Yankees miss, but don't need Strawberry

Saturday, October 3, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ARLINGTON, Texas -- It is a measure of the might of the New York Yankees that they miss Darryl Strawberry more than they need him.

The elongated outfielder, who is scheduled for colon cancer surgery today, is very much in the Yankees' prayers, but has been a declining part of their plans. Had he been healthy enough to participate in the postseason, it is not clear he would do much more than lead cheers.

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His absence is a concern for baseball's ranking power, but it should not cripple them. The Yankees could not have won 114 games during the regular season had they been too reliant on any one player.

"I think it's an emotional lift for the Yankees," Texas manager Johnny Oates said of Strawberry's situation before Friday's Division Series game. "I think it sometimes brings you closer together, even though I believe the Yankees were a very close ballclub to begin with . . . (But) From a late-inning type of situation, the Yankees don't really do a whole lot late anyway. Who are you going to pinch-hit for in that lineup?"

Strawberry hit 24 home runs this season in 295 at-bats -- a ratio better than every American League regular except Ken Griffey Jr. -- and he set a league record with two pinch-hit grand slams. Yet his playing time was dwindling long before his cancer was diagnosed. Persistent leg problems have limited Strawberry's time in the lineup, as did the stunning surge of slugging rookie Shane Spencer. Strawberry continued to cut a menacing figure at the plate, but his cuts grew increasingly infrequent. He batted just 35 times in September, contributing only one run batted in.

Not an excuse

If the Yankees do not win it all this year, they are going to need a better excuse than Strawberry's medical problems. Callous as it might sound, he is one player who can probably be spared.

"We're going to be minus one weapon -- a pretty strong weapon," Yankees manager Joe Torre said Friday. "Darryl helps you in a number of ways . . .

"If I put him in the lineup batting sixth or seventh, not only is that position better off, but the position in front of him is better off because they don't want to face him . . . Yes, we're going to miss him, but Darryl has more important things to worry about."

Though Strawberry's prognosis for a full recovery is considered excellent, the mere mention of the word cancer turns the most cynical ballplayer solemn. Usually unspoken, but always present, is a shared understanding of how fragile an athlete's career can be.

Before Friday's game with the Rangers, the Yankees took infield practice bare-headed during a misting rain. Their caps had been sent out to be embroidered with Strawberry's No. 39. Some of the Rangers, too, printed Strawberry's number on their caps in fraternal tribute.

"The baseball industry may be a little unique," Oates said. "From the outside, certainly we have a lot of perks. But there are a lot of lonely nights, a lot of separation from family, a lot of roller-coaster rides -- emotionally, physically, spiritually; ups and downs with injuries.

"When we see someone in our industry like this, before the game begins, we try to keep things in perspective. Darryl has been good for baseball."

Strawberry relayed his regards to his teammates in a series of television interviews Friday, and taped a special message that caused a giggling epidemic in the Yankee clubhouse.

"Go get 'em tonight, guys," he said, and then pointed at the camera Uncle Sam-Wants-You style. "Get 'em."

"Team goals sometimes get pushed aside for personal goals," Strawberry told ESPN. "I play with a team that is great -- no selfish guys, very into doing what we do best to help us be successful, and I think that is the reason why we had the type of year we had. It's not a team looking for heroes. It's a team looking for things that can be accomplished together."

It's a team that can look to a lot of different people to get the job done.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.