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Crenshaw Team’s Story Is Sad Reading

This week marks the 25th anniversary of Crenshaw High’s baseball team reaching the City Section championship game at Dodger Stadium. No team from South Los Angeles has made it since.

Nine players from that Cougar team were drafted by professional teams. Darryl Strawberry and Chris Brown became All-Stars but the rest never reached the majors.

A new book titled “The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw,” explores the role of sports in the African American community and documents the price paid by teenagers who seemingly devote every day of their lives to the dream of becoming professional athletes, only to have no Plan B if they fail.

Author Michael Sokolove asks a haunting question: “If playing sports is a means, what happens when it ends?”

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The book examines life in South Los Angeles, the good and the bad. It chronicles what happened to the players after high school, revealing their addictions, their debts, their troubles with the law.

Strawberry, the most famous of the Crenshaw players, leads the way in a perplexing story about unfulfilled potential.

He was the first pick in the 1980 amateur draft by the New York Mets. He was an eight-time All-Star, won World Series titles with the Mets and New York Yankees and hit 335 home runs in the major leagues.

He also abused alcohol, drugs and women. He went into debt despite earning millions of dollars.

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“I never had a problem hitting,” Strawberry said. “I had a problem living.”

Strawberry had colon cancer and a kidney removed. He comes off as a likable, confused individual who could have ended up in the Hall of Fame but didn’t know how to deal with fame or fortune.

Most intriguing is reading about the courses lives took after high school for the Crenshaw players. All have reached the age of 42 or older.

One is a plumber. One is in the Navy. One is in Folsom Prison serving a 25-years-to-life sentence because of California’s three strikes law. One is a chef who cooks Kosher meals.

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There are disturbing elements in all their stories, bringing up the question of whether sports helped or hurt them.

To me, the most intriguing player on the Crenshaw team was Brown. He deserved to have his school uniform retired more than Strawberry because he was the better high school player. He became an All-Star in his first year with the San Francisco Giants, only to have his pro career fizzle because of injuries and communication conflicts.

Brown did things his own way. He was taught right from wrong at an early age.

In the book, he proudly says, “I’m the only one of us from Crenshaw, at least that I know of, that has never drank or smoked. There’s not been one morning in my 42 years that I have gotten up that I was drunk or doped up.”

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He lives in a suburb of Houston, is married with two children and used to operate a $7-million crane. Lately, he has been driving an 18-wheel diesel truck for Halliburton in Iraq.

He is a success story without baseball. There are other Crenshaw teammates who are seemingly doing well.

But others didn’t take education seriously, so when baseball ended, their lives were thrown into turmoil.

There’s an illusion among parents and teenagers that the only ticket out is through professional sports, but the reality is that academics open that door. There is far more money available for academic scholarships than for athletic scholarships.

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Asked whether sports helped or hurt the Boys of Crenshaw, Sokolove said, “It helped them for a while because they loved it and played with great joy. But ultimately, it became something else they had to overcome because they invested so much of themselves and it ended before they ever imagined it would. A part of them died when they lost baseball and some of them never did recover.”

As for the 1979 Crenshaw team, Sokolove says scouts believe it was “the most talented team in the history of high school baseball.”

That’s a far-fetched conclusion, since Crenshaw lost in the City title game to Granada Hills and John Elway.

But there has never been a team from South Los Angeles that hit the ball as well as Crenshaw, and there may never be another one like it because basketball has replaced baseball as the favorite sport among African American athletes.

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Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.


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