Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw

By Michael Sokolove. Simon & Schuster. 291 pp. $24.95


Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball and What They See When They Do

By Michael Mandelbaum. Public Affairs. 332 pp. $26

Michael Sokolove knows a good story when he sees one, and the tale he tells in The Ticket Out about the often sorrowful lives of Darryl Strawberry and his high school baseball teammates is powerful indeed.

Sokolove, who also recognizes a good template when he sees one, has patterned his book after Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer. Whereas Kahn's classic examined the lives of Jackie Robinson and his fellow Brooklyn Dodgers, during and after baseball, The Ticket Out explores the fates of the players on the 1979 Crenshaw High School baseball team, which one professional scout called "the best I ever saw." In fact, Strawberry, who would hit 335 major league home runs, wasn't even the best player on his high school team. That honor went to Reggie Dymally, now a kosher chef, who bested Strawberry as the most valuable player of Los Angeles city schools' Western League in 1980.

In the end, however, it was Strawberry's destiny to become the team's most famous member. Sokolove recounts the familiar tale -- most of which was played out in New York City's harsh spotlight -- of how Strawberry's skills ultimately succumbed to a chaotic personal life that included drinking, drugs, prostitutes, tax troubles, jail time and, on top of everything else, a bout with cancer. "I never had a problem hitting," Strawberry said. "I had a problem living."

But Sokolove's book is most captivating when revealing the fate of Strawberry's Crenshaw teammates, many of whom suffered just as much as he did, although their woes were private. "I didn't have to have the whole world watching me mess up my life," said Cordie Dillard, Crenshaw's second baseman. He still regrets never making the major leagues after he was booted off a minor league team for an incident involving a stolen credit card. "I let something get away from me in my life that I really wanted," he lamented. Today, Dillard has a good-paying job in his family's business. Other former Crenshaw players were not so lucky. When catcher Carl Jones lost baseball, he lost everything else, too. He went undrafted following high school and eventually became hooked on crack. After a long downward spiral, Jones received a harsh sentence under the three-strikes law in California, where he will remain in prison until at least 2019. Sokolove makes a long, impassioned argument against this draconian law. Although convincing, this pamphleteering seems misplaced and detrimental to the narrative.

That, however, is one of the few missteps in this lovingly researched book, which demonstrates that, in Sokolove's words, "Sports does indeed uplift. But it also distracts, disappoints, and holds out false hope."

Michael Mandelbaum's The Meaning of Sports offers some insight into why none of the Crenshaw teammates was able to pass baseball on to his children. (It's certainly not because the athletic genes skipped a generation: Strawberry's son plays basketball for the University of Maryland, and George Cook, another Crenshaw teammate, has a son playing basketball for Georgetown University.) Mandelbaum believes that baseball has lost its four-seam grip on the American psyche because it is essentially an agrarian game trying to survive in a society dominated by urban areas like east Los Angeles. An international relations expert who has written several books on foreign policy, Mandelbaum attempts to explain why baseball, football and basketball jumped from being "minor pastimes to major national institutions" over the course of the 20th century. In his explanations, he alludes to the French Revolution, Shakespeare and Freud in prose that is, for the most part, colloquial and readable. Mandelbaum sees baseball as a pastoral game that rose to prominence in the 1920s when many city dwellers longed for the not-so-distant past of an agrarian world. In his view, it no longer owns the American imagination because it does not reflect the breakneck pace of modern society.

At the same time, the game's link to the past makes it difficult for major league baseball to alter the rules to appeal to today's audiences, as it attempted to do when it introduced the designated hitter in 1973. That kind of change, Mandelbaum argues, "violated baseball's promise of changelessness." As factories spread to every corner of the country by the 1960s, football began to take prominence because it better reflected an industrialized America, he writes. With its 60 minutes of playing time, football reflects a fast-paced world where time is money.

Football also reflects the industrial corporation, because it is less about individual skills than synchronization as a team. Mandelbaum differentiates between football and baseball this way: Baseball is "a sequence of individual acts. . . . football consists of a sequence of collective acts." Football also reflects the corporation's hierarchical structure, with coaches as the CEOs or generals of the game.

But football's military character may be a drawback in current American culture, according to Mandelbaum: The Vietnam War and violence on the country's streets have led to a "diminishing willingness to tolerate, let alone admire, violence," he writes. The argument is not entirely convincing, especially because this country has made icons of "The Sopranos" and World Wrestling Entertainment.

When Magic Johnson and Larry Bird joined the National Basketball Association in 1979, basketball emerged as a legitimate rival to football and baseball. Mandelbaum theorizes that basketball's spontaneous creativity and continuous flow mirrors the post-industrial society, suggesting that the way the five players interact on the court resembles a computer "network" of the sort created in Silicon Valley. An interesting read overall, The Meaning of Sports occasionally bogs down in an unnecessary recounting of American sports history. The book's very existence presupposes that sports are important in American society, so there's no need to explain the significance of Babe Ruth's home runs or Michael Jordan's dunks. But when Mandelbaum is explaining how the games men play reflect the society we live in, he is at his best. *

Sean Callahan is media editor at Crain Communications' BtoB and Media Business magazines.