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1998 Yankees Diary: Darryl Strawberry’s Battle

As the 1998 postseason began, their veteran slugger was diagnosed with colon cancer.

New York Yankees Victory Parade, 1998 World Series Set Number: X56657

Part of the allure of sports is how much we get emotionally involved. Day in and day out, week in and week out, we pour our heart and soul into our favorite teams, and we structure our lives to watch as many games as possible. Every Opening Day, people joke, “I’m ready to let a baseball team dictate my mood for the next six months,” but for many, it’s not a joke, it’s reality. “Fan” is short for “fanatic,” after all.

Every once in a while, however, reality breaks into our bubble, and reminds us that there are more important things than sports. Sometimes, those reminders are institutional, such as June’s smoky announcement that unprecedented climate disasters are becoming more and more common. And sometimes, those reminders are personal, reminding us that, in our own lives, things can change on a dime without any warning.

For the 1998 Yankees, one such moment popped up as the postseason began: 25 years ago this week, the veteran designated hitter and beloved clubhouse presence was diagnosed with colon cancer.

With the benefit of hindsight, that Strawberry had been playing ill was not surprising. After slashing .250/.366/.581 as a significant part-timer over the first five months of the season, his line dropped to .229/.250/.257 in September and he had only one extra-base hit in 36 plate appearances. As it turned out, this was no ordinary slump; it was much, much more serious. Strawberry had been playing through abdominal pain that he had not disclosed to any teammates or members of the Yankees organization for two months. The only flag was that manager Joe Torre had reduced his playing time in part because he sensed something was not physically right with Strawberry. (The return of Chili Davis, who was signed to be the everyday DH, from injury around the same time was a convenient coincidence.)

According to then-New York Times writer Buster Olney, the first person that Strawberry approached about his symptoms was Baltimore Orioles outfielder Eric Davis. His fellow ‘80s superstar had been diagnosed with colon cancer the year prior, and Strawberry found that his symptoms matched what Davis had felt. Because of this, although he had hoped to fight through the pain and remain on the roster throughout the playoffs, he finally told the team during the ALDS. While the initial hope was that, after a colonoscopy, he’d be able to return to the lineup, tests revealed that the tumor was cancerous.

Twenty-five years ago today, Strawberry underwent his first surgery, which removed the tumor and part of his colon; two weeks later, he began chemotherapy. The Yankees and the baseball world writ large were understandably shaken:

As one might expect, the news shocked the Yankees players. Manager Joe Torre informed the team prior to Game 3, his voice cracking as he spoke; the players went through their pregame workouts largely in silence, and several did so in tears. As Torre told Olney, “You realize we are all sort of an extended family...[Strawberry] probably spends more time with us than he does with his family.”

After the shock of the initial news wore off and Tim Raines led a video in support of Darryl, the Yankees turned No. 39 into a rallying cry, vowing to complete the mission and win the World Series in his name. In an impressive display of fortitude, they managed to finish off their sweep of the Rangers that very night in Texas. And although Strawberry was still unable to physically travel to San Diego to be with the team when they clinched another sweep to win their 24th title a couple weeks later, his teammates grabbed the telephone and called him at his Fort Lee, N.J., home so that he could join in the celebration. His teammates dedicated the trophy to him.

And Strawberry made sure he got his chance to celebrate with them — even after telling reporters that he wouldn’t be able to attend the ticker-tape parade due to his health, he famously made a surprise appearance anyway (as seen in the clip below).

The diagnosis in 1998 was just the beginning of Strawberry’s journey, as he would require additional surgery two years later after a CT scan revealed the cancer had spread again. Cancer-free for two decades now, he has spent a lot of time supporting cancer research and encouraging people to take the initiative and undergo regular cancer screenings to maximize the possibility of early detection. Compared to that mission, Strawberry’s baseball career pales in comparison.