Referring to some of former Major League Baseball star Darryl Strawberry's own addiction treatment experiences as simply “awkward” or “uncomfortable” would understate the case—akin to calling one of his towering home runs from back in the day a mere pop fly.
Isolated as the only “celebrity” on the grounds of a facility, Strawberry struggled to relate to the patients around him. Even more concerning, the stigmatizing messages he would sometimes hear from program staff cast doubt on whether he ultimately could prevail in his battle.
Now running a Christian ministry with wife Tracy in St. Louis and walking a path that seems miles away from his time in the national limelight, Strawberry promises that all will be positive in how he approaches his first ventures in the addiction treatment market.
He partnered with Tampa, Fla.-based healthcare management company Oglethorpe, Inc., to open the Darryl Strawberry Recovery Center near Kissimmee, Fla., this year, and Oglethorpe leaders already are looking to extend the brand into New York state (Long Island) next, with Strawberry's hometown of St. Louis possibly not far behind.
At this year's National Conference on Addiction Disorders (NCAD) in St. Louis, an event sponsored by the publishers of Addiction Professional, Strawberry will tell some of his story and outline his vision in an Aug. 23 keynote presentation.
“My whole goal is to bring positive affirmations to people,” says Strawberry, whose efforts in the St. Louis ministry of 11 years have included creating a fund for children with autism, working in detention centers, establishing initiatives to empower single mothers, and organizing weekly coffee house meetings for people in recovery from any addiction. “Nobody's a mistake.”
Strawberry and Oglethorpe CEO John Picciano clicked from the get-go. Picciano, a former Catholic priest who was trained in social work and had worked in church counseling centers, appreciated Strawberry's recovery story (he had battled cancer as well as addiction) and embraced the second act the former pro athlete was living out.
“I told him, 'Let's do a treatment center with you as the brand name,'” recalls the CEO of Oglethorpe, which mainly operates behavioral hospital facilities, with nine properties in all. “I said, 'There is no better story than your story for people who are looking for a little bit of hope.'”
Picciano acknowledges that Oglethorpe first contemplated establishing a treatment program exclusively for athletes, but that most likely would prove challenging. “It's a difficult sell to athletes,” he says in reference to treatment. “They have an agent. It's difficult to get them in treatment during the highlight period of their career.”
At the Strawberry Center in the Florida community of St. Cloud, one dormitory representing one-quarter of the facility's bed capacity has been intended for athletes, with the idea of giving the athlete a chance to bond with others who have experienced some of the same pressures in their professional and personal lives. The rest of the facility is intended to serve a broader treatment population with detox and 28-day residential levels of care.
“It's going to serve all,” Strawberry says. The Strawberry Center adopts a Christian recovery orientation. Darryl and Tracy also have opened a Christian recovery program at Oglethorpe's Behavioral Hospital of Longview in Texas.
Picciano believes it may be more likely that the facility will take in athletes after they have retired; he does not presently see the center having a major presence with athletes currently in the game. Regardless, “Darryl's story translates to all,” he says.
In recent weeks the business emphasis at the center has been on achieving in-network status with insurers, a key component to the facility's planned growth toward a maximum census of 48.
What may have been lacking in parts of Strawberry's own treatment experience was more than made up for in the influence of significant people in his life. He says his sponsor helped him overcome frustration and understand that all individuals in recovery have to run their own unique course.
Strawberry gives the most credit to his wife, whom he met 13 years ago at a Narcotics Anonymous (NA) conference in St. Louis. “She had a year clean, and I had two seconds clean,” he recalls. “She showed me what taking responsibility meant. I saw it working in her life even before I did in my life. At the time I was amazed that she was actually doing it each day.”
By watching what Tracy was starting to achieve in her life, and also by adopting a Christian lifestyle and getting involved in the church, Strawberry started to experience his own transformation.
“When you see someone else suiting up every day and getting things done, that's how it works,” he says. The website for Strawberry Ministries uses the tagline “Restoring Lives and Relationships.” Darryl and Tracy's new book, The Imperfect Marriage: Help for Those Who Think It's Over, will be released Aug. 5.
When Strawberry addresses the NCAD audience in St. Louis at 4 p.m. on Aug. 23, Picciano says attendees can expect a heartfelt but also frank presentation. “His delivery is no-nonsense, just as the way someone might talk in the locker room,” he says.
But attendees probably shouldn't expect too much reminiscing from Strawberry's baseball days. In some ways, being able to let go of a time that he describes as “not real anyway” has been a greater gift than the physical tools with which he was blessed. “That was just a phase,” Strawberry says.