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The Strawberry Rocker Soap Opera

(Originally posted on February 25, 2000 and a fascinating look at the news of the day… Reposted on new URL on December 21, 2008.)

The news is fairly well-plastered these days with two types of negative articles about baseball. Those about Darryl Strawberry’s relapse into cocaine use, and those on John Rocker’s December Sports Illustrated interview, where he offended just about everyone with his racist, homophobic, and generally ass-headed comments.

It has been interesting to see how few people have come out in support of Rocker, at least in the mainstream press (I don’t read the KKK’s newspaper so I wouldn’t know…) — Ted Turner, media giant and owner of the Braves, who has been in controversies over his own foot-in-mouth statements, basically said, well you have to give the guy another chance. Several ballplayers have also come out saying that we can give Rocker at least a little benefit of the doubt for being dumb enough to act like a tough guy the only way he knew how, even if he doesn’t really feel that way “in his heart”–as Rocker said in his statement of apology. Hank Aaron didn’t exactly embrace Rocker, but cited his youth and inexperience with the spotlight of fame. So, if you want to give the guy the widest possible leeway, he appears redeemable. If you want to take his comments at face value, though, you have to pretty much believe that white militias everywhere will soon be carrying flags with his face on them. Where will John Rocker be in ten years, mentally, and ethically? Will anything change?

I’m asking myself those same questions about Strawberry. Talk about widest possible leeway… Straw has lots of people on his side. His teammates, coaches, former teammates, they’ve all come out in support, saying they know he has a problem and they hope he beats it. But they’re sad. Strawberry doesn’t have the benefit of the doubt, because nobody doubts what is going on. He is still fighting his cocaine addiction, and losing. Everyone wishes him well, but no one knows how to help him. Strawberry is not the young superstar blinded by the lights of fame, unaware of how to act and of the consequences. In this case when we ask “will anything change?” we’re asking for a miracle, perhaps.

And what does this all have to do with baseball? Everything. Because who the players are has as much to do with the story of the game as the actual plays that happen on the field. Otherwise we could just sit around and watch video-game baseball year-round. We don’t go to see robots hit, run, catch, and throw. We’re watching people, personalities, in action, as much as plays.

On the one hand, a team is something more than its players. Players come and go, but the team is still loved (or reviled) by its fans (or enemies). But that doesn’t mean that who the players are and what their personalities are doesn’t matter to us. On the contrary, they matter more, sometimes, because they may not be around for that long, because their impact on the story, the soap opera, that is a baseball season, can be great even with only a short contribution.

Last year, one of the great stories was Strawberry’s comeback from cancer and then his drug suspension. He came back not broken and bedraggled, but with a bat that was on fire. It was inspiring to watch. As season-long hero Chili Davis began to tire and feel the end of his career approaching, Darryl was the hero that came from the wings to keep the Yankee championship drive going.

But now it’s a new season, and I feel almost a little like I do when, on the X-Files, something seems all resolved and finally going right for Fox Mulder, and then in the next season it all turns out to have been a hoax. Strawberry’s recovery wasn’t a hoax, so to speak, but it was short-lived.

And what about Rocker? Will he get on the comeback trail? Will the Braves trade him away? What will he say when he finally meets with his teammates and they vent their feelings at him?

I think he should come to play in New York. Here’s why. Ultimately, for all I’ve said about how we love personalities and people here, we do still love the plays they make as well. I think this may be especially true of Yankee fans. Would we be so sympathetic to Straw if he hadn’t made a terrific comeback last year? I think we are much more willing to like him and to give him a place in our hearts because he did so well. A lot of my friends here in Boston hate Roger Clemens, but they hated him when he was here, too. “He’s a jerk,” they say. But you know what? I think if he can pitch the way he pitched in Game Four of the World Series, New York will keep loving him. (If he doesn’t, it’s “ya bum!” “Get rid of da bum!”)

(It’s a little like Bill Clinton, in some ways. OK, maybe he’s an adulterous boob, but as long as he keeps going to bat for the things I believe in when it comes to governing the country, I give him a thumbs up. Of course, he hasn’t batted a thousand for me, so I do have my gripes, but that’s for another essay…)

If Rocker came to New York, made nice with his teammates and the community (starting a foundation to help minority kids get
baseball scholarships or something along those lines would be a really nice gesture, don’t you think?), and pitched like an unbeatable bat out of hell, I think he’d do okay. I think people would warm to him and give him another chance. He might even become a can-you-believe-it comeback story of his own.

Stay tuned…

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