ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When the St. Paul Saints phoned Darryl Strawberry recently to invite him to CHS Field for a ceremony retiring his No. 17, there was no hesitation on the part of the eight-time All-Star.
Strawberry looked at a calendar packed with about 200 annual speaking engagements as a traveling minister and immediately set about moving things around.
“When you get a call like that,” Strawberry says, “you need to be there.”
It was a different experience than the first time Strawberry got a call from the Saints.
Back in 1996, Strawberry was in a different place. He was a slumping star with drug, alcohol, legal and tax issues on his resumé -- a player no affiliated team would touch. The Saints, who were then an independent bunch known more for their marketing mischief than their developmental pedigree, were Strawberry’s last chance.
He was hesitant to take it.
“I didn’t really want to come to play,” Strawberry says. “I thought I was completely done with baseball.”
The story of how Strawberry lifted up the Saints and himself for a few amazing weeks in the summer of ’96 -- and the unlikely friends he made along the way -- is one of the many poignant moments in “The Saint of Second Chances,” a new documentary about former Saints co-owner Mike Veeck that is now streaming on Netflix.
But Strawberry’s segment of the film provides a powerful story that tells us a lot about the value of a new day and what we can do for one another.
And as the Saints, who now serve as the Triple-A affiliate of the Twins, acknowledged in retiring the 61-year-old Strawberry’s number in August, it’s a story worth revisiting.
* * * * *
A man who now preaches hope to addicts, churchgoers, schoolkids, hospital patients and prison inmates once had a big league career full of it.
Strawberry arrived to the Mets in 1983, at age 21. He was 6-foot-6 with a 30-inch waist and a powerful upper half. His left-handed swing was as sweet as his fruit-filled last name would imply, and his size belied his blazing speed.
“Fifteen years from now,” Strawberry’s first Mets manager George Bamberger told Sports Illustrated in 1984, “this kid will turn out to be one of the greatest ever to play the game.”
Strawberry was the Rookie of the Year in 1983 and then an All-Star each of the next eight seasons. He was an integral member of the Mets’ 1986 World Series championship team. He finished second in the NL MVP voting in 1988 and third in 1990. After a contract dispute with the Mets, he signed a lucrative deal with his hometown Dodgers, for whom he finished in the top 10 of the MVP vote in 1991. By the end of that age-29 season, Strawberry had compiled 280 home runs -- one more than Willie Mays had hit by the same age.
“Straw” was seemingly on a Cooperstown trajectory.
But when back issues limited Strawberry to just 75 games total in 1992-93, the Hall of Fame train derailed. And after he failed to show for the Dodgers’ final exhibition game in 1994, he admitted to a substance abuse problem and entered the Betty Ford Center. The Dodgers released him, and he wound up playing 29 unremarkable games for the Giants before a positive cocaine test led to a 60-game suspension by MLB.
Around that same time, Strawberry also had issues with the IRS, receiving a sentence of six months of home confinement and an order to pay $350,000 in back taxes from card and autograph show income. He wasn’t making child support payments to his first wife. His life, in many ways, was in disarray. The Yankees gave Strawberry a chance to resurrect his career midway through 1995, but he hit just three homers in 32 games and wasn’t offered a contract for the following season.
Strawberry and his former Mets teammate Doc Gooden, whose own career was marred by cocaine and alcohol addiction, became baseball’s poster boys for wasted talent.
“There was a lot of criticism that I couldn’t play anymore,” Strawberry says now, “that I couldn’t catch up on the fastball.”
Strawberry and his then-wife Charisse had two young children. He didn’t want to drag them off to winter ball or anywhere else he’d have to prove himself to get another shot at the Majors. So he was serious about hanging ‘em up.
“Baseball,” he says, “wasn’t fun.”
He’d soon learn, however, about a place where it was a lot of fun.
* * * * *
Though their track records differed wildly, Mike Veeck knew a little bit about what it was like to be in Strawberry’s shoes. He, too, had been persona non grata in the affiliated baseball community.
In 1979, Veeck came up with Disco Demolition Night -- the ill-fated White Sox promotion that sparked a riot at Comiskey Park and marked the beginning of the end for Sox owner Bill Veeck, Mike’s Hall of Fame father. After that infamous evening, the younger Veeck was exiled from professional baseball and, as portrayed by actor Charlie Day in the Netflix doc, went in a personal tailspin that lasted through the 1980s.
It was Marv Goldklang, a minority owner with the Yankees, who gave Veeck his lifeline.
“I was sitting next to [longtime baseball executive] Roland Hemond on the flight to the Winter Meetings in 1989,” Goldklang says. “I had just purchased the Miami team in the Florida State League, which at the time was probably the worst-operated team in professional baseball. Roland had worked for Mike in Chicago, and he tells me if I’m crazy enough to have purchased that team, I’m crazy enough to have Mike Veeck run it.”
Thus began a working relationship born of, as Goldklang puts it, “mutual desperation.”
