A few years ago, Darryl Strawberry’s wife, Tracy, convinced him to leave the baseball world for good — and for the good of himself.
Strawberry’s motivation for walking away from baseball, he said Monday, was to focus on becoming a better man.
The irony is that when the former Mets and Yankees slugger is asked for an example of a man he emulates, the guy he mentions is not only someone he knows only because of baseball but someone whose example he did not follow as a player.
That’s Gary Carter.
On May 28, most of the players from the 1986 Mets will gather at Citi Field for a pregame ceremony honoring the 30th anniversary of their last world championship team.
Carter is the only deceased player from that team. The Hall of Fame catcher died on Feb. 16, 2012, at 57 of brain cancer. He will be represented by his wife, Sandy, and youngest son, D.J.
But in perhaps the most unlikeliest of twists, Strawberry said he wants Mets fans to know that he, too, will be representing Carter during that ceremony.
Because really, that’s what Strawberry says his goal is each day — to live up to the man he says Carter used to tell him in the 1980s that he could be, if only he tried.
“Gary Carter is the No. 1 light for me,” said Strawberry, 54. “He was the light in the darkness.”
As players, the relationship between Strawberry and Carter wasn’t so simple.
They became teammates in 1985 when the Mets acquired Carter in a trade with the Montreal Expos. Already well into his Hall of Fame career, Carter was viewed as the last big piece in the Mets’ building of a championship team. He was 31.
By then Strawberry had been in the majors two years and established himself as one of baseball’s best young sluggers. He totaled 52 home runs in his first two seasons. He was 23.
Friends they were not. It’s not that they didn’t get along, Strawberry said. They just had different priorities.
Carter had a wife and growing family. Strawberry liked the night life, like many of his teammates from those notoriously wild mid-’80s Mets teams.
Carter, a religious man, made no secret that he didn’t share his teammates’ interest in everything that comes with young pro athletes staying out past midnight.
For that, Strawberry said, Carter was poked fun at — both to his face and behind his back.
“Gary was teased unmercifully all the time in the clubhouse about his faith. ‘Oh, you’re the good boy, you won’t be going out after dinner,’ ” Sandy Carter said. “And Gary stayed strong. He was who he was.”
Added Mookie Wilson, 60, the centerfielder on that team: “Gary Carter got criticized a lot for the way he lived because it just wasn’t normal for a professional athlete in the ’80s. It’s all about perception for most professional athletes, especially young ones.”
‘THAT’S WHAT I WANT MY LIFE TO BE LIKE’
Looking back at it now, Strawberry said he was too immature to appreciate the example Carter was setting for him at the time.
“I had an opportunity to see a man that I didn’t see in my home because I didn’t have that,” Strawberry said. “I didn’t have a father figure. I didn’t have anyone like that to admire.
“And here was this guy, he was a great player, and then you see the way he conducted himself. Deep down inside, I know I really wanted that. I wanted to be a man that lived right, that didn’t go out and drink, didn’t cheat on your wife, didn’t do drugs or drink alcohol. Didn’t do amphetamines and stuff like that.”
But Strawberry said that’s exactly what he did because he thought it was fun, appropriate and what star athletes do.
“I didn’t want to be a liar, a cheater or a womanizer,” Strawberry said. “I didn’t want to be all of that stuff. But all of that stuff was embedded in me because of the lifestyle. And I saw this guy, and I think now, ‘That’s what I want, that’s what I want my life to be like.’ ”
STRAWBERRY’S ALARM CLOCK
Clearly it took many years — and many, many missteps — for Strawberry to realize that he wanted his life to be like Carter’s.
Forget the wasted talent on the baseball field, the unrealized potential in what many predicted would be a Hall of Fame career.
Strawberry’s off-the-field issues included repeated cocaine abuse and subsequent rehab stints, arrests for solicitation and domestic violence, prosecution for failure to pay child support and federal taxes, the times he went AWOL from rehab, the time he went to jail for 11 months for violating probation on cocaine possession charges, and the time he spoke publicly about suicide.
Oh, and he also had cancer. Twice.
Strawberry says the turning point of his life occurred a little more than a decade ago when he met the woman who would become his third wife, Tracy Boulware. He said she helped him right his life.
And that’s around the time, in the mid-2000s, when he came to the realization of what Carter really meant to him.
Strawberry said that when he first expressed that to Carter around that time, his former teammate gave him a big hug.
“It was such a joy for him to see me change,” he said. “He always said, ‘I knew you were going to get there and change.’ Gary planted seeds in my life. He planted seeds in all of our lives by just being an example. I think a lot of us just didn’t really want to accept that he was an example of what a good man is.”
A TEARFUL FAREWELL
Carter was diagnosed with four tumors on his brain in May 2011. His family hoped chemotherapy would treat it, but doctors found more tumors in January 2012. He died Feb. 16, 2012.
The last time Strawberry saw Carter was just before the end.
“He came to see Gary when he was very, very sick during the chemo time,” Sandy Carter said. “He came right to the house.”
She said she mostly left them alone in the room to talk. But she remembers that both were emotional after Strawberry again expressed the influence Carter had on his life.
“It meant so much to him that Darryl came to the house and shared with him,” Sandy Carter said. “They both had tears. It was beautiful. Gary said, ‘It makes it all worthwhile.’ ”
Strawberry remembers Carter referring to him by his favorite nickname — “Strawman” — and saying, “I’m just overjoyed about your life.”
“Hearing that made me understand I am doing it right, I’m doing it the right way,” Strawberry said. “He said, ‘Strawman, you’re going to be changed forever.’ No one could be happier and prouder, and he was sincere. He wasn’t someone who questioned it. He knew I had changed.”
At the funeral Sandy Carter said Strawberry told her that what stuck with him through the years was that Carter never judged Strawberry no matter what was going on in his life.
“Gary, he truly loved Darryl,” Sandy Carter said. “I remember Gary saying, ‘If I just had a tiny glimpse of an influence, then I’m grateful for it. But Darryl, you did the work. You’re the one who turned your life around.’ ”
Strawberry says he is an ordained minister and that he travels the country telling his story about how he came to this place in life. He also has attached his name to two drug and rehab facilities in Florida.
And he says he can’t credit Carter’s influence enough.
“He was so happy for me because he always believed that was the place I would end up,” Strawberry said, “and he was right.”