An Improbable Deal Upended Baseball
Right fielder Darryl Strawberry hit 39 home runs for the New York Mets in 1987 and 1988. The Los Angeles Dodgers offered him a five-year, $20.3 million contract more than 30 years ago.
But Strawberry’s drug use and other off-field problems became acts of self-sabotage. By 1996, it appeared that Strawberry’s career as a baseball player was over.
A Los Angeles native, Strawberry had played for four Major League Baseball teams based in New York and California. It didn’t occur to him that he could find professional and personal rehabilitation in the Midwest.
On Saturday night, before a CHS Field crowd surpassing 8,000, the St. Paul Saints retired Strawberry’s No. 17 for his spectacular performance as a Saint during the 1996 season.
The Saints provided Strawberry with a second chance in baseball. The opportunity to get another shot at a Major League Baseball contract is exactly what the owners of the St. Paul Saints had in mind when they brought the franchise back to life in 1993. Those owners—Marv Goldklang, Mike Veeck, Bill Murray, and Van Schley—also were honored Saturday for turning the Saints into one of the best minor league clubs in the United States.
From 1993 through 2020, the Saints played in independent leagues. The club became the Minnesota Twins Triple-A affiliate starting with the 2021 season. In March, the Saints owners sold the club to Diamond Baseball Holdings, which is owned by a private equity firm.
During interviews and at Friday and Saturday events, Strawberry and the former owners talked about what the Saints franchise means to the St. Paul community and Minnesota baseball fans. They also reflected on the surprising arrival of Strawberry in 1996 and his enduring connection to the Saints.
Securing the Strawberry deal
Goldklang, who left a major New York law firm to pursue his love of baseball, said that in March of 1996 he was working with the Saints manager, Marty Scott, to put together a roster for the upcoming season.
That’s when Darryl Strawberry got on Goldklang’s radar. “I noticed Darryl, who was coming off of [Major League Baseball] suspension, wasn’t with any organization, wasn’t in camp, and wasn’t in spring training,” he said.
Goldklang recalled his son, Jeff, saying: Why don’t you try to sign Darryl?
“I didn’t know how to get in contact with him, so I called the Yankees,” Goldklang said. “The Yankees gave me contact information for his agent, Eric Grossman, whom I didn’t know.”
Twenty-seven years ago, Goldklang made the pivotal call to Grossman, who in 2023 is the chief legal officer of Morgan Stanley.
“I explained to him who I was, who the Saints were,” Goldklang said. “The fact that I was a minority owner of the Yankees, I think, provided me with some measure of credibility.”
In a 10- to 15-minute phone call, Goldklang outlined how Strawberry and the Saints could benefit if the former Major League star came to St. Paul. “I told him that we were committed to help Darryl advance his career, however long he stayed with the Saints,” he said. “My main pitch was that this would be the ideal first step back for Darryl.”
Grossman contacted Strawberry and the two of them got on a call with Goldklang, the Saints principal owner.
“My life was in shambles,” Strawberry said on Friday in St. Paul. “I really had no idea I wanted to play baseball again.”
With a nudge from his agent, Strawberry agreed to sign a contract with the Saints. “[Grossman] really convinced me that it would be a good place and you never know what can happen,” Strawberry said.
Securing a deal with Strawberry would be a major coup for the Saints because Strawberry had been an All-Star player who still had tremendous talent.
But Goldklang recalls that Strawberry suddenly wasn’t sure about casting his lot in Minnesota. His doubts surfaced as Saints co-owner Mike Veeck was planning to hold a news conference to herald the Strawberry signing.
“The night before the press conference, Eric [Grossman] calls me and says that Darryl is having second thoughts and that he doesn’t think he wants to play,” Goldklang said.
“Eric is actually [in St. Paul] for the press conference with Darryl,” he said. “I get on a call with Eric and Darryl, and we talk through the issues. Darryl agrees to play.”
Goldklang was making his persuasive case by phone from New Jersey, where his home and office are located. He tried to calm the waters from afar. “I didn’t even tell Mike [Veeck] because I’m sure there would have been panic,” he said. “Everybody had promoted this big presser.”
Despite the last-minute scare, Strawberry came to St. Paul and developed a relationship with the Saints that’s lasted for nearly three decades.
