Before Darryl Strawberry headed back to the minors he got a pointed message from Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
"He told me, Don't screw up again," Strawberry said. "I said, I won't."'
Strawberry, attempting to come back from his latest drug suspension while still recovering from colon cancer surgery has been given another chance by Yankees management to return to The Bronx if he can turn his life around.
He was in the starting lineup for Triple-A Columbus Wednesday night, playing for the first time since learning he had colon cancer last Oct. 1.
A group of fans along the third baseline gave Strawberry a standing ovation when he left on the on-deck circle for his first at-bat in the second inning. They cheered even louder when he singled sharply to center on Jose Bautista's second pitch.
A smattering of boos was also heard. Columbus, after all, is home to many Cleveland Indians fans.
Strawberry went 2-for-4, but failed to come through with the game on the line in the ninth. He got jammed and popped out to third to end it with the tying run on second as the Clippers lost 3-2.
"I think it's a matter of time, a matter of getting back," Strawberry said. "You know that's the first time I've faced game situation pitches. All I did down in Tampa was just hit, run and shag balls."
"To be in a live situation and seeing breaking balls, I felt a little rusty. ... You need to get at least 15 to 20 at-bats before you really start feeling good."
Strawberry singled to right in the fifth and stole second despite a poor jump when the throw from Norfolk catcher Mandy Romero skipped into center field.
He looked overmatched in the fourth when Bautista blew strike three past him. He walked on four pitches in the seventh.
Strawberry said he was overanxious at the plate in the ninth.
"It could have ended better than it did," he said. "In a situation like that I've got a right-hand hitter on deck and I've got to be a lot smarter than that and not chase bad pitchers. I chased two bad pitches trying to probably do too much."
Before the game, Strawberry said he doesn't plan to let this opportunity slip by, admitting this will be his final comeback.
"I'll tell you right now, if I have to go through this again, I'll never return to baseball. ... The most important thing is that I care about me instead of putting pressure on myself to prove myself," he said.
"I know the most important thing for right now is to deal with my addiction and recovery."
Strawberry was suspended 120 days by commissioner Bud Selig after his arrest on solicitation and drug charges April 14. Selig reduced the suspension by one week on Monday.
Strawberry said he was going through a tough time when he was arrested, depressed about not making the Yankees' Opening Day roster, and he had stopped going to Alcoholics nonymous meetings.
He said he became overwhelmed with trying to get in shape to play baseball, finish up six months of chemotherapy and stay on top of his rehab.
"Anyone that suffers through cancer and has to take chemotherapy for six months, somewhere down the line there's going to be a wall hit," he said.
"I really wish I would have paid more attention to my health than concerning myself with getting back on the baseball field. My life is more important than getting back on the baseball field."
"I feel bad that I let down first of all my wife and my two children, but also myself and Mr. Steinbrenner and the entire New York Yankees," Strawberry said.
Clippers' manager Trey Hillman had Strawberry batting cleanup at designated hitter, but said he could play left field Thursday depending on how he feels.
"I don't want to do something that will set him back two or three days," Hillman said. "He hasn't done this since April. There's going to be a little doubt how his body will recover. We're not sure."
Where Strawberry plays once he gets back to New York remains undecided. An injured left knee will make it tough for him to play left field regularly, and Chili Davis is firmly entrenched at DH.
But there's no doubt the Yankees could use his bat. Strawberry hit 24 homers in 295 at-bats last year before being diagnosed with colon cancer. The Yankees current left-field platoon of Shane Spencer, Ricky Ledee and Chad Curtis has 14 homers in 384 at-bats heading into Wednesday's game with Toronto.
Strawberry said he doesn't have a timetable for returning to New York and won't demand playing time from manager Joe Torre.
"I'm not looking to go up there to say I'm the left-fielder and I should play," he said. "If I have to go sit on the bench, that's what I have to do. If I don't get back there this year, I just don't get back."
Strawberry previously played with Columbus in 1995 after signing as a free agent, in 1996 after he left the St. Paul Saints of the Northern League, and on an injury rehabilitation in 1997.
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