ATLANTA — This won’t make me any friends in New York, but I’ll say it anyhow. I don’t like seeing Yankees outfielder Darryl Strawberry in this World Series. It rubs me the wrong way.
Anyone can make a mistake. I know that. And everyone deserves a second chance. It’s not Strawberry’s second chance that bugs me. It’s his third, fourth and fifth chances. It’s the drugs, the lies, the tax evasion, the legal deals, and always, afterward, the shameful justification and looking the other way, because Strawberry can still club the ball over the fence. It’s the unholy marriage between this guy and owner George Steinbrenner, whose morals go out the window when he sees something he wants.
Now, here is Strawberry, the worst part of the game in the best part of the season. My seat is in rightfield, hanging over where he plays. I look at him each inning and quickly look away to someone else.
This is not a new issue. And you might ask, “What brought this on — in the middle of the Series?” Fair question. I will tell you.
It was the sight of Kirby Puckett during Game 4 on Wednesday night.
Puckett, the delightful, former Minnesota Twins outfielder, was in the tunnel beneath Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to receive baseball’s man of the year award. He wore a gray suit, a colorful tie, and a dark leather coat.
He no longer gets to wear a uniform. He accepted the award with his traditional good humor, his eyes crinkling when he smiled.
Puckett, you recall, was forced to retire from the game he loved four months ago, when retina damage was deemed irreversible. He’d been hit in the face with a Dennis Martinez pitch last year, and maybe that ended his career, no one knows for sure. All Puckett knows is that he awoke one morning during spring training and could barely see out of his right eye. And the doctors couldn’t fix it.
It caught him off guard, his eyes betraying him, and he never knew, when he played that exhibition game in March — against these same Braves, and Puckett doubled off Greg Maddux and teasingly yelled at him from second base,
“Hey, Picasso!” — he never knew that would be his last day of baseball after 12 terrific seasons with the Twins.
Now here he was, at the World Series, in a suit.
“Is it difficult?” he said, answering a question. “No. I played every game like it was the last game of my life.
“No one has to feel sorry for me. I don’t have an incurable disease. I’m not going to die. I just can’t hit a 95-mile-an- hour fastball anymore.”
Strawberry can hit a 95-m.p.h. fastball. He always could. But unlike Puckett, he never appreciated it. Instead, he used it without shame. The Mets hired him. Paid him a fortune. He partied hard. Got hooked on cocaine. Violated the drug policy. The Mets gave up on him.
The Dodgers hired him. Paid him a fortune. He continued with the drugs. He checked into a clinic. The Dodgers gave up on him.
The Giants hired him. Paid him a fortune. He got into IRS trouble for hiding money that he made on autographs — he was taking cash for autographs even when he was stuffing powder up his nose — and again he got into drugs. He was suspended. The Giants gave up on him. The Yankees hired him. Paid him a fortune. You see a pattern?
Lesser known people have gone to jail for what Strawberry has done, and he never did. He just kept paying fines and getting sweetheart legal arrangements.
And getting hired again in baseball.
Even this year, when you thought he’d be out of chances, Steinbrenner plucked Strawberry out of the minor leagues, because Darryl can still hit, and that erases all sins with these guys. And here he comes another World Series handed to him on a plate.
This battle between the Yankees and Braves has seen some wonderful tales of perseverance. Joe Torre, good guy, waiting his whole career to get here. David Cone, good guy, overcoming shoulder surgery to pitch a beautiful Game 3. Mike Bielecki, good guy, nearly quitting baseball this spring, out there Wednesday night striking out the side. Brett Butler, good guy, making a dramatic comeback from throat cancer, throwing out the first pitch Tuesday.
And Puckett, who never did a bad thing in his career, never did anything but love this game to death, out there now in civilian clothes. Someone asked Kirby if he’d consider “being an ambassador for baseball.”
This is what he said: “I’ve always considered myself an ambassador for baseball.”
Darryl Strawberry never did. He took and took. And he is a blight on an otherwise wonderful team, because every time he comes to bat, it sends a message that all will be forgiven as long as you keep your skills.
Baseball, which gives us Kirby Puckett, should be choosier than that.