“I just came here, and I realized that baseball was fun again,” Strawberry said while talking with reporters at CHS Field. “The wonderful people of St. Paul welcomed me and my family.”
The pressure that he had felt playing in the New York market was absent in St. Paul and in independent league baseball. Strawberry just focused on the joy of playing.
“I think that’s why I’m standing here today and the man I am today because of this journey here, playing here,” Strawberry said.
He felt that the Saints ownership, staff, and fans cared about him. Strawberry told Twin Cities Business that Goldklang formed a relationship with him as a person, not simply as a player. “Some people only look at you from the standpoint of: Can you perform? Can you play? Can you help my team? I don’t think that was the case with Marv, so that’s why I wanted to give it a shot,” Strawberry said.
Strawberry’s path to New York
Once Strawberry took the field in St. Paul, it was evident to fans that he was an exceptional baseball player. “I could see he still had the quick bat,” Goldklang said.
After watching Strawberry play for just a couple of weeks, Goldklang concluded that Strawberry was ready for a return to Major League Baseball. “I called George,” he said, referring to George Steinbrenner, the colorful owner of the New York Yankees.
“George sends the then-general manager, Bob Watson, out to see him,” Goldklang said, but after making the trip, Watson “wasn’t interested” in Strawberry.
“I call George again,” he said. “George agrees to send out Gene Michael, ‘Stick’ Michael.”
Michael was doing Major League scouting for the Yankees, and Goldklang said he knew Michael very well. “Stick liked what he saw and offers Darryl a contract,” he said. “Darryl accepts the offer and goes to Columbus, which is where the Yankees had their Triple-A team.”
Strawberry spent very little time in Columbus before he joined the Yankees in New York. The decision to bring Strawberry to the Bronx conjures up a humorous memory for Goldklang.
“It’s the night before Darryl is called up. We are in the Yankee [owners] box,” Goldklang said, referring to a game in New York that he and his wife, Sheila, were attending.
Steinbrenner put his arm around Goldklang and he remembers him saying: “Marv, I just want to let you know that we are calling Darryl up tomorrow.”
Goldklang said that was great. Steinbrenner responds: “But if he [expletive deleted] up, it’s your ass.”
Goldklang said he replied: “He won’t, and it isn’t”
Strawberry only played 29 games for the Saints before he signed with the Yankees. In that time frame, his batting average was .435, he hit 18 home runs, and he batted in 39 runs.
In the City of Baseball Museum at CHS Field, there is an exhibit that commemorates Strawberry’s career. The exhibit includes a July 22, 1996 letter to Goldklang on New York Yankees letterhead. It was from Brian Cashman, then-assistant general manager, who wrote that he was enclosing a $3,000 check to “cover the purchase price of Darryl Strawberry’s contract.”
In 1996, Strawberry helped the Yankees win the World Series.
Baseball’s impact on lives
“When you look at life as a journey,” Strawberry said, “you look at the importance of what other people play a role in your life.”
Now 61, Strawberry leads a ministry with his wife and travels about 270 days a year.
When Saints management contacted him and said the club wanted to retire his number, Strawberry rescheduled events to travel to St. Paul.
“I needed to be here,” he said, because his tenure with the Saints was a positive chapter in his life.
“When I came here [in 1996], I was thinking about the opportunity that the owners were giving me and I wanted to make the best out of it and see if I really still had some passion and love for the game,” Strawberry said.
“Professional sports is a very tough profession,” Goldklang said. “Many, if not most, players—baseball, football, basketball, whatever—end their careers being told they are not good enough, they are too old, they are released.”
From 1993 to 2020, the Saints signed baseball players who lacked roster spots on a Major League Baseball team or one of its minor league clubs. Those players got to showcase their talent in independent leagues on the hope they’d attract attention in the Major League Baseball system.
“Darryl, in many respects, is what we have been about for at least the 27 years we were in independent baseball,” Goldklang said. “It was only 29 games [he played for the Saints], but those 29 games restored his love for the game.”
While Goldklang is no longer a Saints owner, he leads the Goldklang Group that still owns the Charleston RiverDogs in South Carolina and the Pittsfield Suns in Massachusetts.
Goldklang said that St. Paul Saints fans are well-served by a talented staff that was retained by the new owners. “The ultimate secret to success is hiring the right people, providing them with a sense of your vision for what the organization can become, and then staying the hell out of the way,” Goldklang said.