Baseball Tragedy Revisited
Don points out an interesting article about Daryl Strawberry’s sordid slide.
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Michael Sokolove, Baseball’s “Poet of Tears”, Makes Us
Get Out Our Hankies for Darryl Strawberry
Sunday newspaper magazines, by and large, are disappointments, promising in-depth features that more often than not are as flat as a week-old can of Coke. I haven’t bothered to look into it, but I’d venture to say that the New York Times probably invented the format, sometime in the late fifties when advertising first came of age and the newspaper folks decided they shouldn’t cheat themselves out of the revenue available from four-color ads.
The New York Times is still The New York Times, however, and while their Sunday newsmagazine can be as dismally flat as any’s, they have a better batting average than most. (We’ll leave it to the more hardcore of you to quibble over their OBP and SLG.) This last week (April 15th), they hit a grand slam when Michael Sokolove (author of the highly regarded Hustle, a tough but tender expose of Pete Rose) gave us an updated look at the tattered, tawdry, and tragically tentacled life of Darryl Strawberry (“An American Tragedy”).
Sokolove has brought an epic sweep to his essay which compares favorably to the novel of the same name by Theodore Dreiser. However, it becomes clear in the details of Sokolove’s narrative that Darryl Strawberry’s epic self-destruction is also a closet drama, an intimate, intricate web of inarticulable emotions and invisible gaps that suddenly opened up into a yawning abyss. In Sokolove’s masterful hands, Darryl Strawberry emerges as Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones with deer-in-the-headlight eyes, a player whose swagger was only in the eye of the beholder.
Baseball breeds hyperbole the way swamps breed mosquitoes, and Sokolove’s article is filled with such testimonials from baseball insiders. At 18, Strawberry was called “the black Ted Williams” by scouts. Dave Johnson suggests that had he not fallen so hard and so fast, Strawberry would have hit 600 home runs. Everyone agrees that Darryl managed to destroy a Hall of Fame career.
In this instance, the numbers do tend to bear out much of this. When he was 29, Strawberry had already hit 280 homers in the big leagues. At the time, that ranked him 11th in baseball history:
Most HRs Through Age 29 (as of 1995)
1. Jimmie Foxx 379
2. Mickey Mantle 374
3. Eddie Mathews 370
4. Hank Aaron 342
Mel Ott 342
6. Frank Robinson 324
7. Harmon Killebrew 297
8. Ralph Kiner 294
9. Johnny Bench 287
10. Babe Ruth 284
11. Darryl Strawberry 280
12. Willie Mays 279
13. Jose Canseco 276
Duke Snider 276
15. Ernie Banks 269
16. Orlando Cepeda 268
Rocky Colavito 268
18. Lou Gehrig 267
19. Barry Bonds 259
Boog Powell 259
(Two players in the 90s, Ken Griffey Jr. and Juan Gonzalez have since eclipsed Darryl’s totals through age 29, dropping him to 13th all-time).
Eight of the ten men in front of Darryl on the list hit 500+ homers in their careers, and all ten men were elected to the Hall of Fame.
Sokolove is eloquent in his simplicity, as the following paragraph demonstrates:
His inventory of troubles over the last decade has been staggering; knee and back surgeries; arrestrs for spousal abuse (no charges were filed); criminal charges for failure to pay child support (he settled that case in 1996 by turning over $206,000, most of his signing bonus with the Yankees); a federal conviction for tax evasion; serial episodes of substance abuse. It’s hard to say what is the greater marvel: that Strawberry laid waste to his career or that he managed to have one at all. “I never had a problem hitting,” Strawberry says. “I had a problem living.”
Living, at least for much longer, may be a costly luxury for Darryl: his colon cancer, first discovered and operated on in October 1998, resurfaced and was operated on again last August. The median survival rate for patients with recurring colon cancer, as Sokolove notes, is 14-16 months.
Sokolove edges somewhat nervously toward New York Post territory in his interview sequence with ex-wife Lisa Strawberry: the stats he presents (alimony documentation) come off as somewhat unseemly in the midst of this gently brutal honesty. But it is a short digression, and Sokolove is soon back on firm ground, recounting this most slippery and parlous of American tragedies.
The article is indelible due to its compassion (and in this context we can even forgive Sokolove for indulging in a little New York chauvinism, expressing the quaint and questionable notion that the New York sports world, the chew-‘em-up-and-spit-‘em-out hellhole of legend, was the perfect psychic environment for Darryl due to the tenderness in its secret heart of herats). It is riveting due to its relentless drive toward the stillness within the turmoil, the terrible inarticulate secret of Darryl Strawberry’s self-destruction.
I hope that Sokolove will one day wander west, to delve into a mysterious left coast baseball tragedy of more modest proportions, but one that might well be a more spectacular example of a life spun suddenly out of control. I’m referring to Padres’ pitcher Eric Show, whose mysterious drug-related demise is mysterious in large part due to the purported rectitude of his political/moral affiliations. In one sense, what has happened to Darryl Strawberry is simply a standard tragedy writ large; what happened to Eric Show is some odd occlusion of forces that evoke the ethos of a Hitchcock movie.
Until he does that, however, seek out this article, either in print, at the Times web page, or (down the road apiece) in book form when it is inevitably included in a collection of 2001’s best sportswriting. Thank you, Michael, for your finely chiseled poetry of tears. We can only hope that Darryl Strawberry will be able to find peace in his life before the bottom of the ninth.
Posted: April 18, 2001 at 06:00 AM | 1 comment(s)
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