April 10, 2003

A Case Study in Celebrity Justice

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What would we do without public service announcements? We would be TV-watching, crack-smoking, drunk-driving, bong-puffing, coke-sniffing, and car-stealing murders. “The more you know,” according to our favorite celebrities, then, well, you have to complete that sentence, but we have listened and learned. Reading is good, drugs are bad, etc.

There is a force working against the campaign to rid the evils from our country, and that force is the very justice system that is supposed to rid our streets from the people who commit these immoral acts.

Ah, you cry, but I was just picked up last week for using a fake ID to buy a 40 at Wegmans.

Unfortunately, the police will not bend the rules for you because you do not have a contract with a professional athletic team.

But, for those who are talented enough to sign on the dotted line, not only will you receive seven or eight figures, but you are also guaranteed several pardons from police, judges, and/or your team. The number of times authorities will look the other way, of course, depends on your skill level and popularity.

On Tuesday, the most recent man to demonstrate this phenomenon was released from jail after an 11-month stay.

Darryl Strawberry, whose record spans three decades and reads like a Tolstoy novel, finally admitted to six parole violations of his 1999 conviction for cocaine possession a year ago and agreed to serve the 18-month sentence that had been suspended from that earlier ruling.

The Straw came clean just under three years after that arrest, and after it was abundantly clear that he had used cocaine numerous times throughout that period.

And it was Darryl who decided when he was ready to go to jail.

“I would just like to get this behind me. I would like to do my 18 months and move on,” he told Judge Ralph Steinberg in court last April. Under Florida law, Strawberry only had to serve 85 percent of that sentence and three months he had spent in prison prior to that trial was credited towards that total.

It seemed that Strawberry finally did something right and sent himself to a place where he couldn’t buy drugs, but there is much more to his most recent trial than that.

In the original 1999 trial, Steinberg was the presiding judge and sentenced Strawberry to jail time. Darryl fought that ruling, however, and was ultimately sent to a drug treatment center instead.

Over the next three years, Strawberry appeared in court numerous times, but not in front of Steinberg, who had retired. Instead, Judge Florence Foster presided and opted for treatment over prison in every instance, the very strategy employed by Strawberry’s lawyer to keep the slugger out of prison.

Thus, despite breaking rules and even leaving the treatment centers for drug runs, Foster continually delayed his sentence, giving him chance after chance to reform. Strawberry’s chances came to an end when he had sex with a resident and broke other rules at the Phoenix House, a Florida treatment center. The center kicked him out of the program and Darryl was thrown into jail to await trial.

When he appeared in court this time, Foster had taken medical leave and in her place, Steinberg sat after being called back from retirement. No doubt, Steinberg was chosen because he was the one who originally sentenced Strawberry.

It was in front of Steinberg, who Strawberry knew would send him to prison anyway, that the former Yankee decided to admit his wrongdoings and request a trip to the penitentiary.

In the public’s eyes, he made himself look like a saint. Few people actually pay enough attention to realize the situation with the judges and understand that he was going to jail regardless.

In reality, Strawberry donned a halo and wings to match his prison clothes in an attempt to gain public approval and keep his sentence where it was.

With his recent freedom, the Straw and his wife are planning to spend a few days in Florida before embarking on a trip to California. The photo that ran with the story on Tuesday showed the couple jovially embracing as they walked away from the jail.

He has crafted his image into that of a good guy on his way to a drug-free life.

The question that we ask in Strawberry’s case, and many other athletes like him, is how the heck do they essentially get off scot-free? It’s not like anyone should be surprised that Strawberry used cocaine in 1999, because four years prior, while he was with the Giants, baseball suspended him for 60 days for testing positive for the very same drug. A mere slap on the wrist because although San Francisco released Darryl after that finding, four months later, the Yankees picked him up.

In December after that 1995 season, New York dropped the Straw from its lineup. However, seven months later, Darryl was back in pinstripes for a three-day stint in the minors before being called up to the Bronx.

The Yanks then took a supportive role in Strawberry’s life as he battled cancer, the 1999 cocaine bust and suspension that was short enough to allow him to participate in the World Series that year, and the roller coaster ride in and out of treatment. Several days before he was taken to jail last year, he was asked to join the organization to work with younger players.

I really wonder why the Yankees kept ties with Strawberry, or even signed him after he tested positive in 1995, but it seems likely that Steinbrenner forgave and forgot in the name of winning (how you doing, Ray Lewis?) These superstars had to do something pretty amazing to get to the big leagues, so it’s logical to think they are amazing themselves. Why would an athlete who gets paid so much to just play a game need drugs to get by? Why would he need to kill someone for respect when he already has so many people respecting him because he’s in the NFL?

And, of course, what it ultimately boils down to in the sports world is money. A few tweaks from the PR department, some charity work and autographs for underprivileged kids will revamp any addict’s image into that of a troubled athlete on the road to recovery.

The front office will save you and give you as many chances as they deem morally possible, as long as you keep the stats up.

Maybe we will see Strawberry in an upcoming public service announcement.

Archived article by Katherine Granish