ORLANDO (BP) — Opening Day defines what baseball fans love about the sport.
The sights, sounds and smells funnel together in the game day experience. There is a near-giddy optimism for the months ahead. Hopes hang on the concept of potential, whether in fast-twitch young players ready to make their mark or veterans eager to show they still have something in the tank.
Darryl Strawberry had a lot of potential when the New York Mets made him the top draft pick in 1980. And by all accounts, he delivered.
A member of the Mets Hall of Fame, he rewarded that organization by winning 1983 Rookie of the Year honors, the National League home run title in 1988 and collecting seven All-Star appearances.
An eighth All-Star showing came in 1991 with the Dodgers. Strawberry’s baseball career ended in 1999 with the Yankees and his fourth World Series championship. Fans remember the leg kick and looping swing that led to 335 home runs in a 17-year career.
Legal troubles dogged him late in his career and into the 2000s, however. He spent time in drug treatment facilities and prison. He battled cancer and at one point told a judge he had stopped chemotherapy because he had lost the will to live.
But then came a reawakening thanks to a decision he had made in 1991. He began a new lifestyle and new identity.
Potential took on a whole new meaning, and Strawberry has delivered.
The cost of (pausing) discipleship
In 1991 he said he prayed in a conversion experience to be a Christian, but ignored the concept of discipleship.
“If you don’t get discipled, you go back to your old lifestyle,” he told Baptist Press. “Discipleship came after the storms of life, all the trials and tribulations.”
Strawberry didn’t know his mother had always been praying for his relationship with God. She died from breast cancer at 55 years old. He learned of her prayers when his sister found their mother’s journal under the bed.
“I was emotional. Behind the scenes, mama had been praying for all of her children,” he said. “She was faithful in her walk with God. It kind of knocked me off my throne.
“She was concerned about my salvation instead of my celebrity status.”
The other key figure in his life is his wife, Tracy.
“Tracy came into my life and brought me back into church,” he told BP. It led to an experience Strawberry had rarely felt on the baseball field.
Their testimonies of overcoming addiction and sharing the Gospel have made both popular speakers. But to get to the 250-plus appearances he makes annually at churches, events, prisons, schools, addiction centers and other locations, Strawberry needed discipleship.
“God sat me for seven years [for discipleship],” he said. “We’ll go to God to turn things around for us, but He’s like, ‘You didn’t get into this mess overnight. I need to develop you into the man that I want you to be.’
“Sitting in church for seven years was a growing process of knowing Christ, not just His name but knowing His power at the cross.”
A new strength
“Power” was an adjective used to describe Strawberry’s feats at the plate. The game he loved taught him a lot of good things – facing a challenge, overcoming adversity and dealing with slumps and your mistakes.
Those concepts still show up whether he speaks at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes benefit, men’s event or the weekly talk he gives at a detention center for boys. They were there at the December address he gave at Shorter University, affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.
It’s through a different kind of power, though.
“The message I speak is the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said. “You can’t save yourself. You can’t change the things that have occurred in your life. I realized my life was never going to change until I repented of my sins.”
Strawberry spoke with BP while in Orlando for a speaking gig with the Mets during spring training. He hasn’t completely left baseball, but it doesn’t compare with the drive he has for preaching and sharing what Christ has done in his life.
That started with dealing with his own ego. He defines it as Easing God Out.
“If you can’t put that down, then you can’t truly find the purpose for how God is going to use you,” he said.
He’s about 20 years into his new relationship with Christ. Sixteen years ago, he felt God calling him to preach. Former teammates, he said, are still waiting to see if it’s a phase.
“They don’t realize that when you have a true encounter with Christ, you don’t go back,” said Strawberry. “I’m not perfect; Jesus is. But when you pick up the Bible and learn it for yourself, you understand why God called people. They all had issues, just like us.
“The Bible is a simple book for complicated people.”
A different direction, then and now
He’s careful in his daily habits, avoiding television and the news. His social media accounts – @darrylstraw on Facebook and @darrylstrawberry18 on Instagram – focus on his ministry. It’s nothing personal, he says, about being careful in the company he keeps. It’s just that “If you’re around foolishness, you allow foolishness to rub off on you.”
At 61, he’s wiser and sees things differently. His Mets teammates were known for their wild living, with Strawberry smack in the middle of it. But today, he has a much greater appreciation for Gary Carter and Mookie Wilson, two who didn’t fit in for all the right reasons.
“I admire them the most,” he said. “They both lived for Christ. They didn’t go out to bars. They didn’t chase girls. They didn’t drink. I admired them for that even though I was on the other side of it. I wanted what they had; I just didn’t have the guts to do what they were doing.”
Standing for Christ means you won’t be liked by a lot of people, said Strawberry, and that’s OK. Going in a different direction opens up more possibilities, and something with far more potential.
“People ask me how I found Jesus,” he said. “I tell them that Jesus was never lost. It is us, as a people, who are lost.
“Jesus has always been there, and He will set you free.”