Three weeks ago, Darryl Strawberry was an unemployed outfielder serving the final month of a 60-day drug suspension. David Borkowski was pitching in the state playoffs for his high school team in Sterling Heights, Mich.
In a rookie-league game Tuesday, they began what they hope will be a climb to the major leagues _ Strawberry bidding for a speedy return via the New York Yankees, Borkowski playing his first game with the Detroit Tigers organization.
There was no public-address announcer for the Gulf Coast League contest, no organ music between innings, and very few fans. About 50 curious onlookers showed up to watch the GCL's newest designated hitter in 7,000-seat Joker Marchant Stadium.
Until 90 minutes before the game, no one told the 18-year-old that Strawberry, a 33-year-old with 294 big-league homers, would be in the lineup for the Gulf Coast Yankees.
"If he hit me, he hit me," Borkowski said. "I had nothing to lose. He's a professional player."
Borkowski pitched three innings and faced the former New York Mets star twice. He struck out Strawberry in the first inning and got him to pop out to leftfield to end the third.
Strawberry finished the 4-2 loss 0-for-3. He grounded to first with the bases loaded in the fifth against the Tigers' Juan Santamaria. He walked against Tomas Rodriguez in the eighth and inadvertently helped the Yankees score a run when was he caught in a rundown between first and second base between pitches to the next batter.
"What did I think?" asked former major-league manager Dick Williams, who has been monitoring Strawberry's progress since the longtime rightfielder signed last week.
"He needs some at-bats," Williams said, emphasizing that it is too soon to estimate when Strawberry might be ready to join the big-league club.
"He's got a quick bat through the strike zone, and he's got exceptional power," Williams said. "His reflexes seem to be as good as ever, and he's in good condition. But he has had a long layoff."
The game was Strawberry's first in 10 months. Before signing with the Yankees, he was working out in California. His 60-day suspension ended last weekend.
After taking two called strikes and a ball in his first at-bat, Strawberry fouled off three straight pitches before chasing _ and swinging through _ a high changeup.
"I'll never forget that," Borkowski said. "I'll be talking about that one for a long time."
Strawberry was on deck in the ninth when D'angelo Jimenez grounded to second with the bases loaded to end the game.
Strawberry gathered his equipment and signed autographs for fans near the dugout before making the long walk to the rightfield bullpen area, where a white Lincoln Town Car and players on the other team awaited him.
He stopped briefly to sign more autographs, including one for Borkowski. Then he ducked his clean-shaven head, glistening in the hot Florida sun, into the back seat of the car and was off _ his comeback to continue today in another rookie-league game at Kissimmee.