October 19, 1998 12:00 PM

It has been a fairy-tale year for baseball, and in fairy tales things like this aren’t supposed to happen. On Oct. 1, as the New York Yankees were preparing for their third play-off game against the Texas Rangers, the phone rang in the clubhouse at the Ballpark in Arlington. It was outfielder Darryl Strawberry, 36, back in New York City, calling to say that his season was over—he had been diagnosed with colon cancer. “At first there was complete silence, then some tears,” says Yankees manager Joe Torre, who choked up as he shared the news with the team. “You think you’ve got it together, and all of a sudden your voice begins to break.”

Suddenly a season’s worth of baseball magic—Mark McGwire’s 70 home runs, the Yankees’ 114 wins—seemed not to matter all that much. But the resilient Strawberry, who had battled back from drug addiction and a suspension from baseball in 1995, was determined not to let the spell be broken. “Things are going to happen to you in your life,” he told ESPN after phoning his teammates. “It’s just a matter of how you deal with them.” For starters, Strawberry taped a message to the Yankees, urging them to keep their eyes on the ball and get to the World Series. “He told us he was fine,” says Torre, “and at the end he said, ‘Go get ’em, do it.’ ”

Some 12 hours after his teammates rolled over the Rangers, Strawberry underwent surgery to remove a 2.4-inch tumor from his colon. So far his doctors are predicting a full recovery. As he awaits the results of further tests to determine whether chemotherapy is needed, Strawberry can take heart from the experience of his lifelong friend Eric Davis of the Baltimore Orioles. Diagnosed with the same disease last year, Davis returned three months after having his tumor removed and played stellar baseball. “These guys are in tremendous shape,” says Dr. Keith Lillemoe, the surgeon who operated on Davis. “I would not be surprised to see Darryl play again.”

Few who have followed Strawberry’s career would be surprised by anything he does. A Los Angeles native with a rippled 6’6″ physique and a swing that keeps pitchers up at night, Strawberry was 1983’s National League Rookie of the Year, and he helped lead the Mets to a World Series title in 1986. But along the way Strawberry developed an addiction to drugs and alcohol.

“It became a lifestyle for me,” he later explained to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. “Drink, do coke, get women.” He was slapped with a paternity suit in 1989, then arrested on suspicion of assaulting his first wife, Lisa (he was not charged, but the couple divorced in ’93). After Strawberry left the Mets and signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1990, things got even worse: He was indicted on federal tax evasion charges and later suspended from baseball for 60 days for using cocaine. “He was a super young man,” says former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, “but he let his team and himself down.”

Strawberry would pull himself back up. He managed to kick his addictions, and in 1993 he married Charisse Simon. Determined to restart his career, he signed with the Yankees in 1995, and helped them win a World Series the next year. But this August, on his way to slugging a crucial 24 homers, Strawberry felt pain in his stomach and began losing weight. Not wanting to lose playing time, he kept quiet, but, recalling his buddy Davis’s symptoms, he finally saw a doctor in late September. “Darryl is a fighter,” says his friend Sheila Washington. “And when he conquers this, the sky’s the limit.”

Indeed, Strawberry has earned his teammates’ respect by changing his life, something he credits to his Christian faith and his family—wife Charisse and their children Jordan, 4, and Jade, 3. (He has three other children.) This latest hurdle, says Yankee pitcher and close friend David Cone, isn’t likely to stop Strawberry either. “He made mistakes, but now he’s become a real team leader,” says Cone. “We’re all optimistic he can beat this.”

Alex Tresniowski

Carlton Stowers in Arlington, Joseph V. Tirella in New York City, Kelly Carter in Los Angeles and Gerald Burstyn in Washington, D.C.

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