Michael Sokolove is the author of the recent nonfiction book, The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw (click here for my review), as well as an earlier biography of Pete Rose, Hustle: The Myth, Life, and Lies of Pete Rose. Last week he was kind enough to talk with me for a while about Strawberry, Rose, and a few other things of interest. Here's part one of our conversation. Enjoy.
I wanted to start out with something that you wrote about in the introduction to the book. You said that as a boy, you were “virtually inhabited by sports.” I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about that.
Well, I just played all the time. I was a pretty good baseball player. I was a high school baseball player, I was a high school basketball player. And, you know, I was of the generation -- I’m forty-eight -- so I was watching Wide World of Sports, and we didn’t have ESPN, and I just watched all the sports there were to watch. And that’s pretty much until I realized that I wasn’t going to be a pro athlete, which there was never any remote chance of, in fact, I wasn’t that good. But, you know, until I got pretty far along, that’s all I thought about, until I was in my mid teens. I read about it, I read the sports pages, when I wasn’t playing sports, I was thinking about it all the time, and it just... I was obsessed by sports in the way that lots and lots of kids are.
BC: Was baseball any more or less loved than these other sports?
MS: Well, when I was a kid, I loved baseball more than I do now, I must admit, because it was still the preeminent sport in my mind, and in a lot of people’s minds. And I think it was a better sport, it was played in real stadiums, not retro stadiums. I grew up going to Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. It just had a grit and an authenticity to it that I loved. My own pet peeve about baseball right now is that the games used to take two hours and fifteen minutes, two hours and thirty minutes. Now as an adult, now they take three and a half hours, sometimes for a 3-2 game, and I don’t have three and a half hours. Maybe I did when I was a kid, I don’t now. And I’m the kind of person who sees a game, each game, whether it’s baseball or any game, as like a narrative, a story with a beginning, middle, and an end, so I’m not really very satisfied watching a couple of innings. Watching a couple of innings or part of game is never very interesting for me, so therefore I have to have three and a half hours, and I don’t much anymore.
BC: That’s been a criticism of baseball in the playoffs especially, that the game slows down even more than it is in the regular season. Do you feel like you’re more likely to watch a game in the playoffs, even with that length of time?
MS: Well, I’m a little more likely, but the time is an issue. Because, yes, they do take longer, and they go so late at night, and I honestly don’t know who can watch a game until past midnight. Now of course, you guys on the west coast are lucky, they don’t go that late. On the east coast, who the hell can watch a game that late? A lot of people blame the commercials, I blame the players. It’s mostly, you know, wristband adjusting, crotch adjusting, all the twitching and mannerisms takes longer than the damn commercials. And all the throwing to first base, and all the trips to the mound, and all the double switches. I feel like the game has lost the flow that it had. It’s always said that baseball’s played without a clock... but you can’t take advantage of it. (Laughing) But this is just my pet peeve.
BC: I can see that.
MS: Yeah, no kidding.
BC: So also in that introduction you were writing about, and you mentioned earlier, a love for reading stories in the sports section. Do you think that’s what led you to your eventual career?
MS: Yes, I do. Because I read some beautiful writers. I was really lucky to have grown up in Philadelphia. So, I read the Philadelphia Daily News, which was a great sports section, I read the Philadelphia Bulletin, which had a writer named Sandy Grady, who moved on to political writing, who was an unbelievable writer. And these were people who all had some vision and knowledge of not only sports but how sports fit into a larger context. And when I was young, Dick Allen, who we called Richie Allen in Philadelphia, was just coming up in Philadelphia, and there was a great racial and social drama watching Richie Allen’s career. He was mistreated by Philadelphia fans, who displayed quite a lot of bigotry, and Philadelphia fans were the ones who were hardest on Jackie Robinson, it’s a tough town. And I was incensed by that, and I think at that point I made some equation between sports and racial and social justice -- that drama is often played out in sports, in sort of subtle or not so subtle ways.
BC: You also mentioned that you spent a year as a beat writer in the National League. I was wondering, which team were you covering, and when was that, and what was that whole experience like?
