It Just Wasn't Safe at Home : Darryl Strawberry had high hopes for his return to Los Angeles. His friends say pressure got to the ballplayer. 'I could see it coming,' one says.

This story was reported by Sean Waters and written by Charles Smith

The sweet-swinging savior.

That's the way that Darryl Strawberry was heralded upon his return to Los Angeles in 1991.

Strawberry's unique blend of speed and power was supposed to make him L.A.'s new miracle worker when he was signed as a free agent by the Dodgers.

Perhaps those weight-of-the-world expectations are the reason he failed.

"I could see it coming," said Earl Brown Jr., a major league scout and a former Dodger farmhand. "You know, some players play well coming to their hometown and some can't take the pressure."

On May 25, Strawberry, 32, and the Dodgers reached a financial settlement of $4,857,143 on the final one-plus years of his five-year, $20.25-million contract. In return, Strawberry relinquished the Dodgers from any contractual obligation.

Three years of Strawberry's life, marred with back ailments, fans' jeers and a bout with substance abuse, was finally over. Strawberry, who recently completed a rehabilitation program at the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage, moved to the Palm Springs area from his Glendale home. Strawberry could not be reached for comment.

Few felt the pain and anguish that the prodigal son experienced more than those at his alma mater, Crenshaw High School.

"It's pretty sad what happened to his career in Los Angeles because he had such high hopes," said Brooks Hurst, who coached Strawberry from 1975 to 1981 when he was a Cougar. "In high school, Darryl was always called upon to do the job and most of the time he did it. I think there was too much pressure on him at an early age."

Strawberry's talents were immense as a youngster. Scouts salivated at the 6-6, 215-pounder's beautiful left-handed swing almost from his arrival at Crenshaw. Strawberry's high school batting average of .371 included four home runs as a junior and five as a senior.

He was drafted and signed by the Mets, and after 3 1/2 years in the minor leagues, Strawberry was called up to rescue the parent team in 1983. He played for the Mets from 1983 to 1990, was selected the National League's 1983 Rookie of the Year and was part of the 1986 World Championship team.

After six All-Star seasons with the Mets, eight total, Strawberry made a much ballyhooed return to his hometown in 1991.

It proved to be the biggest mistake of Strawberry's up-till-then sterling on-field career.

"When Darryl came back, he was really excited about playing in Los Angeles and seeing his former friends," former Crenshaw baseball star and major leaguer Chris Brown said. "But the (bad) element has been around and worked against him."

Brown, who played for the San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres and Detroit Tigers, worked out with Strawberry and former Dodger Eric Davis at Rancho Park last winter. The three were friends as teen-agers while playing for Earl Brown Jr. on a youth team called the Compton Moose.

Chris Brown was impressed with Strawberry's work ethic and expected his friend "to have a super season in 1994."

But that scenario did not play itself out, largely because of Strawberry's fishbowl existence and those who swam in his circle.

Strawberry's friends "are from another world," said Earl Brown Jr. "They got as much money as he has but they got it the wrong way. He can't seem to shake them loose. He has to let them live their lives and he has to live his."

Earl Brown Jr. said he is disappointed that Strawberry allowed this negative influence back into his life: "Thing I feel badly about is that I trusted him. I went to see him play at Anaheim. I saw those guys and I knew they were hanging with him again."

Coupled with what some say were Strawberry's poor choices in running mates was a 1992 back injury that limited him to just 75 games over the last two seasons.

He batted a paltry .235 with five home runs and 25 RBIs in 1992, and failed to play in 100 games for the first time since his rookie season.

After back surgery before the 1993 season, Strawberry continued to struggle on the field and at the plate. His average dipped to a career low .140 last season.

"I'm troubled by the way the Dodgers handled his rehabilitation when he hurt his back," Hurst said. "They were trying to rehab a guy by making him stand around for 1 or 1 1/2 hours in the field and expect him to make a play. All that stress and finally they operate on him, which was inevitable. (The Dodgers) get Strawberry on the playing field after a short period of time. I know he tried to play hurt."

Troubled by his poor play, Strawberry's off-the-field problems began to escalate, friends said. While on the disabled list, he missed a rehab session on June 25, 1993. Three months later, he was arrested for allegedly striking Charisse Simon, his live-in girlfriend. Simon did not file charges and the two were married Dec. 3.

During the October brush fires, Strawberry said during a radio interview: "Let it burn. I don't live there any more."

On March 3, the IRS and U.S. attorney's office began to investigate Strawberry's alleged failure to file tax returns on more than $300,000 of income derived from autograph and memorabilia shows.

The Dodgers, however, did not talk publicly about releasing Strawberry until April 3, when he failed to show up for the Dodgers' final exhibition game against the Angels at Anaheim Stadium. The next day he announced he had a substance abuse problem and was put on the 15-day disabled list.

Hurst said he often visited Strawberry in the Dodger clubhouse and knew he was in serious pain when he first injured his back. He blames the Dodgers for not acting properly to treat his injury. "Doctors have been throwing dice with Strawberry's career and I think that led to his depression and substance abuse," Hurst said.

In addition, Strawberry's slumping performance was not well received by Dodger fans.

During the Dodgers' first game back from Vero Beach, Fla., Strawberry was booed for misplaying a fly-ball-turned-double by Damion Easley of the Angels, and going hitless in four at-bats.

"These are his home people," Chris Brown said, "Imagine what it would be like going to work and having people boo you. It hurts your confidence."

This was the first pronounced negative response from fans in the spring, which had all been spent in the benign atmosphere of Florida, where Strawberry had flourished.

Chris Brown said Strawberry did not consult his friends about his problems.

"He likes to keep things to himself. I told him I would always be there whether he made 20 cents or $20 million," he said.

Davis and Renard Young, two of Strawberry's friends, could not be reached for comment.

Chris Brown added that Strawberry would still be a member of the Dodger organization if the team was not doing well: "If the Dodgers weren't in first place, Darryl would be back. If they were in third place and hitting .218 as a team, he would be in the lineup. But the Dodgers have a left- and right-handed platoon of Henry Rodriguez and Cory Snyder who are doing the job. I'd rather have one person who can carry the team."

Los Angeles' fans might not have been kind or even fair to Strawberry during his up-and-mostly-down career with the Dodgers. But those at Crenshaw, who know him best, are praying for Strawberry to just save himself.

"I wish him the best of luck," said Crenshaw baseball coach Major Dennis. "I hope he comes back and plays somewhere. He is the best ballplayer I know."

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