One of the pleasures of the last few years has been Darryl Strawberry’s return to the Mets fold.
Straw left town under a pretty toxic cloud composed of his own problems, a nasty contract dispute, and our disappointment with the reality that he turned out to be Darryl Strawberry and not some amalgam of Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron. That cloud was only thickened by Darryl’s unerring ability to say the wrong thing: Remember the idiotic book he “wrote” with Art Rust Jr. in which he claimed playing at Shea had been like playing in Dred Scott Stadium in downtown Johannesburg? When Darryl got asked about that line, he had to fess up that he had no idea who Dred Scott was, though he did get partial credit for knowing Johannesburg was somewhere in Africa. That was pretty funny, but it didn’t exactly help. Neither did Straw’s precipitous decline with the Dodgers. Weirdly, we didn’t feel like he got what he deserved; rather, any instinct for vengeance faded away and left us feeling mournful. It had all gone wrong somehow, and maybe if Darryl hadn’t done this dumb thing and the Mets hadn’t dug in their heels and X and Y and Z hadn’t happened he never would have left, and the Mets wouldn’t have disintegrated and Darryl wouldn’t have descended … but we had and he had, and there we were.
And then he became a Yankee.
And then more happened. He had frightening bouts with cancer. He had problems with cocaine, and prostitutes, and cops with guns. Some of it was cruel fate that was out of his control, some of it was Darryl’s poor choices, a lot of it was so intertwined that it was impossible to say what had led to what. Eventually we kind of lost track of it all. Darryl was out there somewhere, a fallen Met like Doc, a man for whom you hoped the best while bracing for the worst.
Happily, the best seems to have won the day. Darryl appears (and one always says this rapping fingers on whatever wood is at hand) to have put his problems behind him. He appears (knock wood even more fervently) to have escaped cancer’s dreadful clutches. And the Mets have reclaimed him and he’s reclaimed us. He shows up at spring training in garish Port St. Lucie Mets garb and you’re struck by how good he looks for a guy nearing 50 — he’s a little thicker, but aren’t we all? He appears at Citi Field or some other Mets event and is adored and returns that adoration. He’s ours again, and though L.A. and the hurtful words and all the rest are still there, we have to reach for the resentment instead of having it instantly at hand. Increasingly, we honestly don’t remember.
Straw turns up a lot talking about ’86, which is always entertaining. For one thing, he’s candid where most athletes have trained themselves to be deliberately dull — thanks to my day job, I’ve watched working versions of the first two episodes of MSG’s forthcoming “Summer of ’86,” and Straw pulls no punches in discussing the ’86 Mets and their dust-ups on and off the field. What really gets me, though, is what a good time he has telling those tales. Faith and rehab and a good marriage seem to have taken Darryl Strawberry to a better place, where he can keep his many demons at bay, but he sure remembers cavorting with them, and the old raconteur isn’t exactly submerged. Darryl talks in terms of mistakes and cautionary tales, but you can see the twinkle in his eye as he takes you through the preamble. Man, everybody should really disapprove of this stuff. Hey, lemme tell you all about this one thing you should REALLY disapprove of. We were in Pittsburgh, and it was CRAZY….
All to the good. Darryl on the 2011 Mets, though, is something else.
For instance, Darryl thinks Wally Backman should have been Jerry Manuel’s replacement, not Terry Collins. That’s not a crazy position — Wally had a lot of success with the Cyclones, after all. But what’s Darryl’s reasoning: “Because he played on the ’86 Mets. Were you around when ’86 happened? He was one of our fiery players, a gutty type of guy who did everything. He would scrap, get on base and played the game the right way. When you see guys playing the game the right way, you know they understand the game.”
I’m no logician, but this strikes me as a little circular. Wally was an ’86 Met + the ’86 Mets won = Wally should be manager. Like an ex-beat cop or a war veteran, Darryl’s world is shrinking to a band of brothers, their increasingly mythic deeds, and inherent qualities that are best detectable in hindsight. (Remember we’re talking storytelling here: If Bob Stanley’s pitch doesn’t go to the backstop and Mookie grounds out, the ’86 Mets are a bunch of thugs who boozed a title out of their grasp.) The Mets gave Collins a contract that doesn’t block any manager’s path and did a fine job keeping Backman in the fold and steering him to Binghamton. As a Mets fan who will always regard Wally Backman as at least a minor demigod, I’m very happy about this. But now that it’s done, Darryl barging through the china shop breaking stuff isn’t helpful.
On the other hand, at least he’s around to break stuff. Writing this, I find I’ve changed my mind somewhat. Yes, Darryl Strawberry is being a distraction. But hey, he’s still around, wearing an orange and blue cap, and periodically saying things that make you sigh or roll your eyes or want to shake him. That’s familiar. It’s aggravating and amusing and, in the end, gratifying.