The names Darryl Strawberry and Dwight “Doc” Gooden might evoke “what might have been” for many, but Strawberry doesn’t let the “what ifs” define him. Instead, the eight-time NL All-Star and four-time World Series winner believes his life path has led him right to where he was meant to be.
“I think the way things happen in people’s lives is the way they are supposed to happen,” Strawberry told Scout.com hours before the national release of ESPN’s latest 30-for-30 documentary. The film, which is directed by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonifiglio, focuses on the rise, fall and rise again of former baseball superstars Strawberry and Gooden.
The two were teammates with the New York Mets in the 1980s and the New York Yankees in the late-1990s and both publicly battled substance abuse problems. The back-to-back Rookies of the Year in 1983 and 1984 were the stars of a 1986 New York Mets team that won the World Series in seven games and captured the imaginations of an entire generation of baseball fans. They would later reunite on the Yankees, where they would be world champions once again. Along the way, both nearly lost their lives to substance abuse and neither finished their careers with the Hall of Fame credentials that many had projected for them during their early playing days.
Over the years, both men have rebuilt their lives after bottoming out from substance abuse. Strawberry, who nearly lost his life to colon cancer roughly 15 years ago, has re-emerged as an advocate for those battling their own personal demons. He and his wife Tracy run Strawberry Ministries and both are ordained pastors. Strawberry Ministries runs two clinics dedicated to helping people who are dealing with issues ranging from substance abuse to depression get their lives back together.
Strawberry says that it is important for people to realize that they aren’t alone with their struggles.
“We are all put here for a reason and we need to accept that,” Strawberry said. “We need to not say that ‘oh, I wish my life had been perfect’ because I don’t know what a perfect life is. If someone says, ‘my life is perfect’ then I need to run as far as I can away from them. Life is full of problems and life is about dealing with them and overcoming and build towards a new life. I’ll never look back and say ‘I wish I had been there or there’. I was where I was supposed to be and I had to deal with it and I had a lot of issues that I had to overcome.”
Strawberry speaks frequently about his struggles and wrote a book about his journey -- Straw: Finding My Way -- that was published in 2009. While Strawberry had been approached before about putting his story and message on film, he didn’t decide to make the leap until a longtime friend, Gary Green, pitched him on the idea of filming his story alongside Gooden.
“I had thought about it and other people had asked me about it but it was never the right people. I know Gary knows me and Doc and I trust him,” Strawberry said. “If I didn’t trust him that it would come out and it would be a powerful movie that was raw and real, then I would have never done it.”
The film debuts on Thursday night at 9 p.m. on ESPN. The documentary is framed around a conversation between Strawberry and Gooden in a diner in Queens. Strawberry says that while the former teammates had seen each other from time-to-time over the past decade, the conversation featured in the documentary was their first opportunity to have a frank discussion about life.
“Sitting down and putting this film together was about life. It was very challenging because you have to sit and describe yourself and what you were,” Strawberry said. “That’s never easy. I don’t care if your life is good, if I am now doing well. You still have to look back and reflect on different things. It was important for us not only to look back at things that we did in our career but also the people we hurt and the damage that we did because we did hurt people along the way.”
Strawberry said it was particularly important for him to return to New York. He says he has always had a special connection to the city and to the fans that have supported him and Gooden through their ups and downs.
“We are still beloved here no matter what we have been through. New York has always embraced us and loved us no matter what,” Strawberry said. “It was important that no one else tell the story. We needed to sit down and tell the story.”
“I should have just taken a little bite out of the Apple instead of taking the whole bite out of the Apple. I tried to bite the whole Apple and it darn near killed me. I’m just grateful to have been able to enjoy all of that and survive taking out too big of a bite out of the Apple.” - Darryl Strawberry
Strawberry recently saw the documentary when it was screened at Green’s home. He says that he entered the project with the hope that his message would resonate. He was moved by the final product.
“It had an incredible impact on me when I watched it for the first time. I walked away and was thinking to myself ‘wow, that is powerful. That is real and that is powerful,’” Strawberry said. “That was something I had a vision when we were doing it that it would come to that and that it would speak to people. It speaks to people in New York City because they know us and they grew up with us. When they see it, they are going to be like ‘wow, I didn’t know so many things and that there was so much kookiness inside of these guys before they ever stepped on the field in uniform at Shea Stadium.’”
Strawberry hopes the message of the film reaches beyond the Big Apple.
