Met Wally Backman said after a Mets-Los Angeles Dodgers brawl in May 1986. "Darryl really wants to hurt people."

Gooden has no such feelings.

Strawberry is not bad to the bone, but he doesn't have the wholesomeness that Gooden has. He be scary, as Backman said. Now that he is in Smithers, perhaps he has seen enough to scare himself straight.

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