Subdued Strawberry : After Two Forgettable Seasons, Outfielder Taking New Tack

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Look at the legs, they say, and you can tell Darryl Strawberry is back. He's running the bases with fervor, something he couldn't do before--not the last two seasons, anyway.

Strawberry says he first felt a little back soreness when he sat out the last couple of games of the 1990 season with the New York Mets. But no one thought anything about it then. Strawberry checked out fine when the Dodgers gave him a physical and was signed to a five-year, $20.25-million contract. He certainly showed no signs of a problem during the 1991 season, when he nearly took the Dodgers to a division title.

So did a little soreness later turn into a two-year debacle? Not even Strawberry is sure about that. All he knows is that he quit stealing bases after 1988, when he stole 29. The season before, he stole 36. And now, to the surprise of opposing pitchers, Strawberry is at it again, although the basepaths seem to be the only place where he is in a hurry.

Quietly, Strawberry is plodding back. He is slow to speak, slow to walk and slow to go. He arrives at the clubhouse early and lingers late into the afternoon, often putting in extra running after a game, always signing autographs for fans.

His fans? Yes. At least in Florida, the tide is starting to turn again.

Sometimes he returns to Dodgertown in the evening--only one of a few players to do so. If it's a party, he drinks soda. If it's a Bible study group, he speaks. If it's a radio show, he shows up on time. He even dresses differently. The chartreuse and red plaid number has yet to make an appearance. This is a new, subdued Strawberry.

"My wife dresses me now," he says, referring to Charisse, his wife of three months.

He has rewritten his list of friends, getting rid of many of the hangers-on, and has added some new names. They include a new baby, a minister, and Charisse, whom Strawberry said helped pull him out of despair last September when he contemplated suicide. He had virtually lost two seasons, was continually booed and jeered and was frequently in some sort of trouble.

But Strawberry hit his low point when he was arrested for allegedly assaulting Charisse, of which he was later cleared.

"I could have killed myself," Strawberry said.

"But that's an avenue that I had to go through in life because there is so much I wanted to be able to know about myself and didn't. And the whole thing about not knowing yourself was that because you have always been put on a pedestal to be this great individual where everybody expected so much out of you, and you couldn't give it to them the way they wanted it. So it wasn't appreciated, and you felt like, what's left?

"But there is a lot left."

Strawberry's surgically repaired back is apparently strong again, and to be sure it stays that way, he has made a few changes. To ease the pressure, he has changed his swing, minimizing his trademark loop. And he plays left field now, because in right field he throws more frequently across his body, putting more stress on his back.

He is hitting the ball again, although his stroke isn't quite back. There are signs of the vintage Strawberry, but not enough of them for anyone in the Dodger organization to get excited. They, too, are reacting slowly.

"It took a lot of strength to turn the page and be able to see a different sight, but that's what the whole key is, to get to the point of getting the strength and live life a different way," Strawberry said. "The most significant thing about me today is that I enjoy me for me and not for anybody else, and I choose today in my life not to share myself with others that I don't want to associate with.

"I will succeed, and with more peace about it rather than wanting to do it or having to do it. Those drives are not there. Now it's like, just do it. Go out and be an example of what life can be like when you are successful at a young age in your major league career and you deal with trials and tribulations and overcome that. It's great to be able to come and look at the whole picture differently and know it's yours, without worrying yourself about it."

Through four weeks of spring training, Strawberry has been this way. His eyes reflect new peace, his laugh is back, and his speech is more calculated. He has yet to say anything worth a headline, which is a record not found in baseball books but in the notebooks of reporters, who in years past only had to wait about 10 minutes for Strawberry to say something to lead a story with.

But for Strawberry, this respite may be short-lived. The past is threatening to pull him under again. Strawberry is facing a possible grand jury indictment for not reporting all his income from memorabilia shows from his days with the Mets. He denies any wrongdoing, but knows he is the target of an investigation that includes several players.

"It won't stop me from playing," Strawberry said. "You can only be stopped if you have intentionally done something or committed any type of crime. That is the only way a person can be stopped."

Reports indicate that the IRS will come after Strawberry shortly after the season begins, but Strawberry says he and his tax attorney have options if that happens.

And the Dodgers' position? They say it is premature to speculate. For now, they are happy with Strawberry.

"Very happy," said Fred Claire, executive vice president. "Just look at the legs--his running is back. That is something he did not have before. Darryl is working hard, and he is also making good contact with the bat. I am very pleased with Darryl."

His teammates have been impressed, too. Mike Piazza praises Strawberry's work ethic, saying that he has seen Strawberry run after a game, go in the clubhouse, then go out and run some more. "You have to respect that," Piazza said.

But the biggest difference is that reliance on Strawberry to carry the team is diminishing. Nobody argues that his left-handed bat is needed in the lineup, and the power prospect of the middle of the order--Piazza, Strawberry and Eric Karros--is promising. But the emergence of Piazza and Karros, the possible resurgence of Tim Wallach and the power potential of Raul Mondesi have finally removed the load from Strawberry's back.

"We need him, and with him it will be great, no question," Karros said. "But we are not living and dying with Darryl this season, that's the difference."

Strawberry's confidence that this season will go well for him is hard to ignore. He clearly has renewed his religious faith, but will not discuss it in detail. Three seasons ago, Strawberry proclaimed his newfound faith, and shortly afterward, plummeted.

"It's something that belongs to me, and of course, all the questions have been raised this whole spring about the difference in me and all," Strawberry said. "And that's fine, but what is important to me is living the way I'm supposed to so I can be more gratified inside. That's what brings me inner peace--to be able to accept my faults, to accept the tribulations that I have been through and to now walk in the joy of everything else. It's like, 'Hey, I finally got it.' "

The pressure on Strawberry is, in some ways, greater than ever this season, but he says for the first time in his career, he isn't feeling it. All his life, he says, he stepped into the batter's box and wondered when that overwhelming pressure would lift. Now, he says, it's gone.

"I need to be more of an overachiever than I was before," Strawberry said. "But it's not pressure, because I know it's what I am supposed to be doing now and I will be better than before. I'm just glad I have a second chance."

Strawberry says he wants to stay in baseball for seven more seasons, which would make him 39 when he retires. Then, he says, it will be time to move on.

"What I have been chosen to do in life has nothing to do with baseball," he said. "Baseball is just a blessing and a part of it, but for me there is a whole other place that I live in outside of baseball. What it boils down to is that everybody is looking at me from the outside, and they don't know what is inside of me. Those things I will probably end up keeping to myself until I am out of the game of baseball. Then I will reveal those things I have been called to do. I don't know for sure what it is, but I know it is a powerful calling. That's why I am so accepting to the change and the direction."

Strawberry doesn't think about how, the weekend in December that he married Charisse, the Dodgers put him on waivers. He could have been claimed by any club for $20,000, with the Dodgers stuck for the remaining $8 million of his contract. But there were no takers.

And Strawberry says he doesn't worry about the boos he will probably get from Los Angeles fans when the season starts. He knows how they felt when he made the careless "Let it burn" remark during the fires last fall. He is sorry for that, he says.

"I want to stay with the Dodgers and bring them some great years," said Strawberry, who has two years remaining on his contract. "With my way of thinking, I'll do my part, but when you write this article you will have people that will still have things to say, but that's OK with me. I'm not here to please them. And they are not here to please me. And I hope they understand that baseball is just a sport, it's not life.

"It's affected my life because of expectations, but it won't affect me anymore. "

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