(JTA) — As part of his journey after a tumultuous decade and a half in the spotlight, former New York Mets star Darryl Strawberry is speaking at a pro-Israel event in his second career as an evangelical minister.
Strawberry, an eight-time MLB All-Star-turned-traveling-preacher, will be a panelist on Thursday at Extending the Branches of Zionism, an event taking place in New York City and organized by the Jewish National Fund-USA focused on support for Israel among non-Jews.
The panel will include participants from two JNF-USA programs that Strawberry supports called the Caravan for Democracy Student Leadership Mission and the Faculty Fellowship Program in Israel. Both bring non-Jews on Birthright-style trips with the intention of having participants subsequently discuss Israel on college campuses.
“I think the most important thing is, as a non-Jewish person, you have to be able to educate them about Israel,” Strawberry told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on a Zoom call. “I think in this country, a lot of people talk about Israel, and talk about the Jewish people, but they’ve never been there. So they don’t even have a clue.”
Strawberry, 60, was a New York sports icon in the 1980s as a leading member of the 1986 World Series champion Mets. With a picturesque, looping swing, the lanky 6-foot-6 outfielder could both hit for power and show off speed on the bases, drawing early predictions from sports analysts that he was destined to be an all-time great.
But Strawberry instead became a poster child for the team’s hard-partying ways, and he and fellow phenom Dwight “Doc” Gooden saw their careers hampered by drug addiction and scandal. Strawberry’s downfall included multiple stays in drug and alcohol rehab centers; multiple surgeries for colon cancer and losing his left kidney; and a charge for getting caught soliciting a prostitute in 1999, the last year he would play professional baseball.
Soon after that, Strawberry began attending an evangelical church and spent seven years “being discipled,” or learning from a teacher steeped in evangelical knowledge.
“I would have never thought that was the true calling in my life,” Strawberry said. “And I would have a chance to experience the true meaning of life and be able to go to places I always wanted to go.”
In 2018, one of those places turned out to be Israel, a country he says he knew nothing about until his years of religious study.
“Once I finally got there, it was like, ‘Oh, my God, it is so beautiful.’ It’s so amazing, to be able to experience something that I’ve read so much about, and to be able to walk those grounds,” he said.
Evangelical Christianity stresses the importance of being “born again,” or having a spiritual awakening centered on faith in Jesus. Evangelicals have at different points over the past two decades made up close to a quarter of the U.S. population. (The vast majority of them are white.)
Many also believe that the modern state of Israel is a fulfillment of God’s promise to give the land to the Jewish people. Christian Zionist movements such as Christians United for Israel, a group that claims about 11 million members, have played a significant role in the Republican Party’s strong support of Israel.
Many evangelicals additionally believe that when Israel’s contemporary boundaries eventually match up with the land that Jews were promised by God, that moment will kickstart the Rapture — or the return of Jesus accompanied by the end of times. A 2017 poll by LifeWay found that 80% of evangelicals believe the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 shows “we are getting closer to the return of Jesus Christ.”
For years, Strawberry — who is based at the nondenominational Journey Church in Troy, Missouri, about 50 miles west of St. Louis — has given sermons at megachurches and talked about his recovery story. More recently, he has also talked with prison inmates about turning their lives around. But promoting Israel has become a main focus for the Straw Man.
He demurred when asked for his thoughts on the country’s new right-wing government, which has drawn criticism from across the global political spectrum — including from some American conservatives — over policies it has advanced, including legislation that would sap the power of the Supreme Court.
“I keep it separated from the politics,” Strawberry said about his Israel advocacy. “I know what it’s about — it’s about the people, and it’s about the culture there. That’s what I know, and nobody else can tell me any different.
“I went there and saw, you know, the Sea of Galilee,” he added. “These are real places, you know? These are real places, and [biblical] things happened there in real time.”
New York Yankees Hall of Fame pitcher Mariano Rivera — who was Strawberry’s teammates in the late 1990s as a member of multiple World Series-winning teams — is also an evangelical Israel supporter. Strawberry said the two are friends and have bonded over their shared religion.
Strawberry wants to soon return to Israel, where he visited the Western Wall and was surprised that people knew who he was. Baseball is not a popular sport there, lagging far behind others such as soccer and basketball.
“I was blown away. I was like, ‘how did they know me over here?’” Strawberry said.
For now, Strawberry said he might track how Team Israel does in the upcoming World Baseball Classic tournament.
“How cool is that?” he said about the team qualifying. “That should be exciting, it’s an exciting time for them to be playing in that.”
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