Former NY Mets star Darryl Strawberry with wife Tracy.

Former NY Mets star Darryl Strawberry with wife Tracy. Credit: Courtesy Strawberry Family

When the Mets unveil the No. 18 in its new permanent home, along the hallowed row high atop Citi Field, most people will fondly recall Darryl Strawberry’s spectacular exploits on a particular patch of Flushing turf.

But for Strawberry and his wife, Tracy, looking up at those rafters during the June 1 ceremony will conjure up emotions that far transcend baseball.

The fact that the beloved Mets slugger is alive to witness such an event is due in large part to their relationship, which makes Tracy — actually, Dr. Strawberry (she has a doctorate in theology) — the most important teammate he’s ever had.

Darryl would take that a step further. How do you describe someone who’s saved your life not once but twice?

The first time dates to their chance meeting as recovering addicts in 2006 at a Tampa convention for people fighting similar demons. At that point, it was unclear whether Darryl would emerge victorious in his own personal war, having been through so many desperate battles before then — with drugs, with cancer — before Tracy helped him navigate through the tempest.

Then, 18 years later — there’s that number again — Strawberry found himself in more immediate danger. This past March, the Met who always looked indestructible had to be convinced, at age 62, that he is mortal, just like everyone else.

At home in the St. Louis suburbs, it was Tracy who insisted that Darryl, suffering from chest pains, get in the car. She drove him to the hospital, where he immediately was rushed in for a stent procedure to alleviate the life-threatening blockage — ominously labeled the “widowmaker” — in his heart.

Those two “Ws” are the biggest of Strawberry’s career. Without them, there’s no doubt that he wouldn’t be standing at Citi Field, staring skyward, with Tracy beside him.

Sometimes a spouse isn’t a teammate. Sometimes you need more than that. To Darryl, who has worked with Tracy to establish their own ministry in this Phase Two of his career, he sees parallels with a Davey Johnson or Joe Torre.

“I would say she’s more like a coach or manager,” Strawberry said during a phone interview. “Because she’s someone that’s helped me perform and be successful at the next level. That’s what every coach did for me when I was playing baseball, and I’m grateful for that.

“That’s why the No. 18 is being retired — because of every person that I encountered had an impact that made me go forward, not backward. And that’s the same thing that she did.”

Some would suggest it’s a coincidence that Darryl’s No. 18 is being retired during the same year as the Strawberrys’ 18th wedding anniversary. But not to those who see a higher power at work, and as much as Darryl’s playing accomplishments earned his special standing in franchise history, that number now represents so much beyond that in the couple’s eyes.

“It’s very symbolic of the life he’s lived and the legacy that’s attached to it,” Tracy said. “What strikes me, however, is that once the jersey came off, his story was not done. Darryl’s a fighter. He was always very strong on a baseball field — you could see it in his forearms just holding a bat. And the discipline he learned in baseball, he transferred that over to the fight of his life.”  

Front/back page news

A very public one at that, chronicled on both the front and back pages of the New York tabloids. It requires a certain level of Big Apple stardom to be worthy of a newspaper’s cover, and Strawberry — for better or worse — was among the city’s select sports figures to reach that rarefied air.

But Strawberry’s ascent to Citi Field’s rafters wasn’t a straight line. He went careening off a cliff first, bouncing from well-publicized legal troubles to drug treatment centers to imprisonment. It was a repeating cycle that kept landing him in the same dark place, where the only way out can be finding another kindred soul, one just as troubled as you are, seeking the same path to salvation.

Fortunately, in trying to climb out of that pit, Darryl teamed up with Tracy.

“We had both hit what the world calls rock bottom,” said Tracy, who once lost custody of her three children because of drug addiction. “There was nowhere else to go, it was so severe and so extreme. The sorrow, the torment, the loss, the destruction was so severe in both our lives. But we looked at one another and we became a source of strength to each other.”

More than a decade of turbulence had proved to Darryl that the odds were against trying to survive on his own. He had won World Series rings with both the Mets and Yankees, an almost mythical character on some of the most iconic (and cherished) championship rosters New York had ever produced. Still, he was rendered powerless by the addictions that not only destroyed his life but threatened to end it. Drug suspensions, rehab stints, jail time. The blue-and-orange No. 18 was more like a scarlet letter back then, emblematic of Cooperstown potential ruined, the fans’ adoration betrayed.  

What’s ‘rock bottom’?

“Most people have to hit that rock bottom to change,” Darryl said. “What’s your rock bottom? I just didn’t want to be that person anymore. I didn’t want to be another headline. And if you really want to be well, you’ve got to step into something that’s greater than yourself. I had already achieved greatness as an athlete, but that was just as an athlete. I wanted to do the same thing in life. I wanted to win.”

First was survival, then success building the relationship and ministry with Tracy. It’s impossible to know Darryl now without knowing that he takes to the road more than 200 times a year, a schedule more grueling than a baseball season, to help those drowning in the despair that nearly killed him. With Tracy running the ministry’s headquarters in Missouri, Strawberry is the one-man outreach program, now trying to save people rather than amaze them as he previously did with that sweet lefthanded swing.

But Darryl’s devotion to that grind, to this new post-baseball chapter, came a little too close to a scary, premature ending 2 1⁄2 months before his No. 18 was scheduled to be retired.

When he complained of chest pains, Tracy gave him the choice of riding with her to the hospital or having her call 911 for an ambulance. Darryl went with option A, and not a moment too soon, as they were told his heart was functioning at 40% capacity when he showed up.

“The doctor told him, I don’t know how you are still here,” Tracy recalled. “And he said [Darryl] has been in heart attack mode for five days. It was very dangerous.”

Even upon his release, Darryl had to be outfitted with a portable defibrillator — he was wearing the device during his surprise appearance at Dwight Gooden’s No. 16 ceremony on April 14 — and it wasn’t removed until a month after that Flushing trip.

“I had no idea I was in that condition at that particular time,” Darryl said of the heart attack. “I was in a serious place at that point.”

Darryl credits Tracy for being acutely aware of his health status and familiar with his “stubborn” streak, especially given that he spends so much of the calendar traveling. If not for her intervention, well, he’d rather not consider the alternative.

“It’s part of life, and the reality is it can happen to any one of us,” Darryl said.

The same applies to the trials and tribulations both he and Tracy have endured — tragically, many of them involving self-inflicted wounds. But surviving that dark past now serves as the couple’s foundation for their ministry, not to mention the bond that pulled them together in the first place.

Darryl referred to Tracy as the “bridge” that connected his previous ballplayer life to his current role as an evangelist — “She showed me the way,” he said. 

‘I didn’t quit’

And while that No. 18 forever will be a reflection of his Mets glory, Darryl doesn’t spend a lot of time looking in the rearview mirror. Wondering about what might have been is for everyone else. He’s still got too much left to accomplish on a path that veered away from Cooperstown but wound up being the right road nonetheless “to the Hall of Faith,” as Darryl described it.

With Tracy as his co-pilot, this journey got him back to Citi Field and a stage he never imagined. The No. 18 has become a testament to that perseverance.

“There were a lot of pitfalls, but I didn’t give up, I didn’t quit,” Darryl said. “I was supposed to go out and live this faithful life, like Gary Carter and Mookie Wilson, and people would know it’s real because of everything that I’ve been through. And this will bring hope to a lot of people and have a greater impact than my Hall of Fame career would have.”


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