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We all should receive star treatment


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 19, 2001

While riding the London subway a few years ago, I watched as a woman tried to keep her toddler seated by threatening to punish him if he got up again. Invariably, the tyke left his seat once again and the woman quickly yanked him back down, again threatening punishment for any further disobedience.

To the surprise of probably nobody, Little Johnny bounced back out of his seat yet again the instant the woman turned her head.

I was reminded of that scene while watching Darryl Strawberry's latest court appearance unfold Thursday. By some accounts, Strawberry should have been called out on strikes Thursday. Circuit Judge Florence Foster said as much last year when Strawberry violated his probation. Screw up one more time, she seemed to say, and I'll send you to the slammer.

Well, guess what? She was just blowing smoke. Instead of a trip to the big house, Strawberry was sent to a substance abuse center near Ocala to continue his rehabilitation.

I don't have a problem with Foster's decision because, like Foster, I believe jail would probably do the slugger more harm than good. But spare us all the tough talk, all the hollow warnings of harsher sentences for repeated violations.

Empty threats don't help Strawberry overcome his addiction.

"Darryl Strawberry is at bat in the bottom of the ninth with two strikes against him," Judge Foster said during Thursday's proceedings.

Please tell me you're not really buying any of that. The judge spared Strawberry of jail time because that's how we treat celebrities. We give them special favor. We look at them with our hearts as much as with our heads. xr We give them second chances. (In Strawberry's case, it's third, fourth and fifth chances.) Sometimes they deserve it. Look at Chris Carter, a former drug addict turned minister. Muhammad Ali almost went to jail as a draft dodger, and he has gone on to teach valuable lessons, inspiring millions around the globe.

The book on Strawberry isn't complete. "He'll be back," Tampa prosecutor Steve Wetter told Strawberry's probation officer after the hearing.

Strawberry may be back. He's an addict and that's what happens with many addicts. And the judge in the case will opt for treatment over jail again while swearing on a stack of Bibles that this is absolutely, positively Strawberry's last break.

The action is fine, but save the lecture.

Foster did the right thing giving Strawberry another chance. He needs treatment for his affliction more than he needs time behind bars. But many addicts do. Not just ones who can drive a fastball to the opposite field.

Foster supposedly spent two weeks contemplating what to do with Strawberry, visiting a Department of Corrections drug treatment center where prosecutors wanted him sent and the substance abuse center where he's going. Apparently that helped her make the right decision in this case.

We all deserve that treatment. But do you really think judges typically do that for every addict who comes before them? Do you think if you or I had screwed up after being given four previous chances to get our act together that any judge would put the kind of time and effort into reaching a decision that Foster did?

Please. We'd both be wearing striped jumpsuits and working on a chain gang right now.

The problem isn't that Strawberry didn't go to jail. It's that you and I would have. The threats made to Strawberry would have been carried out against us.

Look, judges and prosecutors are part of our society, and our society is willing to give celebrities the benefit of the doubt. It's hard for many of us to see star athletes for what they truly are, examples of the same frailties and propensity for stupidity ordinary people have.

Foster went the extra mile to make sure she arrived at the right decision, but you have to wonder if she did it because of the star quality of the defendant, if his days with the Mets and Yankees kept him from wearing another kind of pinstripes.

Strawberry received the celebrity treatment. We all should be so lucky.

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