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Baseball Fates

Michael Sokolove's new book charts the wildly varying fates of major leaguers from one of the most famous classes of high school players

By Allen Barra

IN HIS new book, The Ticket Out—Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw, Michael Sokolove didn't set out to write a book about failure and disappointment—and in truth, despite the roster of failed baseball players, far from all of the lives chronicled here have been disappointments. He simply sought out the graduates of L.A.'s famous 1979 Crenshaw High School baseball team and let the chips fall. And where some of them fell was unfortunate. "When they didn't have any more baseball to play, it's like they got stuck," said one former Crenshaw player about his old teammates. "They didn't have the first idea of what to do with themselves."

The best-known Crenshaw High player, Darryl Strawberry, didn't seem to know what to do with his life when he was still in baseball. Strawberry was supposed to have been the next Ted Williams, and at his peak, in the mid-'80s, was probably, next to Mike Schmidt, the most valuable player in baseball. As late as 1991, when he made a brief comeback with his hometown Los Angeles Dodgers, it looked as if there was no way Strawberry could be denied the Hall of Fame. But his seemingly limitless talent was dissipated in a cloud of depression and drug abuse. "Look at any picture of Strawberry," writes Sokolove, and "it's remarkable how often it looks as if in the next instant he might cry. He is perpetually on the verge: of tears, laughter, a life-wrecking lapse, a game-breaking home run." And then there was Carl Jones, who never made it to Strawberry's level; he began to come apart psychologically and emotionally when he failed to make the major league draft. He became a crack addict and burglar. As of this writing, he is serving 25 years to life for his third break-in—of Crenshaw High School.

Happily, there are stories to counter those. Chris Brown, who was thought by many to be more talented than Strawberry, was an All-Star with the San Francisco Giants but suffered numerous injuries and from what those around him thought was "a mystifying lack of resolve." By age 28, he was out of baseball for good. George Cook, who won a baseball scholarship from the University of Arizona and dropped after a shoulder injury, lives a normal life as a Los Angeles traffic officer and also has no regrets. One of the most unusual stories is that of Reggie Dymmaly, an underachiever who pursued baseball with a passion but finally packed it in after being cut by the Milwaukee Brewers. It was time, he felt, to pursue his other great love, cooking. He graduated from the California Culinary Institute and is a professional kosher chef. All of the boys "had grown up with a notion, that baseball could somehow set things right—a vague, unexpressed but persistent hope that even if life was rigged, baseball might be fair." In an odd way, most of their lives became testament that this was more true than not. For the most part, the boys of Crenshaw learned the value of teamwork and sacrifice, qualities that sustained them when their baseball skills faded. One of the most valuable lessons they learned is that "baseball is a sport of forgiveness and opportunity," and like life itself, "your turn in the lineup keeps coming back around."

The Ticket Out—Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw, by Michael Sokolove; Simon & Schuster; 291 pages; $24.95 cloth.

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