“I’m hoping it hits everybody in America because we all have struggles, we all have issues, we all have battles. Sometimes other people’s struggles aren’t publicized but ours were publicized,” Strawberry said. “We are in the public eye and I think it’s important to show that we are human and that we had challenges and that we were able to rise up again in life. We all have to face challenges. They might not be drugs. They might not be alcohol. Some may be gambling. Some might be pornography. Some might be overeating. You never know what those struggles are going to be.
“There are things that we all have to deal with and we all have to be able to overcome them. I’m still sitting here and I have been able to overcome those things and I want to reach the people that might be going through their own things. I want them to know that their lives matter, that they are not a mistake. We are in a time in America where everybody thinks their lives don’t matter. Black lives, white lives. Their lives matter. God cares about people. We have to spend more time loving people and not judging people.”
Playing baseball in the bright lights of New York may have contributed to Strawberry’s substance abuse problems, but he says that playing – and winning – in New York was something he will always cherish. He won World Series titles in 1986 with the Mets and in 1996, 1998 and 1999 with the Yankees.
“It was remarkable. Nothing can replace that. That’s the top. That’s the ultimate goal that a player plays for is to be in that position to win,” Strawberry said. “You can have a long career and put up a lot of big numbers but never be in that winner’s circle and what does it all mean? I can say that my dream came true – playing in a place like New York City and winning.
“I should have just taken a little bite out of the Apple instead of taking the whole bite out of the Apple. I tried to bite the whole Apple and it darn near killed me. I’m just grateful to have been able to enjoy all of that and survive taking out too big of a bite out of the Apple.”
Strawberry hasn’t had much involvement with baseball over the past 10 years. He served as a roving instructor in the Mets organization in 2005 and 2008, but, otherwise, he says his connection to the game has been limited to an occasional appearance at a team event or reunion or a trip to Citi Field or Yankee Stadium from time-to-time. While he firmly believes that his baseball career isn’t what defines him as a person, he says having the opportunity to play in the big leagues is something he will always cherish.
“What can be greater than playing Major League Baseball?” Strawberry said. “That was a dream of mine. Being a kid growing up playing baseball, I wanted to play Major League Baseball one day. Everybody doesn’t make it to that even if you play and we had a chance to make it and a chance to succeed at it and win and do all of the great things that we were able to do. I’m grateful for it. I will always been grateful for Major League Baseball.”
“My purpose was to be a preacher, who I am today. That was the whole purpose.” -- Darryl Strawberry
Strawberry doesn’t follow the game that closely – he has heard of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper but says he hasn’t seen either enough to say whether they remind him of a young Darryl Strawberry. Strawberry says his focus is completely on his ministry and on helping those in need of recovery.
“There is no pain inside of me from not being a part of [baseball]. It’s just that I am too focused on helping people [to focus on the game],” Strawberry said. “I have two clinics and people’s lives are on the line, kids lives are on the line. Will they live? Or will they not live? Will they OD or will they get into recovery? That’s more important to me right now at this point and that’s where my compassion is. I want to keep it there and keep my focus on that daily.”
All four of Strawberry’s children are athletes. His oldest son, D.J., was a star basketball player at the University of Maryland and he currently plays professionally in Europe. His two middle children – Jordan and Jade – are both college athletes, and his youngest daughter, Jewel, is an accomplished athlete, as well. Strawberry says that his message to his children has been to enjoy their playing careers but not to let those careers define them as people.
“It’s fun to play sports and there is only a period of time where you can play, but I have always reminded them that you have to get to the purpose of life because when the uniform comes off, who are you?” Strawberry said. “That’s what athletes always have to ask themselves: when that uniform comes off, who are you? What do I do? When everything isn’t catered to me, how do I get through life and just be me? I try to relate that to my kids. I’m very proud of them and that they take that direction well. I needed a father figure in my life and I am able to give that to them.”
At 54 years old, Strawberry is comfortable with who is he and where his life has taken him.
“My purpose was to be a preacher, who I am today. That was the whole purpose,” Strawberry said. “Baseball was just a career. Being able to be a minister of the Gospel and bring God’s love to people and help people so that they can receive that because it is free. Being a husband and being a father, that’s all you need. All of the other stuff that looks good, sounds good, tastes good, it’s not good.”
For more information on the 30-for-30 documentary “Doc & Darryl”, please visit: http://espn.go.com/30for30/film?page=DocandDarryl.