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Strawberry sighs and rolls his eyes. He has heard it all—the Ted Williams talk and the sky's-the-limit stuff—and he wants it to go away. "I don't believe that," he says. "I don't want to get my mind confused with all that crap. That's what I call it: crap. I just want to be myself. I just want to be me. To have fun and play baseball."
Strawberry has been playing ball since he was growing up in the parks and playgrounds of the black ghettos of south Los Angeles, the third of five kids raised in a three-bedroom stucco ranch by his mother, Ruby. Today she is an engagingly bright, charming and youthful woman of 43, who works as a circuit designer for the phone company. The Strawberry children—Michael, 24, Ronnie, 23, Darryl, Regina, 21, and Michelle, 19—never went hungry, but it wasn't an easy childhood. Their father, Henry, a postal worker and frequenter of racetracks, moved out when Darryl was 13. Ruby objected to his gambling their money away and finally filed for divorce.
"I couldn't live like that," she says. "We had the house to take care of, the children to take care of, and everything that goes along with it. He played the horses. He wasn't responsible."
"If you don't take gambling, you don't take me," Henry says now. "It's a part of my life.... I loved her, but she says that I didn't show it. I hated to leave."
Darryl felt the split more deeply than the other four children, and today he still is angry at his father, though his mother says, "Be forgiving." Darryl is trying. "I'm getting better about it," he says. "It's kind of out of my mind now. It was very tough to handle, being young." His father's leaving home was, to be sure, the central trauma of his youth, and he's still searching for a guiding male hand to lead him. That he has repeatedly found it, from Little League to high school to minor and major league ball, makes him say, "Hey, I've been blessed."
First there was John Moseley, a 66-year-old retired truck driver who's an assistant baseball coach at Compton College and a neighbor of the Strawberrys. In his spare time Moseley gave baseball tips to Michael and Ronnie Strawberry. "When I talked to Mike and Ronnie, Darryl listened and absorbed," Moseley says. "Darryl was never a guy to mess around with girls. Baseball is all Darryl talked about. He was a baseball fanatic."
Moseley took the boys to the park every day, drilling them in fundamentals, and treating them as if they were his own kids. "He'd hit a hundred fly balls a day to each of us," says Ronnie. "Then we'd sit at his house and talk about ball—'Anybody can pull the ball,' he'd say. 'Can you go the other way with it? Or up the middle?'—and he'd take us to the Jack-in-the-Box to eat." And he'd preach—in favor of studying in school and against fighting in the streets. "Your hands are too important to be punching a guy around," Moseley would tell them. "How you gonna play ball with a broken hand?"
"Mister Moseley taught me everything I know about the game," Strawberry says. "I heard it first from him."
In sandlot ball Darryl was renowned for his towering home runs. "When my brother gets to high school, you're going to see something," Michael, already a star centerfielder, told Hurst. When Darryl finally got to Crenshaw, Hurst found he was a moody, troubled youth, still bitter about his father's leaving home. "I think that had a lot to do with it," Straw says. "We had to go through a lot of rough times. I carried a bad attitude around with me. I believed I didn't have to listen to anyone, didn't have to do anything."
One day, coming in from the outfield between innings, he jogged partway, then walked the rest. Hurst tapped the "C" on Darryl's Crenshaw baseball cap and said, "You want to wear this C, you've got to hustle." Darryl turned to him and snapped, "Nobody touches me!" Then he took off his uniform shirt, handed it to Hurst and quit the team. "I just can't play anymore," he said. Strawberry later appealed to Hurst for reinstatement, but the coach refused to take him back, in the belief that this might straighten out his head. It did, at least for a time. "It was the best thing that happened to me," Strawberry says.