Michael Sokolove






Warrior Girls

 

 

 

Michael SokoloveA Conversation with Michael Sokolove

1. Many veteran scouts and agents thought the 1979 Crenshaw High school varsity baseball team was the best high school baseball team of all time. What was it about this team that gained them such renown?

The remarkable thing about the Crenshaw High Cougars of 1979 is that many of Darryl Strawberry's teammates believed he was not the team's best player, and they may well have been right. When you consider that Strawberry had true Hall of Fame talent, that gives you some idea of the abilities of the rest of these players. Now, in all fairness, Darryl had more potential than any of the rest of these young players -?he was six-feet-four (on his way to six-foot-six), sinewy, strong and in possession of this pure, slugger's uppercut -?but at that particular moment, there were two or three or four more accomplished ballplayers on that team. So the scouts descended in droves to Crenshaw's inner-city L.A. diamond.

2. There's a widely believed myth in our society that sports is a means of salvation, and that myth is particularly strong in the African-American community. The Boys of Crenshaw believed in it deeply. You write, "Baseball was their defined path and their vision of the future, not a choice but a destiny." To what extent is the myth of sports as salvation true and not true?

Well, it's true in the sense that if sports truly built character -?if it instilled discipline and motivation and all the things we need in life -?then it would be a means to salvation. And sometimes it really works that way. A kid without a lot else positive in his life finds a youth or high school coach, and he can be a savior ? those people really are out there, and some kids grab on to them like a lifeline. But where we go wrong is this sense that sports can raise a kid -?it can give him a mother, a father, a sense of self, armor against the drug dealers and the temptations of the streets -?and usually it can't do those things because it is, after all, only baseball. It is, at base, a diversion. So when we expect it to serve all these other purposes, that's expecting a lot, and most times it can't deliver all we hope.

3. Why does the dream of pro sports success remain so powerful in the black community, despite the long odds against it?

One person I respect in sports, more than anyone I know, is John Chaney, the old, cranky, cantankerous coach of the Temple University basketball team in Philadelphia. And one of his favorite phrases is: "Kids see what's right in front of their faces." Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw went to high school in a fascinating community, in a sociological sense. On a hillside right above the high school was this neighborhood known as the "black Beverly Hills," filled with entertainers, doctors, lawyers and business types. And if those parents would have sent their kids down the hill to go to high school at Crenshaw, the men I wrote about, these marvelous high school athletes, would have had some vision of success outside of sports. But the parents from up on the hill sent their children elsewhere. So Strawberry, and the others, knew several pro athletes who had gone to high school at Crenshaw -?and some of them had older brothers and cousins who played minor league ball or big-time college sports -?but they knew not one black doctor or lawyer or the children of any of them. So like John Chaney says: they saw what was right in front of their faces. And what that looked like was that if you wanted to be successful, sports was the only way.

4. This book was inspired by an article you wrote about Darryl Strawberry for The New York Times Magazine. Then you wanted to find out more about where he came from, and what happened to his teammates. How talented a player do you think Darryl Strawberry really was? How far below his potential did he fall?

Sadly, Darryl was every bit as good as the scouts and the writers said he was. They made no misjudgment. He was a pure thoroughbred, in physical ability the equal of probably anyone you can name -?Mays, Aaron, Bonds, Mantle. But he lacked the courage that great athletes have -?the courage to close everything else out, to push himself, and to find out what his true potential was. I think he was scared to find out whether he was as good as people said. Darryl came out of L.A. as damaged goods ? he was a broken product, beautiful on the outside, but with interior wiring that just didn't work right. A lot of that had to do with his family, and with the neighborhood where he grew up. He saw too few examples of real striving. Truly great athletes, the Michael Jordans and Cal Ripkens, are never satisfied -?Darryl was easily satisfied. He was too pleased with a level of on-field success that was far below what he could have achieved.

And he didn't value his own gifts, his money, his career. Like I said, sports can't raise a kid. Nobody thought to help Darryl because he appeared to have so much, to be so gloriously gifted -?but in fact, he was doomed from the moment he left Crenshaw because he just wasn't ready to go out into the world of bigtime sports and to deliver what everyone expected of him.