Veeck became not only an employee of Goldklang but a partner. And when Baseball America publisher Miles Wolff had the idea to resurrect independent baseball with the formation of the Northern League in 1992, Goldklang, Veeck, Van Schley and Bill Murray (yes, that Bill Murray) started a club in St. Paul and named it the Saints, which had been the nickname of the city’s American Association entry.
Veeck and Co. were told by countless people that they were nuts. As if attracting interest in an indie team weren’t difficult enough, the Saints would be playing their home games at a decrepit old ballpark named Midway Stadium, which was situated just six miles east of the Metrodome, where MLB’s Twins were just a year removed from a World Series championship and drawing well north of two million fans.
All the things that made the St. Paul Saints such a ridiculous idea were the very things Veeck loved about the opportunity.
“I had a real chip on my shoulder,” he says. “And that’s why it fit so well. Because St. Paul is older than [Minneapolis]. There’s great architecture. It’s much more literate, top 10 in the country in usage at the library. So they have it in for their streamlined, younger brother or sister or whatever Minneapolis is. So it’s a town with a little chip on its shoulder, too.”
In St. Paul, the promotional panache that is the calling card of the Veeck family was allowed to flourish, unimpeded by tradition or heavy-handed oversight. Want a pig to deliver the game balls to the umpire? Go for it. Want a nun to give fans massages in the stands? Have at it.
Thanks to Veeck’s uncanny ability to tap into hearts, minds and wallets of the populace, the Saints became a draw. And they became a winning ballclub -- one that won two of the first three titles in the Northern League, launched the professional career of Kevin Millar after he went undrafted out of Lamar University and extended the playing career of former Cubs All-Star Leon Durham.
The Saints began to view themselves as a land of baseball opportunity. They would prove it by bringing aboard aging stars (Jack Morris had been signed to pitch for the Saints earlier in ’96), people with disabilities (the Saints had a radio color analyst named Don Wardlow, who was born without eyes, and they gave a temporary contract to a second baseman named Dave Stevens, who was born without legs) and the first female player since the mid-1950s (Ila Borders in 1997).
In the spring of ’96, just as the Saints were building their inclusive reputation, Goldklang felt confident enough in the value of the Saints’ experience that he used his connections with the Yankees to get the phone number of Eric Grossman, Strawberry’s agent. Aware that Strawberry was unsigned and unwanted, Goldklang sensed an opening to bring the Saints their biggest star yet, regardless of the personal circumstances that had made Strawberry untouchable to some.
There were, however, two problems.
For one, Strawberry himself was cool on the idea.
“I had no idea where St. Paul was,” he says now.
And two, the one guy with the Saints who seemingly should have been most eager to give someone a second chance was reluctant to give one to Strawberry.
* * * * *
In Mike Veeck’s mind, it was going to be a romantic excursion. He and his wife, Libby, were making the one-hour drive to Owatonna, Minn. There, Veeck had a speaking engagement, but that brief bit of business would be secondary to a night away with Libby. He had a bottle of champagne and flowers at the ready.
That was the plan, anyway, until Veeck got a call in the car from Goldklang about the Strawberry scenario. During the call, Veeck expressed his reluctance to bring Strawberry aboard. The Saints had built a devoted fan base, and the last thing he wanted to do was turn those fans off by bringing in a player with, to put it lightly, a shaky personal history.
Libby knew very little about baseball and absolutely nothing about Darryl Strawberry. But as she listened to her husband shoot down this idea, she became incensed. She felt the man who himself knew what it was like to be shunned by MLB teams was being a hypocrite.
“We generally agree on stuff,” Libby says now. “That was the only time where I was adamant that Mike was making the wrong decision. He had no right [to deny Strawberry].”
Needless to say, the champagne went uncorked.
“It was,” Veeck says, “a really rotten night.”
And so, at the behest of his bride, Veeck had a change of heart.
Eventually, so, too, did Strawberry. Though he wavered on the decision all the way up to the night before the press conference announcing him as a member of the team, he eventually decided to take the chance.
“My agent at the time, Eric Grossman, convinced me that it would be a good place and we’d never know what might happen,” Strawberry says. “I didn’t expect anything to happen.”
* * * * *
Well … things happened.
For Libby, the first sign that Strawberry’s tenure would be special came when he took his first batting practice at Midway. She was painting the garbage cans (indy baseball is nothing if not a hands-on operation, even for the wife of the owner) when she heard the crack of the bat and stopped mid-brush stroke, her mouth agape at the effortless swing that had deposited the baseball well beyond the wall.
“Until I saw him take BP,” she says, “I had never seen an MLB player.”
Saints fans would have a similar experience. Sure, the pitching was inferior to anything he had faced in MLB, but Strawberry’s performance the next few weeks would become the stuff of local legend.
“Man, did I ever turn it on as a baseball player,” he says. “I didn’t even experience that in high school, and high school was pretty good.”
In 29 games, Strawberry batted .435 with 18 homers and 39 RBIs.
Not bad output for $2,000 a month.
