He is still a player who commands headlines without ever swinging a bat, a hitter who keeps the wise fan planted in his seat in lieu of a hot dog run or a refrigerator break, just because of the long-ball possibilities.
Darryl Strawberry, for all of the part-time work and excused absences since he was last seen helping the Yankees win a world championship, is still a straw that stirs emotions in this town.
For that reason, it will seem empty should next week roll around and injuries conspire to keep Strawberry from being more than an interested observer when his once and future teams, the Mets and the Yankees, meet for the first time in regular-season play.
A bum left knee continues to make this New York City reunion chancy, even though Strawberry is going through batting practice without incident these days. Strawberry insists that a commitment to rehabilitating fully remains more important than meeting the Mets.
“It won’t be a disappointment because my main concern is about my health,” said Strawberry as he prepared to join the Yankees’ Class AAA Columbus Clippers today for a rehabilitation stint.
So not even the Yankees’ first interleague play against his old team could knock Strawberry from his main concern. That is a point worth noting about a player whose early career was marked by spectacular play, and alarmingly self-destructive acts.
Even if Strawberry is activated in time for the Yankees-Mets series, chances are slim he would do much more than pinch-hit.
Still, thoughts of what might have been are as tantalizing as a Strawberry at-bat. For if ever there was a moment that was tailor-made for one who earned his celebrity the hard way, it is this one. And if ever there was a player who seems to rise to such occasions as if by command, it is Strawberry.
If you think not, remember the indelible impressions Strawberry made in just a short period last season.
In a story only Hollywood could make more improbable, Strawberry climbed back from oblivion personally and professionally. He shucked his well-earned misfortunes (substance and spousal abuses), boasted of a maturity he later proved really to have, and, with wife and family standing by him, saved his career.
And though Strawberry hit only 11 home runs and drove in 36 runs in limited duty, didn’t it seem that most every one of them was big? Did any Yankee exemplify the mastery of the second-place Orioles more than Strawberry after he hit two bombs in a game at Camden Yards July 13?
It is that kind of devastation Strawberry threatens every time he steps to the plate. And not even the Mets would dare deny its awesome nature once unleashed. That team’s storied 1980s success has as many footnotes written by Strawberry as the Shea Stadium scoreboard has dents from his home runs.
Yet all the Mets and Yankees, and Strawberry for that matter, can do now is reminisce about the kind of stir he once created. Those memories have been painful, for what they suggest is wanting.
Only last week, Strawberry talked of being resigned to having arthroscopic surgery, so convinced was he that it was the only way back to the majors. But Sunday, a decidedly upbeat Strawberry said, “I’m at a pretty good point running and I feel pretty comfortable after all the treatment and rehab.”
Still, what occurs this week in Columbus is more a test than a step. Joe Torre says he needs to see 15 or so at-bats before committing to the player he so pines to bring back. After all, while the Yankees and Strawberry are comforted by the notion that he no longer seems to be impetuous, all parties know he is no longer young, either.
Maturity and wisdom, alas, arrived at the same time Father Time did. Strawberry, at 37, may still have a sweet swing. But aches and pains are limiting the opportunities.
Strawberry says he will be satisfied to pinch-hit.
“Coming off that bench, he’s going to scare people,” Torre said. “He may not even get in the game and help you win, if it means a left-hander comes into the game and Charlie Hayes hits a home run or something.”
This is why the Yankees need to find out if the player who is so much a part of both the Mets’ and Yankees’ stories, can still stir it up, bad knee and all.