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Here’s a Change: There’s No Pressure on Strawberry

This is not going to be a Darryl-Strawberry-has-changed story.

The good people of Southern California cannot stomach another Darryl-Strawberry-has-changed story.

This newspaper has published enough Darryl-Strawberry-has-changed stories to fill a Compton playground, which is about the last place he played before he started this interesting cycle of messing up and changing.

He drank too much, then found religion.

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He was abusive to women, then found Fred Claire.

He broke baseball’s substance-abuse laws, then found St. Paul.

He cheated on taxes, then found a judge who scared him straight.

Our hero has publicly fallen and gotten up more times than an ice skater or president, accounting for stories we wish we’d never written and will never write again.

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This is different.

This is a story we thought we’d never write in the first place.

This is a can-you-believe-Darryl-Strawberry-is still-around story.

Well, can you?

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Strawberry showed up at Edison Field the last two nights with the New York Yankees. The crowd reacted more noisily to him than anyone in the yard, everyone cheering or booing or laughing or something.

You could close your eyes and imagine he was still a New York Met or Dodger. Then open your eyes and be sure of it.

He hit one long home run on Tuesday, and a longer one Wednesday in the Angels’ 10-5 victory.

Those gave him 17 homers this season, the most on a team that may compile the best record in Yankee history. This even though he plays only as a designated hitter against right-handed pitching, and on a sore knee.

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“I mean, I am still a home run hitter,” he said with a smile.

Yeah, but we mean, he is 36. He has burned more bridges than a stunt man.

And two summers ago, he seemed to disappear for good.

At the time, Strawberry was toiling in an independent league in Minnesota. Then last summer he was hobbling around on a surgically repaired knee.

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By all accounts, today he should be pushing baseball cards on the shopping channel instead of still hanging around ESPN, putting up his best numbers since he was a Dodger in 1991.

The secret, he says, is for the first time since leaving those South-Central diamonds 18 years ago, he feels like that kid again.

That’s this story. That he hasn’t changed.

“I feel like I felt when I was at Crenshaw,” he said Wednesday afternoon. “No pressure. Having fun.”

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On his first team where nobody needs him to be the star, he has become one.

“It’s great, not everybody looking at me, not being the main focus,” he said. “Finally, I’m able to sneak in the back door.”

On his first team where nobody needs him to be a leader, he leads the attack in the Yankees’ brawl against the Baltimore Orioles and Armando Benitez.

“About the best thing you can say about someone is that they’re a good teammate,” Yankee outfielder Paul O’Neill said. “Darryl is a really good teammate.”

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Finally, also perhaps for the first time since leaving home in 1980, he has stayed straight.

And for longer than the time it takes to read about how straight he is staying.

At last count, it has been four years.

That’s how long since his last drink, his last night of partying, the last time he drove through his old Los Angeles neighborhoods looking for trouble.

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He says used to do that a lot during his three full seasons with the Dodgers, beginning in 1991.

“Every night after the game, I would chase booze, parties, women,” he said.

Today, while he spends the winters in nearby Palm Springs, he comes to Los Angeles once a week. On Saturday nights. With his wife and four children.

To attend Sunday services at his church in La Puente.

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“Then I get out of here,” he said, smiling. “I live in this area, but I really don’t. I can’t.”

And think, when is the last time you have seen him posing courtside at a Laker game? Or at a movie opening?

“I can’t go to any of those either,” he said. “I just play and go home with my family. Like I always used to do.”

After his Tuesday night home run, he didn’t even go to the team hotel. He went to Yorba Linda, to stay at the home of his wife’s grandmother.

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“He’s just matured,” said David Cone, a Yankee pitcher who also played with Strawberry with the Mets. “He doesn’t take anything for granted anymore. He realizes how special this all is.”

And how short-lived. Even his part-time role may soon be reduced with the expected return of full-time designated hitter Chili Davis to the lineup.

This may mean Strawberry must hobble around in left field, or not at all.

Which causes him to, well, shrug.

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“Whatever they need,” he said. “I’m just having fun.”

Old-timers may remember similar words coming from a skinny Los Angeles kid in the summer of 1980, the No. 1 pick in the draft, heading from the Crenshaw district to Kingsport, Tenn.

A long time ago.

“Doesn’t seem like it,” said Darryl Strawberry, smiling.

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