In basketball he could be D.J., not Darryl's kid. At Mater Dei, the Orange County Catholic school he attended as a junior and senior, D.J. played only hoops. In a tournament game as a senior his assignment was to guard LeBron James. The newest NBA sensation had seven turnovers and went 0 for 9 from three-point range. "He knew my name by the end of the game," D.J. says.
But D.J. was not a LeBron, not a world-beater. The Maryland press guide notes that Strawberry was listed as a top 100 prospect by several recruiting services. In other words, he wasn't on the radar screen of many big-time schools. Which means he was just the kind of player Williams loves to sign—someone likely to play at Maryland for four years. Williams says his unheralded freshman with the famous last name is getting so much game time because of what he does at practice: plays well and hard.
Darryl Strawberry wonders how different his life would have been had he gone to college. Probably not very different, he concludes, because the addiction gene is so strong in his family. Anyway, baseball was still the national pastime when he was coming out of high school, and the New York Mets offered him real money (a $200,000 signing bonus). He made $30 million in 17 seasons with four sparkly teams (the Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and Yankees) and millions more at card shows. He says he wasted millions—on women, drugs, booze, cars, legal fees, IRS fines—but that millions remain. He says there are generous trust funds for all five of his children: for D.J. and his younger sister Diamond, 15, and for the boy (Jordan, 9) and two girls (Jade, 8, and Jewel, 3) Darryl has had with Charisse.
On the day after the Wisconsin game, D.J. led his father and Charisse and the three youngest Strawberry kids on a campus tour. The father inspected the suite where D.J. lives with two teammates. The old slugger, 41 now, said that even as a minor leaguer he never lived in such a small space—although much later he did.
That night D.J. watched over his three little siblings in their hotel room while Darryl and Charisse went out for dinner. It was their 10th wedding anniversary. They talked about Darryl's return to baseball, in February, when he will become a roving instructor in the Yankees organization, using his expertise about hitches in baseball swings and in life. The couple talked about D.J. and their children and their church, Without Walls International, in Tampa.
Strawberry—still nocturnal, still a smoker—could talk all night about the church and its pastors and the power of restoration. He embraced the church following his release last April after serving 11 months in a Florida prison. He was sent to prison for violating the rules of a drug-rehab house where he served probation time for his 1999 arrest for cocaine possession and soliciting a prostitute. He described his two days at Maryland as two of the best days in his life.
D.J., for his part, has lived all his life on the emotional roller coaster that comes with being Darryl Strawberry's child. He loves his father. He says the two days with him were fine. Sometimes the child must father the father. "He's got to keep busy," D.J. says. "It was good to have him here. Coming here, that's good. Getting involved in his church, that's good. It gets him on the right track."
And sometimes the father must father the son. "I tell D.J. everything," Strawberry says. "I tell him about drugs, women, drinking, how many opportunities I wasted. I tell him about the eight All-Star games and the three World Series, too. I see old teammates who are drinking, going to strip clubs. I used to think I was having a good time, doing all that. But they're grown men. D.J.'s my son. I got a responsibility to him, to all my kids." If the addiction gene has fallen to D.J.—there's not the slightest suggestion it has—the father thinks it's critical to deal with it early. He believes he has something to teach his children.
The stories—the life—have had an impact on D.J. He knows the gene could have fallen to him. He's a college freshman. His antennae are up, but he's going to lead his life.
Last Saturday, Gonzaga was ready for Maryland—and for D.J. The Terps and the Bulldogs played at the MCI Center. D.J.'s father was back home in Tampa. The veteran Bulldogs were better than the youthful Terps in every way and won the game handily, 82-68. D.J. had two steals, but most times when he tried to shoot the lanes he found them blocked by beefy Gonzaga players. After the game, he sat morosely in front of his locker eating a ham-and-cheese sandwich, staring at his sneakers.