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Putting the Pain Behind : Strawberry Says Impending Divorce Has Been Difficult

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Everything Darryl Strawberry does, and some of what he says, seems to make headlines. Sometimes the headlines are accurate. Other times, they are exploitative.

At 31, Strawberry has lived the past decade under public scrutiny. He has become used to his every move being examined under a microscope, to getting all of the attention most of the time.

He has learned the hard way how vulnerable he is, with most of the tough lessons coming when he played for the New York Mets. But lessons are still being learned.

This winter, Strawberry said he suffered his worst heartache when he had to leave his two children, Diamond, 4, and Darryl Jr. (D.J.), 7, after he and his wife, Lisa, filed for divorce.

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The 10-year marriage was plagued by problems and separations. Strawberry said it might have been different if he hadn’t begun his career in New York at 22 and played there for eight years. He said he might be different. Surely, he thinks his image would be.

But this time, when Strawberry and his wife split, he realized that his children were old enough to know what was happening, and they didn’t understand. Much as Strawberry didn’t understand when his father, Henry, left him and his mother, two brothers and two sisters in a green stucco bungalow on Seventh Avenue in South Central Los Angeles many years ago. Strawberry was 13 then, and it took until he was 28 before he could really comprehend.

“When you are in a situation that is no good, the only thing it will do is to continue to destroy you,” Strawberry said. “I think that is really what was happening to me. It made me have bad habits and do things I shouldn’t have been doing.

“But when you have to walk away from your children and your daughter is asking, ‘Why is daddy leaving home?’ . . . My daughter was really confused and was having trouble in school. And she would go to school and tell her teacher, ‘My daddy left me.’ “It was hard, but if it’s not going to work, you have to move on. They are real happy kids today. . . . They see that Daddy is happy. They live close to me in the (San Fernando) Valley.”

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It was D.J.'s getting older that made Strawberry realize how difficult it is to live in a fishbowl. He wants the details of the divorce, which won’t be final until May, sealed and kept from public record. The divorce is not going as well as he wanted; he had hoped to have it behind him before the season starts Monday in Miami.

“We all have weaknesses,” Strawberry said. “It’s just unfortunate that someone has to be in the middle of the media all the time. But personal things happen and those kinds of things are something a lot of other players have to go through, but it never gets to be a headline story because of the name. My name is big enough, it hits the headline stories.”

At times, Strawberry brings notoriety on himself. After signing with the Dodgers in 1990, he became a Christian and announced his conversion. Brett Butler went to Strawberry afterward and told him he shouldn’t have made it public.

“I told him he had left himself open for scrutiny, to be put under a microscope and live up to what he was talking about,” Butler said. “I told him if he didn’t say anything and people saw a difference, then he would have the opportunity to share it. The other way, you leave yourself open for ridicule.

“I think Darryl saw what happened that first year.”

This spring, Strawberry made headlines again when he talked about how his personal problems had contributed as much to his poor 1992 season as the herniated disk for which he had surgery in September. He said he had fathered a child out of wedlock last year in California, the second such child he has claimed and said he will support. The terms of the financial support are still in the hands of lawyers. The attorney for the child’s mother does not want to be identified and declined comment.

This latest incident, though, left Strawberry sounding callous.

“People wonder why would I talk about it, but you have to face the facts of life,” Strawberry said. “I’m not just a baseball player, I’m a human being too.

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“You really don’t know what other people’s intentions are. Their motives are different than your motives. You get involved with people, things happen and you have no idea what they are thinking, and boom.

“I look at it that most people look at dollars and really don’t get to know a person. All they think of is that you make a lot of money, and that could be a way to help their life out. I think it’s real sad that young ladies put themselves in those situations and things happen, because it’s not like they are going to have a part of my life.

“And it’s unfortunate if there is a kid involved . . . it’s not like the kid is going to have a part of my life. Because my life is with my two children that I was with in the marriage, because that’s all I am ever certain about.”

These experiences have helped Strawberry build a wall around himself. Butler said he has tried to be friends with him for two years, but Strawberry will let him only so close.

“Darryl is very sensitive, but very callused because of his years in New York and all the pummeling that he took there,” Butler said.

“He is vulnerable at times, but he has a big heart and he cares what people think about him, just like everybody . . . he’s no exception.”

Bo Rankins, who has been like a brother to Strawberry since high school, always tells Strawberry he knows how tough it is to be him. “Bo will tell me to give him my money and that will help solve it. And I tell Bo to let me have my money and live his life, and I will be all right.”

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Although it has been three years since he spent 29 days in the Smithers Alcohol Rehabilitation Unit in New York, there are still whispers about Strawberry--that he still drinks and could go down again.

“I do drink and it’s not a big deal,” Strawberry said. “I am living my life for me and not living it for what has been labeled on me. If it has really been that bad, then I should be on skid row.

“Regardless of what is said and what is thought about me, I am happy and content, and life is going in the right direction for me right now at this point.”

Strawberry and his family have always maintained that he didn’t go to Smithers for an alcohol problem, but entered the facility because it was his only chance to get away.

