I grew up in Philadelphia, where everyone loved the Phillies. I did not love the Phillies. I loved the Mets. And more than the Mets, I loved Darryl Strawberry. When I was 11 years old, I put a life-size poster of Darryl on the wall next to my bed. He was my hero
I was an exceptionally unattractive adolescent, ambivalent about my early physical transformation from tomboy to teenage girl. Skinny and tall, I struggled to grow out my short, boyish haircut. The result was a helmet-like Jew-fro of mythic proportions. I had big square glasses and refused on principle to wear a bra that would restrain my unwanted breasts. I wore ugly clothes handed down from my older boy cousins. In 1986, I discovered baseball, and Darryl-and both made my ugliness a little less hard to take.
I didn’t love him because I thought I could be like him, but because loving him helped me to confirm who I was not. Other 11-year-old Philadelphia girls (the ones with straight, straw-blond braids and Guess jeans and pink jelly shoes) loved Madonna and Genesis. They had pictures of Hall & Oates and Wham! on their wall. I had a life-size poster of a tall black man who played baseball for a city I didn’t even live in.
He was too tall and sinewy. He was gangly, and occasionally he slouched. His face was never beautiful. I thought we had a lot in common.
But he moved with grace, confidence, his limbs stretched as he ran so fast, leaped over walls, stole balls out of the air that should have been home runs. He knew how to put his awkward body to good use. I was fixated. I cheered for him with all my might. I’d twist my body into the kind of pretzels that young baseball fans everywhere recognize-crossed fingers, toes, legs, arms, eyes, lungs-stretching my muscles and bending my bones to mentally will a ball-a Darryl-hit ball-out of the park. I’d go with my parents and brother to every Met game in Veterans Stadium, and I’d cup my hands around my mouth and shout “Darryl!” in an encouraging way, to drown out the singsongy “Daaaaarryl” that the Philly fans taunted him with.
And his team. Oh, the Mets. Hojo and Mookie and Doc and Sid and sweet, busted-knee Gary Carter. I loved them all. I was a real fan-like a boy, I thought proudly-and I relished the fact that I could read the box scores, recite stats and even tell baseball jokes. Did you hear about how Bill Buckner tried to kill himself by standing in front of a bus? I’d say with pre-pubescent authority (my proficiency as a baseball fan distracted me-and others, I hoped-from my ineptitude as a budding young woman). He couldn’t do it; the bus went through his legs.
After 1986, my hormones really kicked in and the Mets dynasty began fading. Lost games began to bring real tears. The slightest Mets joke from my father sent me into dizzying, twirling fits of choked rage. My body, getting fuller and fatter, didn’t contort into the same yoga-like positions, and I felt personally responsible for every bobbled ball, every bad pitch.
But even worse was that Darryl started losing. In a big way.
First, he abandoned the team. He left the Mets in 1990 after rejecting their $9 million–plus offer. Unsure of how to react to such betrayal, I decided to stick by him and the team, sure that some day they’d be reunited.
Soon, though, it became clear that I really should have chosen another hero. Maybe my contemporaries had it right all along. Maybe they are better people for having picked better heroes. Hall & Oates may have fallen off the planet around 1990, but that was better than what Darryl was up to-allegedly assaulting his then wife, Lisa, with a deadly weapon; checking himself into alcohol rehabilitation. Sure, George Michael had his scandal. But it was the righteous kind, somehow transforming him into a cultural hero amongst public-bathroom masturbators and the free spirits who support them. That was not the reaction after Darryl was nailed on criminal tax-evasion charges in 1994. Maybe Phil Collins devotees hung their heads in shame during the mid-90′s, but he did record that catchy song from Tarzan at just about the time a coke-fueled Darryl was trolling for tail in Tampa. For all you visionaries who knew you wanted to be like Mike as far back as the mid-80′s, all I can say is congratulations. I’m sure that, like Mr. Jordan himself, you all lead happy, fulfilling lives of unparalleled productivity.
At some point in high school, I took Darryl’s poster off the wall and stopped watching the Mets altogether. I couldn’t take the heartache on either front.
This year is the first time in a long time that I’ve thought seriously about Darryl or his old team. In part, it’s because I’ve become the worst kind of fan. Last year’s post-season play brought me back to my television, whooping and weeping with nostalgia as I saw Mookie in his coaching uniform. This fall, I’m back again, though I know I don’t deserve to be-I didn’t watch a complete game for the whole regular season.
Mostly, I think I’ve focused on my old hero again because I may be in need of a new one. I suspect I’m entering another awkward stage-actually becoming a grown-up. I’m acutely aware that this time I have no one’s poster on the wall to distract me, no one to take the focus off the growing pains that are less severe but, at times, no less ugly.
But I still have a hard time conforming to my peers’ choice of heroes. Mia Hamm? Talk about feeling physically inadequate. Gwyneth? Feh. Hillary? Please. The woman has already broken my heart. I do have one friend who’s really into Shelley Winters, but that’s just plain weird.
I miss Darryl.
I’d love nothing more than to blame him for letting me down, betraying my adoration, starting the slow spiral that led to all my current problems-the gluttony, the smoking, the fact that they keep turning off my phone. But of course, I can’t. That stuff is not, technically, Darryl’s fault.
But there is something to be learned from the crushing disappointment he handed me. I have to learn to make better choices. Darryl’s choices? Not so good. So perhaps I should pay my phone bill instead of stuffing myself with $50 worth of Italian food. Maybe I should be more careful about the men I give my heart to, and maybe I should stop smoking. Maybe, at 11, I should never have put my faith in a man who showed no signs of being a good role model.
On the last night of the National League Eastern Division series, I jumped up and down with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other as I watched this sweet-looking man named Benny Agbayani belt a 13th-inning, game-winning home run over the wall at Shea Stadium. I studied this short, round man chugging around the bases. He looked like a wholesome sort. Unlikely to solicit prostitutes or do a lot of coke. Maybe he could be my hero, I thought suddenly. But then he powered home and was embraced by the writhing doughnut of ecstatic Mets, jumping up and down, looking like nothing more than a pack of jubilant 11-year-olds.
No, I figured. I don’t want to risk it. At the moment, I don’t think I can take on the responsibility of a new hero.