“We didn't need him to sell tickets,” Veeck says. “What we needed him to do was exactly what he did -- lift the credibility of the team. We had Darryl Strawberry and Jack Morris on the same team. I mean, if that isn't real baseball, I don't know what else it is.”
Veeck had promised Strawberry that the Saints would reconnect him with the things he loved about baseball. Away from the glare of the Major League spotlight and in a place where “Minnesota Nice” presides, he would feel the fun again.
Not that Strawberry gave the Saints’ fans much to boo, but … they didn’t boo him. That in itself was a revelation for a man with a checkered past who was accustomed to playing in New York City.
“I had two young kids at the time, and the wife,” Strawberry says. “They embraced us, and they treated my family with love and care. We had never experienced that, because the challenges of my life that I was going through, you know, so many people were pointing fingers at my failures. But here, they didn't do that. And I thought that was remarkable. To be able to be a part of something like that. I had no idea that, in this country, that exists.”
Furthermore, Strawberry found a friend in Dave Stevens. It was a remarkable bond between a gifted athlete who had nearly squandered his awesome talent and a congenital amputee who wanted desperately to log just a single professional at-bat.
“Here you see this unbelievable specimen of a human being in Darryl, and then a guy with no legs,” Veeck says. “But in so many ways, they were healing together.”
Veeck signed Stevens, who had played baseball, football and wrestled for Augsburg College, to a three-week contract that began the same day as Strawberry’s tenure.
“Darryl told me I took a lot of the media pressure off him,” Stevens says. “Because it was, ‘Look at this legless dude,’ and everybody doing stories about that.”
Strawberry called his new pal “Super Dave.” Stevens’ raw passion for the sport reminded him of what matters.
“So many athletes were looking at him from a different perspective, and I wasn't,” Strawberry says. “I was looking at him from the human side of who he was. I mean, I had all kinds of struggles. But my struggle wasn't his struggle. I just had compassion for that.”
Stevens also helped Strawberry keep his demons at bay.
“All the young guys wanted to party and drink, and Darryl needed to stay away from all of that,” Stevens says. “So we just stayed back and talked about life and baseball. Nowadays, he’d be judged and wouldn’t get that second chance. But we’ve all made huge mistakes. I judged him on his laurels, and we became friends. And the craziest part was pinch-hitting for Darryl.”
Yes, that’s right. A legless man pinch-hit for a Major League All-Star.
And in a game in which Strawberry had hit three home runs, no less.
Rather than go for a fourth, Strawberry told manager Marty Scott that he wanted Stevens to bat for him.
“It was like a scene out of ‘The Simpsons,’” Stevens says. “‘Now batting for Darryl Strawberry …’”
Instead of Homer Simpson stepping to the plate, it was Stevens pushing himself there with his arms.
Now, technically, this wasn’t allowed. Stevens was not actually on the active roster for that game.
“But Darryl was smart enough to understand this was going to happen,” says Veeck, “because Darryl Strawberry said, ‘It’s gonna happen.’”
And so, it happened.
Stevens managed to foul off a few pitches before taking a called third strike. It was not the outcome he had dreamed up, but it was the opportunity he had craved.
“My entire life was to get away from the stereotype of Eddie Gaedel, who Mike’s father brought up as a gimmick,” Stevens says. “I have the box score from that game, and if you look at it, it’s not, ‘Here’s a legless man batting for Darryl Strawberry.’ It’s, ‘Here’s an athlete.’”
An athlete given a chance to bat by a man who was beginning to believe again in the joy and the importance of baseball.
* * * * *
Turns out, you can only hit so many home runs in the Northern League before people start to notice.
Strawberry’s performance made its way to the New York sports pages. The New York Post weighed in with a big, bolded headline: “Sign him, George!” The Yankees’ Boss, George Steinbrenner, who had already dispatched scouts to St. Paul at Goldklang’s behest, obliged. The purchase of Strawberry’s contract was made official on July 4, and, after a very brief trial at Triple-A Columbus, Straw returned to the big leagues on July 7.
Playing left field and DH down the stretch, Strawberry hit 11 homers with 36 RBIs in 62 games to lengthen an already dynamic Yankee lineup featuring Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill and a rookie Derek Jeter. In the ALCS against the Orioles, Strawberry went deep twice in Game 4, then hit another in the Game 5 clincher. He added a few more hits against the Braves in the ’96 World Series, which earned him his second ring and launched a Yankee dynasty.
There would be more successes -- and more struggles -- in Strawberry’s future. He played for the 1998 and 1999 championship Yankees teams, and he survived two bouts with colon cancer. But his drug problems resurfaced, and his legal problems mounted.
It was not until Strawberry found God -- and his third wife, Tracy, who is also a recovering addict -- that he was able to put those problems behind him. Today, he’s clean, sober and healthy. It was recently announced that his number will be retired, along with Gooden’s, by the Mets next year. But he’ll tell you his greater legacy is using his troubled past as a lesson that can be passed on to others through his foundation, Strawberry Ministries.
“What a joy it is,” Strawberry says, “to help somebody else.”
In St. Paul, they know quite a bit about that.