'New' Strawberry arouses the same old doubts in us FRESH START?


Philadelphia -- Comebacks are part of the magic of sports. In real life, you don't start a day badly, then turn it into a stirring triumph. You don't get fired from your job, then return to greater heights.

The Los Angeles Dodgers fired Darryl Strawberry on May 25, fired him after his second trip to a drug-rehabilitation clinic in four years. Now Strawberry is a San Francisco Giant, weaving comeback magic like few before him.

Do we buy it, or not?

This is a man who threatened his first wife with a gun and allegedly assaulted his second wife when she was his girlfriend.

A man who reportedly will be indicted for federal income-tax evasion after failing to disclose more than $300,000 he earned from signing autographs at card and memorabilia shows.

A man who says he has been sober for four months -- longer than any previous stretch in his 12-year career -- and expects us to believe that everything will be all right.

The Strawberrys of the world bewilder us, exasperate us, drain us of our compassion. O. J. Simpson gets charged with double murder. Diego Maradona gets thrown out of the World Cup. Strawberry returns, Dwight Gooden gets suspended.

Whom do you trust?

No one, obviously.

Strawberry, 32, is saying all the right things and, for a change, surrounding himself with all the right people. The Giants are 9-0 since he put on their uniform. Yet, for all the magic his comeback is creating, few among us are inspired.

The fans at Veterans Stadium booed Strawberry last night. It will be even worse at the Giants' next two stops, the cities Strawberry once called home, New York and Los Angeles. The fans are hardened now, devoid of faith, afraid to believe.

In other circumstances, his comeback would be viewed as nothing short of remarkable. Strawberry played just two games at Triple-A before joining the Giants. Yet he returned in near-perfect condition, 6.2 percent body fat, same gorgeous swing, same awesome power.

He sat out the entire first half, but after a 1-for-11 start, he has gone 10-for-18 with two homers and eight RBIs. Last night, he hit a two-run single, and the Giants had a 6-0 lead when he left the game with a strained hamstring in the second inning. They barely held on to win, 7-5.

One way or another, Strawberry always makes an impact, but this time he's out of excuses -- it will be his fault, and his fault alone, if he again self-destructs. The Giants offer the perfect support system. The general manager, Bob Quinn, is a recovering alcoholic. The manager, Dusty Baker, is firm, yet understanding.

The players include Barry Bonds and Matt Williams, two sluggers to share the offensive burden.

And the Giants' traveling party now includes his older brother Michael, a church deacon and former Los Angeles police officer whose new job is "constant companion."

Michael, 34, said "it probably would have been different" if he had been at Darryl's side earlier, but it's too late to reflect now. After a one-month stay at the Betty Ford Clinic, Strawberry is attending one Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meeting a day on the road, and as many as three a day in San Francisco.

"We keep things simple -- we get up, eat breakfast, talk and watch TV," said Michael, who was a 1980 Dodgers draft choice. "In the past, when I wasn't with him after games, he was out. But that's not part of his curriculum anymore. He has separated himself from that. He's at peace. He's happy."

The Giants are protecting Strawberry from the media, asking reporters to speak to him only after games, and only about baseball. But when a writer from the New York Daily News approached him before last night's game, he addressed the difference between this rehabilitation and his previous one in 1990.

"It didn't take -- I was in denial about a lot of things," Strawberry said. "It's been a good four months of sobriety. This is the longest I've gone [as a major-leaguer]. I could always play baseball. The only difference now is, I'm clean."

We've heard it all before, we hear it all the time, and slowly but surely, our tolerance erodes. The late Dick Young once advised New York Post readers to "stand up and boo" Gooden upon his return from a substance-abuse clinic. More recently, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda described Strawberry's problem as a weakness, not an illness.

Lasorda is 66, Baker is 45.

The difference shows.

"I just want him to have the freedom to be himself," Baker said. "When you haven't had that in a long time, it's refreshing in itself. I'm not going to be looking over his shoulder every day. I'm not going to be calling his room every morning."

That's Michael's task, but Baker also sees himself playing a role. "Where I come from, love is discipline," he said. "Love ain't letting someone do whatever he wants to do. If I love you -- if I really care about you -- I'm going to discipline you."

Maybe Baker will make a difference. Maybe nothing will. True, Strawberry is getting another chance only because he can swing a bat. But what if he stays clean this time? What if he becomes a model citizen? What if he redirects his career toward the Hall of Fame?

These are questions that cannot be ignored. Strawberry's own history points against him, but the one cooperative effort that works in baseball is the after-care program devised by the players and owners. All it takes is one lasting success, and all the trouble will seem worthwhile.

Strawberry can become a symbol of hope, or a symbol of failure. Even now, in this jaded age, comebacks are still part of the magic of sports. It's just that the real world keeps intruding, and you don't know what to believe anymore.

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