“It was more the pressure than anything,” Strawberry said. “I just wanted to get away from everything, and that was the chance for me to do it.

“The Mets had a counselor, Dr. (Allan) Lans, and he figured if I got away, it would take the pressure off. He thought if I stayed away from drinking too much and from the pressure and the problems, it would help. And it definitely did.”

Some of that pressure included pending misdemeanor charges against Strawberry for allegedly threatening Lisa with a .25-caliber semiautomatic handgun. That was on Feb. 2, 1990, and the next day Strawberry entered Smithers.

“I will never tailspin back into that lifestyle again,” Strawberry said. “I was so frustrated at the time, it was my only chance to get away.

“First, you can only take so much. You would be surprised . . . everybody expects you to hit rock bottom, but I never have. . . . That has never happened. “

Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda said Strawberry has never caused him to be concerned. “He’s over 21,” Lasorda said.

Fred Claire, the Dodgers’ executive vice president, also said Strawberry has given the club no reason to worry. He said it was his understanding that Strawberry had gone to rehabilitation for alcohol abuse, but that much about his treatment is confidential. Because Strawberry signed as a free agent, Claire didn’t have access to reports he could have obtained with a trade, but he said that didn’t matter. The Dodgers did not put a no-alcohol clause in Strawberry’s contract.

“The reports on Darryl were solid enough to lead us to sign him,” Claire said. “Since Darryl has been with us, I don’t think he’s done anything to cause us to worry. . . . There haven’t been issues where he has created a problem for us.

“When Darryl Strawberry comes to bat, there is a chant that accompanies that,” Claire said. “I don’t think it’s fair to link that type of visibility with a problem unless there is evidence that there is a problem.”

Claire said the Dodgers are always concerned about their players both on and off the field, adding: “They need to succeed in their personal life because their life is not always going to be baseball.”

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Strawberry is not a team leader in the true sense, but there is a presence about him that is unique.

He is never in a hurry to leave the clubhouse, and can often be found joking with teammates or sitting in front of his locker talking with his longtime friend, Eric Davis. He always seems to have time for reporters.

Said Lenny Harris: “A lot of people look at Darryl and criticize him in spring training, but Darryl is the type of player who has been around the league and knows what he needs to do to get himself prepared for April.

“There is determination in his eyes that he wants to be a winner, and it is rubbing off. I remember when we were in San Francisco and we lost to them in 1991, I laid my head on Darryl’s shoulder, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, you will get another chance, you will get another chance as long as you are playing with me.’ I hope I spend the rest of my years in baseball playing with a guy like Darryl, someone who is always shooting for October madness.”

Rookie Mike Piazza, who became the Dodgers’ starting catcher this spring, said Strawberry has been an inspiration.

“He’s been very supportive and always is trying to help me out,” Piazza said. “I see him out at night every now and then, and we’ll talk. I think a lot of people can get the wrong idea from him, but deep down inside, he is really driven and dedicated.

“I’ve never see anybody get a crowd into a game like he does, and to me that is a lot of pressure, (but) he actually loves it. I talked with him a couple of times about it, and he loves it when the crowd chants, “Dar-ryl, Dar-ryl.”

Almost daily this spring, Strawberry voluntarily came out of the clubhouse to spend half an hour signing autographs.

“I’m dedicated to be the best and dedicated to the fans, which I have always been my whole career,” Strawberry said. “Because these people have a heart of gold. . . . They aren’t the ones saying things and writing negative things. You can hear it in their voice when they talk to you. People here ask me every day about my back. . . . They hope I’m healthy, they hope I’m well. They wish me well.

“Those are the people who really care. And that’s what is really important, to have that feeling from those people that you are important, and you feel they are important enough to be out there talking with them and signing autographs for them.

“That’s what life is about. Life is not all about this big old thing because you are a baseball player and you make a great deal of money--that is not it.”

When he was younger, Strawberry would wonder if he was worthy of so much attention. It started early, when there were scouts clamoring after him at every game he played for Crenshaw High or in summer leagues. It continued when he became the Mets’ No. 1 selection in the 1980 amateur draft.

Now, Strawberry enjoys the attention. He is recognized wherever he goes and knows that is part of his life. He is active in several charities involving children. When his career is over, he said, he wants his work to be with children.

“I never wanted to think that I am different, but I am, and only because of what I achieved in baseball,” Strawberry said. “I think a lot of people realize that Darryl Strawberry is not the person everybody thinks he is. He’s a person with a great sense of humor, who enjoys life, who doesn’t take things for granted, and works hard to be the best.

“I want kids and young athletes to understand that there are many temptations, many avenues out there that could be a big distraction when you get to the point of reaching stardom. But either it’s going to make you or it’s going to break you. You will either learn to deal with it or you will crumble.

“A lot of people thought I was going to crumble and fall. But I’m not going to fall. I’ve always been a winner.

“I’m not going to play baseball forever, and I want to walk out of the game with my head proud and say that I accomplished what I set my mind to accomplish. And it will happen, because I have the right attitude about it.”


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