5. Chris Brown also became a major league All-Star, but he only lasted six years with the Giants. What happened to him?

Chris is a fascinating guy -? gloriously talented, in some ways a better all-around athlete than Darryl. (They played together in the 1986 All-Star Game in Houston, a pretty remarkable accomplishment for high school teammates to take up two places on a National League team.) But Chris couldn't get along in pro baseball. In some ways, he had the opposite problem as Darryl -?he was a prude, no drinking, no drugs, the whole 1980s baseball scene seemed to shut him down. The word in baseball was that Chris wouldn't play hurt, that he was somehow not tough or manly. He was called Chis "Downtime" Brown. He left baseball prematurely, and made his living operating a huge crane in Houston. Now, he's driving an 18-wheeler, in Baghdad, working as a civilian employee of Halibourton. So that tells me Chris is a pretty tough guy, a brave guy, but that his values and the values of pro sports did not mesh. There are some very sad stories in the book about Chris -?the one that sticks with me how the scout who originally signed him, George Genovese, came upon him playing in this Sunday league in L.A. -?it's like pickup baseball -?and Chris could still flatout play. And Genovese said to him, "Chris, what are you doing here?" And as he walked away, he said, "If you were 10 years younger, I'd sign you again."

6. Carl Jones is perhaps the saddest story of all the Boys of Crenshaw. He never got drafted by the pros, although he was every bit as good a player as many of the guys who did. Then he fell into a life of drug addiction and nonviolent crime, and he's now serving a life sentence under California's "three strikes" law. What does Jones's story tell us?

It tells us that life can be really harsh, and that with all the progress we've made in this country, it is still damn hard to grow up poor and black in America. Carl got dealt a couple of tough breaks, the big one being that he was not drafted into pro ball. He was a smart, gritty as hell, tough catcher, but nearly all his teammates went off to play pro ball while he got left home. And he didn't handle that well at all. He fell into drugs, and crime -?non-violent crime -?br> to support his habit. The three crimes that earned him the life term were: breaking and entering, no one home; breaking and entering, no one home; and, for some bizarre reason, breaking into Crenshaw High, his old high school, and stealing, at most, a pair of shoes. I visited Carl at Folsom State Prison. I have become close to him. He calls me about once a week. He talks to my kids. I wish there was something I could do for him. He has not lived an exemplary life, but he doesn't deserve to be locked away. I know for sure that if he grew up in the neighborhood I live in now, basically, comfortable suburbia, and he lost his way in his mid-20s, he would have found help, not jail.

7. What happened to some of the other Boys of Crenshaw?

They've gone in lots of different directions, and some of them were not easy to find. I enjoyed that part of it, actually -?tracking them all down. One guy who everybody had lost touch with, Reggie Dymally, I found one mention of on Google. It turned out he had become a Kosher chef, and he ended up cooking at the Kabala Center in L.A. -?sort of New Age Judaism, and he was cooking for Madonna, among others.

There was a set of twins on the team, the McNealy boys, and I found them in this godforsaken corner of Las Vegas, at 40 years old, living with their parents and sharing a bedroom. They had both played pro ball, but it didn't go well and they have struggled since. I found another guy, Nelson Whiting, stationed at a Navy base in a desolate area of Nevada, a real moonscape -?he basically went into the military to escape the streets of L.A. Nelson was a very talented musician, and the amazing thing is that he is still writing music, selling it, and having it played on the radio, even as he goes about this very humdrum military career.

8. How much of a factor was racial inequity in what happened to some of the Crenshaw team, and how much was their own doing?

It was a mix of both, as you might imagine. Many of them did not seize opportunities, and they made poor choices. But they grew up largely without examples of people who assertively made life choices -?in the world they knew, things just happened to people. So when they went out into the world, they were vulnerable to these larger forces. The guys I wrote about were big, powerful athletes, but in many other ways, they were passive. They did not feel powerful, in control, or confident. And I attribute that to poverty and a certain amount of racism.

9. When we look at pro sports, particularly basketball and football, we see teams dominated by black athletes. But you say that baseball is still predominantly a white culture, and that in fact the number of American black baseball players is getting steadily smaller. Why is that? Do you see this trend as tragic in some way? Were the Boys of Crenshaw the last of a dying breed of outstanding black baseball players?

