Darryl Strawberry

June 8, 2009 by  
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The last time I’d heard anything about Darryl Strawberry before seeing him interviewed last week on The Tavis Smiley show (he has a new book out called “STRAW”) he had become a human punch-line and there were probably more than a few sports fans out there placing bets on his expiration date. Once the most supremely gifted baseball player of his generation (he’d been blessed with a ridiculous array of physical talents), he had fallen about as far as it is possible for a man to fall, at least in the public eye. After being incarcerated for a seemingly unending series of drug offenses (as a user not a dealer), he’d been diagnosed with a form of colon cancer for which he was refusing treatment. He’d slipped beyond the end of his frayed rope and had apparently concluded that it would be better just to let the disease take its course. Death had become preferable to the perpetual downward spiral his life had become.

In his recurring role on the nightly news you felt as though you were watching a human being who had gotten utterly lost; each installment was like the next frame of a life whose direction had taken a long downward turn. I remember the face of that man, the hapless look that radiated a blend of defiance and shame, and also reflected a dim but rising sense of recognition that all was finally lost.  Evidently he had a change of heart somewhere along the way as he is not only alive but has collected himself, or rather, has made it through his darkest years and undergone a truly remarkable transformation.

As I watched him speaking I was aware of my own attitude of skepticism toward yet another celebrity who has traded a drug habit for a God habit, but I was also aware that this man’s presence had taken a definite hold of my attention. It’s a tired sequence after all – the second act of the fallen star, holding forth on his newly found path, anchored by family and faith, “speaking out” so others can avoid the sad footprints he has left behind – that often ends with the predictable tabloid headline of yet another fall. My initial reaction as a jaded viewer quickly gave way to a sense of admiration for this man. And this was most definitely a man, self-possessed, sober, and speaking with an open heart. A man who’d held his face up to an ugly mirror, and had kept his eyes wide open.

He spoke of his own transformative journey toward manhood in succinct terms. During his time as a baseball star, being a man had consisted of venting the fires that burned in the cauldron of the male ego. He ran his mouth, as he put it, firing back at the first hint of any offense or threat. He played the part of the prodigy, privileged and entitled, the whole delicious world spread out right in front of him. Now, his understanding of manhood was defined by the quality of the love he brought to life, and experienced in return: love of family, love of God, love of community, and an active desire to help others where opportunities presented themselves. He spoke matter-of-factly about his view that each of us has been designed with a particular purpose, a vocation that is embedded in the fabric of every human being as surely as the hardwiring of our DNA. These were not the sentiments of a wishful thinker; they were the thoughts of a man whose character has been forged on a long detour through some very dark places, who’d emerged to share his experiences with a spirit of generosity and gratitude that was palpable and moving.

Strawberry also spoke about his sense of the importance of developing a personal relationship with his god, of making this relationship a reality that informs his conduct in the world. Whatever one’s belief, atheist or evangelical, the impact of personal faith on the life of this man is a plain and powerful fact. In a way, god’s existence is an academic matter here, essentially beside the point. What is to the point is the empowerment that this man’s faith has conferred upon him – God as an idea, or as a visceral experience, has engineered his transformation into a man of strength and goodness. Such is the mystery that is referred to as faith. I have never seen this mystery displayed more powerfully on television.

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