MS: That was the 1987 Cincinnati Reds that I covered, one year, and it was for complicated career reasons, which I won’t want to bore you with. I wanted to go from the Philadelphia Daily News to the Philadelphia Inquirer, and for some very complicated and boring reasons, I had to go somewhere for a year, and I decided, hey, I’ll cover baseball for a year, so I did. And you know, I loved the baseball. I have to admit there were lots of parts of the experience I didn’t love. I didn’t love the clique of baseball writers. I had friends among those baseball writers, I found them as a mass of people, you know, in a group, as sort of not the most pleasant group to hang out with. They sort of replicated the cliques of the clubhouse. You were sort of in or you were out, and it wasn’t that much fun.
BC: I actually teach middle school.
MS: Oh, really? What do you teach?
BC: I teach English and reading, and my wife does as well, at the same school, and we talk often about how what we see in our students, and their middle school type behavior, is really replicated in almost every phase of life. And what you were saying about the writers’s being very cliquish kind of reminded me of that.
MS: Well you are a brave man to teach middle school.
BC: You know, that’s what people say, but it’s really so much fun. Every day is just an awful lot of fun... In your time as a beat writer, I would think that an experience like that, being so close to the game, maybe even too close to the game, could really influence your opinion of baseball. Do you think that that did one way or another?
MS: I still loved the game, it was the year that Eric Davis had this magical year where he really did look like he was the next Willie Mays...
BC: Right, he had seventy stolen bases, right? Something like that?
MS: Yeah, he was wonderful, he was magical, and I enjoyed going out to the park every day and seeing Eric Davis play. I did get a close-up view at the narrow-mindedness and backwardness of baseball, and it is socially in so many ways the most backward sport. Now some of that is really charming, you know, it’s what makes baseball quaint. But when you get beyond the quaintness, you see some real bigotry, and it was a surprise to me how much of it remained. You know, sort of, closed to new thinking, whether the thinking is about baseball or anything. I mean, I have to admit, I didn’t love all the baseball folks, whether it was the players, or the coaches, or the managers They’re in a bad mood all the time. There’s no two ways about it. (Laughing.)
BC: I’m curious where your interest first came in Darryl Strawberry, specifically, and also this ‘79 Crenshaw team.
MS: Well, I was asked by my editors at the New York Times Magazine to write a profile of Strawberry, and that profile appeared in the Spring of 2001. Quite frankly, it was a great career thing for me. I had just left the Philadelphia Inquirer, and I was writing for a new publication, and it was a cover story. Sometimes as a writer you sort of hit it on the fat part of the bat, and that only happens every once in a while, and this, I did feel like was a good story. And I had offers from book publishers to write a profile of Darryl Strawberry, and I said, you know, actually no. I just wrote this 7500-word profile of Darryl Strawberry, and I don’t see where I would like to expand that into a 100,000-word biography. But then, sort of collaboratively with the publisher Simon&Schuster, we came up with the idea of going back and not doing Darryl, but doing Darryl as just one character in this larger book that would center around this great high school baseball team at Crenshaw. So it was sort of collaborative, and that was much more attractive to me, because it was something new. It was something new, I knew a little bit about it, and I think a lot of us who do journalism are attracted by the new. You know, you keep on moving on, and I hate to go back over old ground. So this was new ground, and it became much more interesting.
BC: So Strawberry, of course, is the name that everyone knows, but his performance on the field during that year, 1979, and I guess the subsequent year, didn’t completely overshadow his teammates, as someone might think, did they?
MS: No, and it’s an interesting lesson in sports. He wasn’t the best player on that team. Chris Brown was undoubtedly the best player on that team. It’s possible that Reggie Dymally was a better high school player, it’s possible that Cordie Dillard was a better high school player. But people in pro sports, as small-minded as they may be, they are not stupid about what they do, and they recognized correctly that whatever Darryl was in high school, in relation to the other great players on his team, at six foot five, and not even having gotten close to growing into that frame, and with all the strength that he would gain, he was the great pro prospect. You know, he had the physical package, and they were absolutely right about that. But as a high school player, he was just one among many. So the pro guys were right about his potential. What they didn’t know was what his high school teammates knew. They couldn’t have put words onto it at the time, but they knew that Darryl was sort of chipped up emotionally, that he didn’t really have the right stuff. And they knew that as any teammates would know of their teammates. You get a sense of someone’s competitive nature, and they knew that Darryl’s was flawed.
BC: One thing that was mentioned in your book was yes, Chris Brown was a better player. I almost got a feeling that there was, and tell if I’m wrong please, something in between resentment and jealousy of Strawberry, not necessarily in the mistakes that he’s made since leaving Crenshaw, but even at the time. Was there anything like that?