Yes, in some ways they were the last of a breed -?the last wave of truly great, inner-city black athletes who wanted, more than anything, to play baseball. And there's certainly an element of tragedy in that. Jackie Robinson is, by any measure, a seminal figure in American history. He fought with great dignity, and paid an emotional price for the right of America's black population to play Major League Baseball. So for black kids to turn their back on baseball is tragic. I also am among those baseball diehards who believe that it truly is the American game and that it represents and signifies some things about this country that the other sports do not. Jackie Robinson certainly felt that way -?he believed that black Americans could not be full citizens until they had full access to what was then called America's Pasttime.

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10. The history of African-Americans in Los Angeles is a very particular and fascinating one. When did African-Americans first start coming to L.A. in large numbers? What did they find and build there?

I became very interested in the black migration to Southern California in the course of researching this book. It's a story not as well known as the great migration to New York, Chicago and the other older cities -?and the experience was in many ways different. The big migration to L.A. occurred before, during and just after World War II; there was a huge demand for labor in war-related industries, especially in aircraft manufacturing, and many African Americans filled those jobs. Blacks tended to have the same idealized vision of California that whites did -?that it was a paradise, fruit trees everywhere, constant sunshine. And the tricky thing is that it really did present itself that way. Even now, if you take a walk through South Central L.A. you might be surprised to see that even the poorest residents have little lawns with flowers, and they have a car and a driveway. It looks nothing like the South Bronx, say, or North Philly. But the overt discrimination was extreme -?Southern California, until the early 1960s, operated under a sort of West Coast version of Jim Crow laws. Blacks could only live in certain neighborhoods. They were not welcome on most beaches. They couldn't swim in public swimming pools until the last day of the season, before the water was drained. That was the life known to the parents of the men I wrote about. By 1979, overt discrimination had been replaced by a kind of isolation -?the Boys of Crenshaw lived in one of the richest, most cosmopolitan cities in the world, but stayed in their little enclave, never went to museums, did not go to the beach, and only experienced the glitzy side of L.A. as most other Americans did -?via TV.

11. The team's talented coach, Brooks Hurst, was a white man with a remarkable ability to work with young black players. What were his successes and what were his failures?

Brooks was, first of all, a wonderful coach. He was passionate about the game and demanded that his kids play it the right way. They were lucky to have him. But Brooks Hurst was also a fairly young man at the time, one who had experienced his own problems and disappointments, and had some bitterness of his own. He was a little turbulent himself. I found Brooks to be a fascinating, complex character, and like nearly all of his players, quite willing to look inward and make honest assessments. Brooks knows now that in some ways he would have been a better coach for these kids, on a psychological level, maybe 10 or 15 years down the line, when he had come to terms with some things himself.

12. How did you research this book?

I researched the book by traveling repeatedly to Los Angeles and establishing relationships, and ultimately friendships, with the men I wrote about. I can't tell you how generous they were with their time and insights, how grateful I am to them, and how honored I feel to have been able to tell their stories. I remember one warm day sitting under a cloudless sky in the bleachers at Crenshaw High and talking to Reggie Dymally for probably three hours. Then Chris Brown drove up, and we talked for probably another hour. And then Reggie and I drove off to a joint on Crenshaw Boulevard and sat outside and ate these big overstuffed sandwiches, and talked some more, as this parade of humanity passed by on foot and all these low-rider cars, music booming from their speakers, rolled along the avenue. So the research never felt like work. It consisted of dwelling in the world of my characters, and I really loved it.

13. Finally, what does the story of the Boys of Crenshaw tell us about both inner-city America and the American Dream?

It tells us that the dream is as powerful, or even more so, than ever. People see great displays of wealth and comfort -?on MTV's "Cribs"; rolling down the street in the form of some drug dealer's car -?and they want that life. In the inner city, there is less trust that the dream is attained through education, patience and work; this is why you see extraordinarily long lines at the lottery counter in the cities, with people buying dozens of tickets at a time. The dream of making it in sports is a lottery, too, offering long odds but the possibility of a big payoff. Darryl Strawberry won that lottery but squandered his winnings. The rest of my characters had to come to terms with life a little sooner. Most, but not all of them, made successes of themselves, if you define that not by wealth but by living life with a quiet dignity and becoming good men. I felt that their voices were the ones that really enlivened this book, partly because they are so rarely heard.
 


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Michael Sokolove
author of The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw
and Warrior Girls
A contributing writer to The New York Times
Copyright ?2004-2013 Michael Sokolove

Drama High
to be released September 2013

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