- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Darryl Strawberry and his wife, Charisse, moved briskly through the pregame crowd at Comcast Center, their three small children in tow. Bald head gleaming, instantly recognizable, the 6-foot-6 former major leaguer occasionally was intercepted by Maryland basketball fans who wanted to say hello and acknowledge their recognition. Strawberry nodded back but kept moving en route to Section 102, except when he asked for his seat location and a middle-aged female usher named Pat told him, “You’ve got a great son. He must get his talent from you-know-who.”

Strawberry smiled and responded, “From God.”

Darryl Strawberry discovered God long ago. He wrote about it, he talked about it. The demons still won. But now he is taking action. Since his release from prison last April, Strawberry has worked for the Without Walls International Church in Tampa, Fla. He helps the poor and misguided, handing out Thanksgiving food boxes, visiting classrooms, steering youngsters and even other athletes from the same trail he blazed with utter recklessness and abandon. He and Charisse are taking a ministry course and they plan to start a ministry of their own, a recovery group for people fighting addictions.

“I realize that what I’ve done is not about me,” Strawberry said. “It’s about who I help.”

This night, however, Darryl Strawberry’s immediate purpose is finding out what his son, D.J., looks like in a Maryland uniform. Separated by 3,000 miles, Darryl had not come to see D.J. play in years. Darryl was asked if he was nervous. “Not at all,” he said. He has, he noted, been through a lot.

Heads turned and applause spread as the Strawberrys descended the long aisle. As they inched along the row to their seats, students in the adjoining section rose and gave Darryl a standing ovation. Later, the cheers would be directed toward D.J. Strawberry, whose talent, whatever the source, helped the Terps beat Wisconsin last week.

It was a close game and a nice win for a young team. The crowd erupted when D.J., a freshman guard whose first name also is Darryl, stole a pass and drove uncontested for the clinching basket at the end of overtime. Earlier, at the end of regulation, his halfcourt shot almost won the game. Down the stretch he was the only one of Maryland’s five freshmen on the floor.

With frenzy all around him, the 41-year-old Darryl showed little emotion. He held his 2-year-old daughter, Jewel, on his lap for much of the game. Later he confessed, “I was probably more excited than I looked.”

D.J. was excited, too. More than he wanted to be. Maryland was playing a ranked opponent and the game was on national cable TV. “I didn’t think I was too poised out there,” he said. “I just didn’t want to mess up anything I was doing.”

But he settled down in the second half and played much better. In 26 minutes, Strawberry had five points. But he is not in there to score, at least not yet. What he does best was summed up by his five rebounds, four steals, two blocks and no turnovers. Waiting after the game for D.J. to meet him, Darryl said, “The thing I enjoy most is that he knows how to play team ball. That’s what winning is all about.”

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It is hard enough being the son of a famous athlete, especially if the son wants to play sports. The expectations, the pressure, all that. Pete Rose Jr. is fairly typical; Barry Bonds is not.

It is even harder being the son of a famous athlete who is almost universally regarded and judged for his abject off-field behavior. And no athlete, perhaps, came to represent wasted gifts, gifts from God, and a life gone awry as much as Darryl Strawberry. What made it all the more perplexing was Strawberry’s charm, intelligence and superior talent. He fooled a lot of people.

This all was part of D.J.’s life, from a too-early age. But outwardly, at least, he latches on to happiness. He can’t remember accompanying his father to the New York Mets victory parade after they won the 1986 World Series because he was 1 at the time. But he does recall summers with Darryl as a New York Yankees batboy, cheering (and getting chastised) when his favorite player, Ken Griffey Jr., hit a home run, and Derek Jeter dropping by to play video games.

Asked what first comes to mind when he thinks of his father, D.J. said, “All the good times we’ve had.” He denies stories that the two were estranged, that his mother, Lisa Watkins, tried to influence him against Darryl.

“She wants me to think however I want to think,” he said. “She gave me my own mind, she lets me make decisions. What she thinks is not what I think.”

D.J. said he has a “great relationship” with Darryl. “We always talked on the phone. We couldn’t see each other, but we always stayed in contact. … I know there’s other people’s dads who have gone through the same thing. I’m not the only one that’s felt like that before. I knew I had to stick by him because he’s my dad. He needed his family more than anything.”

If any scars exist, D.J. hides them. He is reserved and soft-spoken, even for a freshman. He also has been conditioned to withstand the questions and the comments, some of them nasty. Gary McKnight, his coach at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., said when the team was flying to a road game an airline employee saw the name on D.J.’s ticket and said something stupid like, “I hope you’re not related to Darryl.” McKnight chastised the employee; D.J. kept walking. “The thing with D.J. is, he’s just a very nice kid,” McKnight said.

D.J. said he does not remember the incident. Maybe he quickly forgot about it. Or maybe remembering would interfere with his new life a long way from home. “I’m having a great time here at college,” he said. “I’m just loving it.”

Strawberry, not the Terps’ most highly touted freshman, was noticed in high school by Maryland assistant Jimmy Patsos while recruiting somebody else. Another Maryland recruit, Ekene Ibekwe, a 6-9 forward from Carson, Calif., and a close friend of D.J.’s, was considered the much better player. He probably still is. But Strawberry has made the biggest freshman impact so far. Even after fouling out in just 15 minutes in Sunday’s loss to West Virginia, Strawberry is averaging 18 minutes a game, along with 4.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.3 steals.

