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New Straw stirs New York again

The new Darryl Strawberry is a likable fellow. Never complains, is usually upbeat, content to be just another player. The new Darryl spends a chunk of his free time in rehabilitation centers, talking to teens about substance abuse, reliving the horrors of his own past.

Funny how these things work, but Strawberry had to become a new man in order to become his old self in a baseball uniform.

Fifteen years after arriving in New York with one of baseball's most destructive bats and an equally destructive taste for good times, Strawberry is back. He has gone from the Mets to the Yankees, from an alcoholic to a counselor, from a petulant, pampered star to a happy, grateful role player.

The Yankees are playing outstanding ball, and Strawberry, 36, has been a big factor. Platooned in the outfield and at designated hitter, he hit .345 with seven home runs and 18 RBI in his first 58 at-bats.

His performance is more remarkable considering Strawberry's recent past. Because of legal problems, suspensions, injuries and stints in alcohol rehab, Strawberry missed most of the past six seasons. Between 1992-97, he hit .230 with an average of five homers and 18 RBI.

"I don't want to be a star, I just want to be another player," Strawberry said in a conference call last week. "I've had my days of what they call stardom. That's not really important to me anymore. What's important is to enjoy my life and help other people who have problems."

Strawberry is a frequent visitor at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and rehab centers. He said is greatest accomplishment these days is convincing young addicts and alcoholics that they can turn their lives around.

"I speak to kids about what it's like to recover," Strawberry said. "People can be real hard on them, but you have no understanding of what they're going through. I try to show them the steps, show them they can stay away from drugs. That's one of the real issues in the country today the kids are involved in drugs so early now.

"I want to reach out and help. Help them learn that you can recover and you can change your whole life. That's something that some kids are searching for but can't see. With me being around, even walking through it with them, they really believe they can do it."

As for his lost years, Strawberry says he has no regrets. The chances to hit 600 home runs, to be a Hall of Famer are long gone. But the opportunity for a happy life is still ahead. "I try not to look back," he said. "Those were my mistakes and my fault and I have to accept and deal with them. Rather than look back and see what I could have accomplished, I try to be thankful for what I have today and look forward to the time I have left."

SEND IN REPLACEMENTS: The left side of Pittsburgh's infield failed to last a month. Shortstop Lou Collier was replaced by Kevin Polcovich _ and he's the lucky one. Third baseman Freddy Garcia was sent to Triple A and may not start there. Highly touted Aramis Ramirez will get most of the playing time at third in Nashville while Garcia fills in at first base and outfield. He has been replaced at third base in Pittsburgh by Doug Strange.

SELF-SERVE SURGERY: Jay Buhner says his arthroscopic knee surgery was a success. And he should know. The Mariners outfielder stayed awake through the procedure and even videotaped as his patella tendon was realigned. "Jay was awake and coaching," Seattle team physician Larry Pedegana said. "No, really, he was fine."

HIDDEN GEM: He was less expensive than either Jeff Blauser or Jay Bell, and so far Walt Weiss has been more valuable. His on-base percentage has been about .500, and he has given Atlanta outstanding defense. When he missed eight games with a hamstring injury, the Braves went 4-4. Going into the weekend, they were 14-5 with him in the lineup. "He's not going to get any recognition for it for the simple fact that he doesn't have any home runs," manager Bobby Cox said. "But I don't know of anybody else who's having a better April."

A BIP IN TIME: The Tigers recently offered Bip Roberts to the Indians for Geronimo Berroa, but Cleveland declined. The Indians wouldn't mind dealing Berroa, but word is they want no part of Roberts. Although he sparked the Indians down the stretch in 1997, Roberts did not win friends by begging out of Game 7 of the World Series because of cold and flu symptoms.

ON A LEITER NOTE: The Phillies used Mark Leiter as trade bait in the off-season. Now they're using him as their closer. With Ricky Bottalico on the disabled list for up to two months, Philadelphia is entrusting leads to the man who led the majors with 17 losses last season. Leiter gained about 15 pounds in the off-season because a bad back prevented him from working out as much as he wanted to. The result seems to be a better fastball. "He's throwing harder this year," catcher Mike Lieberthal said. "That's the big difference."

A NEW ACE IN TOWN: The Devil Rays are not the only team shut down by Mike Sirotka. The left-hander has become the White Sox's most dependable starter, going 4-1 with a 3.60 ERA in his first five starts. "I think I'm gaining a sense of confidence among my teammates," Sirotka said. "I get ahead and the ball's put in play earlier in the count. Things happen a little quicker and they seem to be more into the game."

WOOD IT MATTER?: Cubs manager Jim Riggleman has figured out how to deal with the hype surrounding rookie pitcher Kerry Wood. By ignoring it. "Before we brought him up here, it was, "How long are they going to keep him down there?' We bring him up and people start asking, "How long are they going to keep him up here?' We make that decision, regardless of what people ask or say," Riggleman said. "I've never given any thought to him being anywhere but here."

The producers

Attention has been focused on the chase for 61 home runs in a season, but some players are in the early stages of challenging a more remarkable standard: Hack Wilson's 190 RBI in a season. Wilson set the mark in 1930, and in the past 50 years no one has come close to challenging it. The most since 1950 was 153 by Tommy Davis of the Dodgers in 1962. Players who averaged an RBI or more in April:

Player, team RBI/game Proj.

Juan Gonzalez, Texas 1.38 224

Mark McGwire, St. Louis 1.33 216

Tino Martinez, Yankees 1.26 204

Vinny Castilla, Rockies 1.18 191

David Justice, Indians 1.11 181

Chipper Jones, Braves 1.07 174

Moises Alou, Astros 1.03 168

Mike Piazza, Dodgers 1.00 162

Ken Griffey, Mariners 1.00 162

Dean Palmer, Royals 1.00 162

_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.