tampabay.com

Fans flock to support Strawberry's change

The once-troubled great says faith has taken him in a new direction.

By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published July 30, 2005


COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - By 10:30 a.m. Friday, a crowd of eager fans had formed outside T.J.'s restaurant on Main Street.

People clutched glossy photos and baseballs, waiting to have them signed for $25 by a familiar ex-ballplayer seated at the long wooden table. Others - making a dollar donation to Little League - joined the line to have their photo snapped with the former star and exchange pleasantries. More than a few passersby did double takes.

You would have thought a Hall of Fame icon was the big draw on this balmy morning. Instead, it was a man who might easily have been one.

"Thank you, Mr. Strawberry," a young boy said after getting an autograph.

Darryl Strawberry smiled and got ready to greet the next excited customer. Nearby, 76-year-old Luv Rosenthal, a longtime Mets fan from New York, rushed to apply lipstick for her snapshot.

"Oh, my heart, it was fluttering like I was a teenager again!" she said afterward. "We miss those days from 1986 when he was such a part of the team."

Nobody expected to see him here during Cooperstown's big week. Still, there was a steady and genuine outpouring of enthusiasm and affection for the former Mets and Yankees standout.

Many in line knew the gist of his story - how his potential Hall career ultimately was derailed by substance abuse, a battle with colon cancer, myriad personal and legal woes and finally 11 months of incarceration in 2003 for violating probation.

But they also seemed aware of the turnaround Strawberry has undergone in the past two years. After a brief stint as a spring training instructor for the Yankees, Strawberry began devoting time to the Without Walls International Church in Tampa. This year, he signed on as a minor-league instructor for his first team, the Mets, traveling to their farm clubs to work with young players.

He leaves in a day or two to pick up some of his children in California and return with them to the Tampa area in time for school - and he'll be traveling again soon to watch oldest son D.J. play basketball at the University of Maryland.

"The last couple of years have been real fun ones," he said in between autographs. "Life has been real good and I'm just enjoying where my faith has taken me. It's taken me to a totally different place in life. It's good."

Just as the session with fans was Friday.

"When you've been nice to fans your whole career, people don't forget," he said. "And I think a lot of people have always looked at me as a good guy. He's gone through a lot of things, but when you have the opportunity to meet him and talk to him and know him, you have a totally different perspective of who he really is."

He believes he has something to share, too.

"That's the whole purpose," he said. "And I think when people see me, they'll say, he never quit, he never complained, he never said it was anyone else's fault. He was always a standup person, and when he played, he played at the highest level of competition. And playing in New York as much as I did, I think people appreciate that more than anything."

Just then, another tall, familiar former player walked past. Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, on his way to his signing session, noticed Strawberry and stopped to give him an embrace. They spoke quietly and then Jenkins headed off.

"Coming back from what he's faced is a challenge and he's trying to meet that challenge," the former Cubs great said. "I think that every youngster who falls into a trap, Darryl can probably be the right example for them and tell them exactly what that traps all about. I think this could be a shot in the arm for him. It's great that he's here in Cooperstown."

Even if he's only passing through.