NEW YORK -- Darryl Strawberry is approaching the major league record no one wants: Steve Howe's mark for second chances.
Just when it seemed he had turned himself around, Strawberry finds his latest comeback with the New York Yankees teetering on the edge. His arrest on charges of cocaine possession and soliciting a female police officer may be the final straw.
"I hope his career isn't over. I hope they don't give up on him," said David Cone, his best friend on the team. "But these sorts of situations conjure up the flip-side argument, too: How many chances do people get?"
Strawberry has been the toast of New York and the goat, too. His life is the stuff the tabloids live for: Every time he gets fans' adulation and sympathy, he seems to turn into his own worst enemy and become a magnet for trouble.
"I want to make sure he becomes a real example of how you can turn your life around and make something out of yourself," Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said shortly before signing him for the first time in July 1995. "I think this young man has to realize he's been given a great chance here ... one some people say he didn't deserve."
In the last 12 years, Strawberry has been accused of breaking his first wife's nose, named in a paternity suit, arrested for assaulting his wife with a deadly weapon, arrested for striking a woman he lived with, ordered to pay $350,000 in back taxes, confined to home for six months by a federal judge, charged with failing to make child-support payments and sued by his ex-lawyer.
He went through alcohol rehab in 1990 and substance-abuse rehab in 1994, then was suspended for 60 days in 1995 after testing positive for cocaine. He was released by the Dodgers and Giants, and struggled through a half-season in the Northern League, about as far from the majors as a professional can get.
Yet, before Wednesday night's arrest near the team's training facility in Tampa, Fla., he had been a model citizen since joining the Yankees, the team he hoped to return to as he tried to regain strength and form following surgery for colon cancer.
When the illness and operation last October forced him to miss the postseason, his teammates repeatedly telephoned him so he would feel a part of the clubhouse celebrations.
After the World Series sweep of the Padres, the clubhouse in San Diego was filled with chants of "Straw Man! Straw Man!"
"We told him how much we loved him and missed him. It was a very emotional moment," catcher Joe Girardi said of phone calls to Strawberry that night from the trainer's room. "It was hard without Darryl, not so much because of his baseball presence but just as a person."
Just two months ago, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence hired Strawberry as a spokesman. While he didn't have as much ability as when he came up with the New York Mets in 1983, he had regained the luster of his years as a fearsome hitter, the eight-time All-Star and NL Rookie of the Year winner who led the Mets to the World Series championship in 1986 and another division title two years later.
"I don't want to be a star. I just want to be a player," he said last year, when he had his best season since 1991. "I had my days of what they call stardom. That's not important to me. What's important to me is to enjoy my life and help ... other people who are having problems."
His turning point seemed to be his time in the Northern League in 1996, when he was making $2,000 a month, riding a bus with the kids.
"St. Paul was a very humbling experience for me," he said. "It allowed me to find out who I am as a person. It allowed me to have no pride. It showed me baseball was fun again."
Steinbrenner was at Strawberry's bedside last fall. But he demands loyalty in return. That's why he lashed out in February after Strawberry missed an autograph session, remarks he later said were out of line.
"For what we have done, bent over backwards for Straw, we've tried to understand his problems and worked with him," Steinbrenner said. "We pulled for him every bit of the way. It's the last guy I expected to have pulled that."
Steinbrenner will decide Strawberry's future, and a guilty plea or conviction may cause him to decide whether to cut Strawberry loose. Then again, the Yankees are the team that Howe played for following his eighth suspension for drug and alcohol problems.
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