Strawberry’s career blossomed at Mater Dei — some call it the West Coast equivalent of DeMatha Catholic High School — after he transferred as a junior. The move to a higher level of competition and McKnight’s coaching left him well-suited to Maryland’s system. That is, Strawberry is smart, quick and energetic. And, he thinks defense first.

“From the first day of practice you could tell Strawberry came from a program where he was required to do a lot of things defensively and offensively,” Terps coach Gary Williams said. “He’s really becoming a very good defensive player right now.”

Last January, Mater Dei and Strawberry played LeBron James’ St. Vincent-St. Mary team in a game shown nationally on ESPN2. Mater Dei lost, but Strawberry helped limit James to 8-for-24 shooting from the field.

“He was just athletic [as James], if not quicker, and he forced him to take outside shots or just tired him out,” McKnight said. “He had a hand in his face all the time, and he showed him no mercy.”

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Darryl Strawberry was the No.1 pick in the 1980 draft. From his 1983 rookie year with the Mets through 1991, back in his native Los Angeles after signing a free-agent contract with the Dodgers, he was one of the most productive outfielders in baseball. Tall and rangy, with sinewy, muscular arms, Strawberry averaged 31 home runs and drove in at least 90 runs six times during that span.

He could run, too. From 1984 through 1988 Strawberry stole at least 26 bases a year. He made the All-Star team eight times. Helped by Bill Buckner’s error in the infamous Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, he led the Mets to a championship — he and pitcher Doc Gooden, another bright flash of talent. It was always Doc and Darryl, and early on, they seemed destined to reach the Hall of Fame. But Gooden’s career also was sidetracked by drugs. Recently, Gooden’s 17-year-old son was arrested and charged with selling crack cocaine to undercover police officers.

Strawberry’s problems started long before, but you can draw a bold line after the ‘91 season, after he joined Los Angeles in what was to have been a happy homecoming. Above the line, good Darryl. Below, bad Darryl. In the final eight seasons of his career — two more with the Dodgers, one with San Francisco and five with the New York Yankees — he managed to play in 100 games just once.

In all, he was suspended by Major League Baseball three times; twice for testing positive for cocaine in 1995 and 2000, and once after he pleaded no contest to charges of cocaine possession and soliciting a prostitute in 1999. This occurred while Strawberry was recovering from cancer surgery. Just after the previous season, doctors removed a tumor from his colon and 16 inches of his intestines, and he underwent extensive chemotherapy treatments.

He would beat the cancer. But he couldn’t beat his addictions. The final suspension ended his career.

Throughout his professional life, trouble seemed all too compatible with Strawberry. In 1986, he broke Lisa Watkins’ nose and was kicked out of the house. They reconciled. In 1990, Watkins reportedly went after Darryl with a fireplace poker. He pulled a gun. They divorced in 1993, when D.J. was 8. Then Strawberry was arrested for striking Charisse. In subsequent years he was charged with failing to make child support payments and ordered to pay $350,000 in back taxes after an IRS investigation.

Strawberry had become a caricature of the undisciplined, overindulged athlete, a featured attraction on those Web sites that chronicle sports stars behaving badly. In 2001, his disappearance from a court-ordered drug treatment center led to an 18-month sentence at the Gainesville (Fla.) Correctional Institution. He was released last April after serving 11 months. “Some people reach a point of self-destruction, and I was at that point,” Strawberry said. “I think it saved my life.”

While in prison, Strawberry was visited by pastors Rob and Jen Mallan of Without Walls, a church whose congregation included Charisse, president of the Tampa chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Strawberry is active in numerous programs, such as community and school outreach and the Platform of Champions speakers bureau. He works for the minister, Paula White, whose daily television program appears on BET, Court TV and other networks. He and Charisse participate in the Master Pastor internship program, learning the fundamentals of ministry.

Strawberry counsels several professional athletes who attend the church, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Michael Pittman, who has had his own share of problems, and slugger Gary Sheffield, who is negotiating a free-agent contract with the Yankees and is a nephew of Gooden.

“Darryl certainly doesn’t think he’s arrived,” Mallan said. “He’s got a lot to learn. He’s trying to coach them through some of the challenges and the struggles he has faced ‘I went the wrong way and had to pay a great price. Let me help with some of those issues.’

“Darryl is really trying,” Mallan added. “He’s doing a good job. He stays accountable. He’s very serious about his relationship with God. He’s human, but he’s really trying with all his heart at this thing called life. He’s a natural leader. … The best way to stay straight is to help other people.”

He will get to do that on the field, as well. Last month, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner hired Strawberry as a player development instructor. He will work with the big league club during spring training and with minor leaguers the rest of the year. The news was greeted with skepticism by some, like the SI.com columnist who wrote, “Darryl Strawberry has no business instructing anybody about anything. He has never done a thing in his life to warrant a position of guidance. Not on the field. Not off the field.”

Strawberry has heard it all, seen it all and done it all. This time, he said, it all counts toward something positive.

“I’m a living miracle,” he said. “I’m happy with everything I’ve been through. I’ve been through many difficult tragedies, and I’ve overcome them. And I think that’s what people need to realize. As long as we live, we’re gonna go through something. And it’s just a matter of whether we’re gonna get on the other side of it.”

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