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The battle of his life

Darryl Strawberry has beaten pitchers. He talks about beating cancer.

By ROGER MILLS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 1999


TAMPA -- Sitting alone in a special locker room at the New York Yankees Player Development and Scouting Complex in late February, Darryl Strawberry quickly did justice to the Burger King breakfast.

In a race to get to his rigorous routine in the weight room, Strawberry gobbled down the croissant, inhaled the hash browns and polished off the orange juice.

Fast food breakfast, for a fast healer.

After a baseball career filled with highlights and lowlights, Strawberry's newest to-do list is staggering. And at 37, there is little time to waste.

There is spring training and rehabing a sore knee. There is repairing an oft-tarnished public image and dealing with the IRS.

Oh, and then there is the issue of living.

"Anyone that gets affected mentally by cancer is not going to recover like they should," said Strawberry, diagnosed with colon cancer Oct. 1, the same day the Yankees flew west to play Game 3 of the division playoffs against Texas. "Cancer is a disease that has everybody in a negative frame of mind. We know what it does. It kills. . . . But I never let it affect me mentally. That's why I'm at the point I'm at today."

After experiencing pain in his abdomen late last season, Strawberry had surgery at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. The walnut-sized tumor on his colon was malignant and removed a few days later during three hours of surgery.

Though Strawberry remained mentally strong, the physical toll was monumental as his frame withered considerably from a sculpted playing weight of 215 pounds. "I had a lot of bad days in the hospital," Strawberry said. "Not being able to eat, which is something I highly enjoy doing, was very difficult. I dropped to 185 pounds and that's was a whole lot of weight to drop."

Released two weeks later, he began the long battle back.

"I tried to think about the positive rather than the negatives," Strawberry said. "Most people look at it negatively. You have to fight it as hard as you can for as long as you can and that makes it a lot easier for everybody else."

In the months since, Strawberry has undergone a remarkable recovery. He has bulked up to 220 pounds. His bulging biceps and chiseled body defy common perception of a man undergoing a weekly chemotherapy routine that won't end until April.

Teammate and friend Chili Davis said Strawberry's history of battling heavy odds makes him a strong candidate for survival.

"I'm not surprised at all," Davis said. "Darryl is a fighter. He came up in a neighborhood where he had to be a fighter and that's just the way he is."

As the 14-year veteran faces the start of the regular season, he said he can count on a dependable support system from his teammates.

"Darryl was like a big brother to me when I first came into the league," shortstop Derek Jeter said. "I know his spirit, and if anyone can beat cancer and get back it's him."

Though it certainly is the most critical, his battle with cancer is not the only challenge Strawberry has faced. With 332 home runs, Strawberry's career is dotted with accomplishments and blunders.

In 1983, he hit 26 homers in 122 games and won NL Rookie of the Year. In the next seven seasons with the Mets, he hit 226 homers and had 767 RBI. He joined Los Angeles in 1991 and continued his pace with 28 homers and 99 RBI.

That's when his major problems began. Strawberry was placed on the disabled list six times in the next three seasons and saw his numbers decline. Between 1992 and 1994, Strawberry hit 14 homers.

His struggles on the field mirrored his turmoil off it, problems that culminated with a 60-day suspension in 1995. In 1996, he signed with the Yankees, and won a World Series ring. Injuries limited him to 11 games in 1997, but he flourished last season, hitting 24 homers in platoon role as the Yankees won again. Then came the diagnosis.

"I wouldn't consider it a challenge," Strawberry said. "It's part of life and I'm like any other person who's dealing with cancer."

In a twist of fate, one of those people was in his own locker room. manager Joe Torre, screened as part of a policy the team implemented after Strawberry's diagnosis, learned he had prostate cancer. The news came Wednesday, the same day Strawberry made his spring training debut by going 1-for-4 against Red Sox.

"It's not an easy road," Strawberry said, "but if you think positive, good things happen."

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