I’ve mentioned before that I was a Mets fan during the early 80s. I still remember the excitement over Darryl Strawberry and his amazing natural athleticism. I also remember the days he seemed to call his performance in, causing the stands at Shea to erupt with derisive chants of Daaaaa-ryl, Daaaaa-ryl.
Today’s book is The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw, by Michael Sokolove. It grew out of a NYTimes Magazine article Sokolove wrote about Strawberry, but broadens the focus to look at all the members of the 1979 Crenshaw High School Cougars, possibly the most talented team to ever play high school baseball. (Chris Brown was also on the team, and several of the players told Sokolove that Strawberry was only the 3rd or 4th best player on the Cougars.)
Sokolove argues that the 1979 team was part of the last cohort of US-born black kids to consider baseball their game. Their fathers had grown up playing baseball, worshipped the Dodgers as the team that had given Jackie Robinson his chance, and their love of the game was one of the only legacies they had to give their children. And Crenshaw was lucky enough to have Brooks Hurst as its coach, a former minor-league ballplayer who loved the game and loved the kids who played it, but was tough enough to handle their attitudes.
Sokolove talks about the members of the team, what they were like in 1979, where their baseball paths took them (Strawberry and Brown were the only ones to make it to the majors, but several were drafted and played minor league ball), and what they’re doing today. Some have achieved middle-class lives through other careers — cooking and plumbing. Brown, whose baseball career ended after a series of hard to diagnose injuries left him with a reputation as a malingerer, is a crane operator. Others found stability through military service. One, Carl Jones, is in prison with a 25 years to life sentence for three non-violent crimes under California’s rigid "three-strikes" law. Others are drifting along on the economic margins of society.
And then there’s Strawberry, who is pretty much unclassifiable. His baseball career is finally over, after more second and third chances than most players get, thanks to both his undeniable talent and Steinbrenner’s love of publicity. He seems to have blown through pretty much all of the millions of dollars that he made playing baseball, some on drugs, more on the entourage of hangers-on he accumulated, but still has his famous name, which opens doors. He’s been in and out of rehab, and finally wound up serving jail time after breaking the terms of his probation. The cancer he was treated for is a kind that tends to recur, but so far he’s doing ok.
The book is a quick read, although the attempt to fit so many stories into a 279 page book often left me turning back trying to remember who different people were. Sokolove provides ample evidence of how poverty and racism limited the players’ opportunities in life, without making excuses for their failures. And he notes that American literature — from Updike’s Rabbit to Springsteen’s Glory Days — is full of (white working-class) high school athletes for whom everything else in life is downhill. He argues that given the limited opportunities in life open to a poor inner-city kid, going for the lottery shot of professional sports isn’t an unreasonable proposition.
My favorite line in the book comes after Sokolove has visited Jones’ family, which acted as surrogate parents to many of the Crenshaw players whose own parents were absent or messed up. While he’s talking to Carl’s sister, Tahitha, her godson, Marvin, is playing nearby.
" ‘His mom is out there on crack, so I keep him with me most of the time,’ Tahitha says. ‘I love him like he’s my own. He’s three, so we’re just starting him on baseball right now.’ "
"The Joneses are their own little social service agency. Faith-based. When they see someone in need, they try to give them baseball."