PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Darryl Strawberry is headed toward the clubhouse door, an unlit Newport jammed between his fingers.
"Gotta get my exercise," the big man says. "This is my workout right here, smoking."
Strawberry delivers this public-service announcement without apologies or PC embarrassment. He's a cancer survivor, a recovering addict, not to mention one of the fittest, strongest players of his era. Darryl should be an anti-nicotine zealot, but that doesn't stop him from lighting up and filling the air with those lazy blue curls.
Strawberry instead uses cigarettes as a billboard of his post-baseball life. He's moved on from the vanity (and rolled-up sleeves) of his youth, now sporting a gut that's noticeable even under a loose-fitting Mets' warm-up. Straw still believes he's the best player of his era and that the '86 Mets could've whipped the 2009 Yankees, but the bluster simmers under a layer of real-world modesty.
Darryl is, after all, a middle-aged man who's less famous than he used to be. And let's face it, his legacy is that of a player who destroyed his career, not cherished it the way Derek Jeter or David Wright have.
The Mets invited Straw to camp, in part, because they're embracing their volatile past; Strawberry, along with Doc Gooden and Davey Johnson, all were inducted into the franchise's Hall of Fame in January. But Strawberry's presence acts as a lesson to younger players who feel the long tentacles of temptation wrapping around them.
Strawberry isn't afraid to say: Look at me, look at what I could've been. But there are no regrets for the drinking, the drugging, the felonies and the time spent in jail. The purer life, one that might've landed him in the Hall of Fame, wasn't meant to be.
"The way I look at it is, without my past, I don't have the platform I have today helping people," he said. "I always hear things like, 'It could've been different for you, Straw.' But how could it have been different? I came from a dysfunctional (household), my father beat the crap out of me every day and told me I would never amount to anything. There was no love from my father and I struggled my whole life because of that."
Still, Strawberry is proud of what he did accomplish in his 17-year, 335 home-run career, even if the numbers didn't match the talent. If Darryl is a guidance counselor to the Mets, he's also a walking reference guide to the '80s. Through the haze of drugs, Darryl remembers everything.
Toughest pitcher he ever faced? "(Nolan) Ryan. (John) Tudor gave me trouble, too."
Smartest Met? "(Keith) Hernandez. There were guys who had more talent, but no one understood the game better than him. He made me a better baseball player."
Craziest Met? "We had a list of 'em. Lenny (Dykstra), he was in his own world. Ellie (Kevin Elster), in his own world. Mitch (Kevin Mitchell), definitely him, too. And Doc. And me."
Greatest pitcher he ever played with? "Hands down, Doc. You're never going to see anything like him again. In '85, he was just a kid embarrassing grown men. You'd see them ask out of the lineup after batting practice because they knew a 19-year-old kid was about to embarrass them. They hated that. They hated us because of Doc."
1986 Mets vs. 2009 Yankees? "Doc would've destroyed them. We would've beaten them. They're a great team, but we wouldn't have been intimidated. We could hit, we could pitch and we could definitely fight."
Strawberry meant no disrespect toward the Bombers, to whom he owes the final act of his career. And to be technical about it, Darryl knows the '86 Gooden wasn't nearly as overpowering as the '85 edition, which skews his prediction. But it's all part of a harmless journey into the past. All you have to do is ask him.
Another tantalizing question: Could Strawberry still hit today's 90-mph fastballs? The thought intrigued him, the way it did Don Mattingly one day in spring training in 2002.
That's when Tino Martinez dragged Mattingly, then a coach, to a back field to take batting practice. After only a few swings, Donnie Baseball was hitting line drive after drive, as if it were 1995 again. Mattingly said, "I felt great, it was like I'd never stopped playing. But I asked myself, 'What am I doing here?' I put the bat down and walked away. I never went back there again."
Strawberry knows his skills still were intact when he retired in 1999 at age 37. He easily could've kept playing into his 40s. Even today, minus the paunch, he's still got the easy, rolling gait of a ballplayer. And looking at Darryl, you'd never know he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1996.
He's been in remission for more than a decade, which means his odds of survival are now excellent -- except for the smokes and the lack of exercise. Strawberry hasn't worked out in earnest in nine years, and breaks a sweat only when playing golf, which he believes is, "good training for the mental and physical aspects of life.
"What do I need to train for? I'm not running a marathon. I'm not getting in the (batting) cage. Man, that's over," Strawberry says. He's saving himself for the autistic kids he helps at home in St. Louis, where he's married to a Sunday school teacher, Tracy.
Today, the '80s have morphed into a preacher's life. The man who pushed his freak quotient to the outer limits 20 years ago has found his peace.
"I don't go to bars, I don't drink, I don't chase women, I go home to my wife, who I love," Strawberry said. "It's the way it's supposed to be. It just took me this long to figure that out."