MS: No, you’re not wrong at all. You know, Darryl and Chris recognized themselves as the two big dogs, and Darryl’s personality wasn’t such that he’d have a lot of envy over that. Darryl had other problems -- it probably wasn’t any big deal to Darryl. But Chris sniffed this out right away. He felt always very competitive with Darryl, and even to this day won’t really quite give it up, you know? He’s still pissed off about some stuff. When they retired Darryl’s number, he was like, “Why didn’t you retire my damn number?” And on and on and on, I mean, like two brothers.
BC: So how many players, roughly, from that ‘79 team were drafted?
MS: When all was said and done, I’m gonna try and remember, when all was said and done, I believe it was a dozen. That includes guys like Marvin McWhorter, who got drafted after a couple years of college or junior college ball. It includes Lee Mays, who was a pitcher and wasn’t really in the book because he was the one guy who wouldn’t talk to me, for reasons I never have understood. But twelve, when all was said and done.
BC: That’s pretty amazing.
MS: Yeah, that really is.
BC: One other thing about Strawberry. I actually watched him a lot during his various tours of duty with the Yankees, and it was always amazing to me how impressive he still was. The fact that this broken down, 34-, 35-, 36-year-old guy could still have such an incredibly quick bat, could still influence a game while he’s sitting on the bench. What could Darryl have been, and besides the obvious, why didn’t he get there?
MS: I mean he could’ve had, I’m gonna say 600 home runs. Because in his era, it wasn’t possible for...
BC: People weren’t hitting fifty, sixty home runs.
MS: They weren’t hitting home runs, for whatever reason, the size of the ballparks, the ball, the pitching. But I’m gonna say somewhere between 500 and 600 easily, and plus all the drama that he brought. He could’ve been everything that people had hoped for, there’s no doubt. He didn’t lack a damn thing physically. And what happened? I don’t know. He was distinctly not suited to compete at that level. He had almost like a product flaw, and that product flaw was that that sort of inner core that you need, that sort of selfish core that pushes everything else away so that you can do your work as an athlete. On a scale of one to ten, the guy who’s got the ten on that is Michael Jordan, but there are variations. You don’t have to be Michael Jordan. But Darryl had like a zero. That thing that makes you selfish in the best way in sports, Darryl didn’t have it at all. It’s like he came without it, so that he right from the start let everything in that distracted him. And it wasn’t just drugs, or drinking. It was everything.
BC: You mentioned Michael Jordan, and I’ve always kind of felt that these individuals like Michael Jordan, like Tiger Woods, who are the most talented at what they do and also are working harder than everyone else, I guess when you put that along side Darryl’s story, it’s almost easier for me to see people ending up like Strawberry than working. I mean, if you’re the most talented kid you’ve ever seen, I guess it’s easy for me to see how you could develop some lazy habits and be satisfied with that.
MS: I guess, and there are areas in between. There’s a part, not a part -- there’s a large part -- of Jordan and Tiger Woods that are just really pricks, that aren’t very nice people, that aren’t very giving people. And Darryl, when he was at his worst, could be that person. He could be a prick. But I don’t know anybody who would generally describe that as Darryl. You know, I mean he wasn’t that mostly. He was just like a confused, you know, puppy dog is more like it.
BC: In your time spent with Darryl, what was your prevailing attitude, I guess? Did you feel sorry for him, did you condemn him for his choices, were you wistful for what could have been?
MS: All of the above. You know mostly, I don’t condemn him. The part that makes me angriest about Darryl is when starts mouthing the platitudes that he’s heard in drug rehab or church, and that’s probably a bad thing for me to say, but... Darryl’s of average intelligence, but hasn’t really made the most out of the intelligence that he has, so Darryl is attuned to any language that he hears that takes any sort of responsibility away from himself. So if somebody in church says “it’s all in God’s hands,” Darryl takes that to an extreme that even many people of faith would find inappropriate. When Darryl says “it’s all in God’s hands,” Darryl is saying that you know, “I’m not really responsible for my own actions,” and he hasn’t been, basically. And I hope now, at forty-whatever he is, that maybe things are gonna go okay for him for a while. But that’s been Darryl’s problem. “Not my fault,” in various ways. And I do get angry at that.
** Click here for Part 2.