Baseball's 'Doc' Gooden Pitches A Cautionary Tale
For New York Mets fans, 1986 was a glorious year. The Mets won an epic seven-game World Series against the Boston Red Sox.
Millions turned out for a raucous parade through Lower Manhattan the next day. One man conspicuously absent from the celebrations was Dwight Gooden, the Mets' 21-year-old star pitcher, who had a blistering fastball and nasty curve.
Where was he? Not riding triumphantly through the Canyon of Heroes. He was alone in his apartment with the curtains closed — flattened after a sleepless night spent snorting cocaine and drinking in a sketchy housing project.
That's how Gooden's book, Doc: A Memoir, begins. The moment highlights a life and career of stunning highs and harrowing lows.
In 1985, Gooden said he felt almost like an "entertainer" out on the field with all the praise. But by 1986, the pressure became overwhelming.
"Unfortunately, in '86 is when the expectations became more than I could really handle. ... If I only had three strikeouts, the first question ... after the game [would be], 'What happened?' " he tells NPR's Melissa Block. "So my next game, I would go out there and try to get 10 strikeouts, pitch a complete game and pitch a shutout."
It was too much. He became addicted to cocaine and would go on three-day binges. "Luckily," he says, "my heart didn't explode."
"I still feel I'm here for a purpose, and that's part of the reason why I wanted to do this book," he says. "It's great therapy for myself, and to help others who might be going through similar situations that I went through or may have a family member or a friend that might be going through different situations."
Cocaine was only one on a list of transgressions: He spent time in prison and faced numerous charges. But Gooden says there's still a reason for old fans to retain their admiration of him.
"I'm being honest. I'm standing up, admitting my mistakes. It's on their time to forgive me or if they want to forgive me," he says. "Now it's not about me just talking about recovery, but actually living recovery and doing things to help others."
Gooden says that as of March, he's been sober for two years. But he has relapsed in the past. So why is it different now?
"I can't guarantee what's going to happen next week or next year. It's a lifelong commitment, and I'm in it now. I feel good about myself, at peace within myself," he says. "And the main thing is I don't carry any guilt and the shame that I had before that kept leading [me] back to ... self-destruction. You know, everything is great today and that's all I can guarantee is that I'm clean and sober today."
His own mother trusts him more than she did a year ago, Gooden says, but there's still a ways to go. She keeps his World Series rings locked up in a safe, after hearing stories about addicts pawning valuables for drugs. Gooden says she has "every right" to do so.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. For New York Mets fans, 1986 was a glorious year.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTSCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And the Sox are down to their last strike and this crowd is really ready to reach the heavens now. Got it.
BLOCK: The Mets won an epic seven-game World Series against the Boston Red Sox and millions turned out for a raucous parade through lower Manhattan the next day.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWSCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They flowed over police lines and crushed cars in an effort to see and touch Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez and Lenny Dykstra and Mookie Wilson and the rest of the Mets.
BLOCK: One name conspicuously absent from that list, Dwight Gooden, the Mets' 21-year-old star pitcher with a blistering fast ball and nasty curve. Where was he? Not riding triumphantly through the canyon of heroes. He was alone in his apartment with the curtains closed, flattened after a sleepless night spent snorting cocaine and drinking in a sketchy housing project.
That's how Dwight Gooden's book, "Doc: A Memoir," begins and that moment highlights a life and career of stunning highs and harrowing lows. Dwight Gooden joins me now from our New York bureau. Mr. Gooden, welcome to the program.
DWIGHT GOODEN: Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: Well, let's talk about the high points of your career and then talk about how far you fell. You joined the Mets at age 19. You were named Rookie of the Year. You win the Cy Young Award at 20, along with pitching's triple crown and then at 21, you win the World Series. And you describe a billboard in Times Square from the time, 100 feet tall. You're the whole side of a building in Times Square.
I mean, to say that you were a hero in New York City doesn't even really begin to capture it, I think.
GOODEN: It was great at the time. Looking back now, I wish I could've enjoyed it more when I was going through it. My rookie year in 1984, the expectation wasn't really as high until after the All-Star break, so I was able to enjoy that season. '85, it was a game, but it was also business where it was almost like I was an entertainer, where you're out there, everybody's there, (unintelligible) to see you.
So a lot of times, when we scored a couple runs early, it didn't matter to me if we scored any more runs. I just felt like I want to be out on the mound as often as I possibly can because I felt like it was my show that night and I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, in '86 is when the expectations became more than I could really handle. For example, if I won a game, you know, 1-nothing, complete game shut out, but if I only had three strikeouts, the first question would be - after the game - was, what happened? You only had three strikeouts.
So my next game, I would go out there and try to get 10 strikeouts, pitch a complete game and pitch a shutout. It just became too overwhelming at that time.
BLOCK: Well, this is the time, in 1986, when you say you became a cocaine addict. At your worst point, how much coke were you doing?
GOODEN: Way too much. Basically, I guess always went on bends where I would be up for three day, basically doing cocaine nonstop. That was a lot of cocaine. And luckily, my heart didn't explode.
BLOCK: Your heart didn't explode. That's quite a thing to say.
GOODEN: Yes. I'm very fortunate that it didn't explode and I still feel I'm here for a purpose and that's part of the reason why I wanted to do this book. It's great therapy for myself and to help others who might be going through similar situations that I went through or may have a family member or friend that might be going through different situations.
BLOCK: You know, over the years, the list of your run-ins with the law is huge. There was a brawl with the police, an accusation of rape. You were arrested for punching your girlfriend in the face. You fled a traffic stop. You did seven months in prison for violating probation by using cocaine and then, just a couple of years ago, you were arrested and you faced a long list of charges after a car accident with your five-year-old son sitting in the backseat.
And you say in the book that you'd been doing cocaine and then you took a bunch of Ambien and you were dozing and driving off the road. For fans who idolized you all those years in New York, why should they look at you now and have anything to admire?
GOODEN: I think the main thing, that I'm being honest. I'm standing up. I'm admitting what - my mistakes. It's on their time to forgive me or if they want to forgive me. Now it's not about me just talking about recovery, but actually living recovery and doing things to help others.
BLOCK: I'm talking with Dwight Gooden about his memoir titled, "Doc." Mr. Gooden, you talk a lot in the book about your father who had dreams of becoming a pitcher himself, right? And there's one high point in your career, amid all the drug abuse, this is in 1996. It was a point when your dad was really sick. He was about to go in for open heart surgery.
At the time, you're playing for the Yankees. And let's take a listen to some tape here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTSCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Lifted in the air, in the infield, Derek Jeter waiting, waiting, waiting, makes the catch. A no-hitter for Dwight Gooden.
BLOCK: A no-hitter for Dwight Gooden.
GOODEN: I mean, I tell you, that was an amazing night for myself and my dad. That was, like, our last baseball memory we had together. My dad was very ill at that time and I was supposed to fly home to be with him the night that I pitched a no-hitter. When I woke up that morning, looking in the mirror after brushing my teeth, all I could remember was the time we spent on the baseball field, all the drills he put me through, all the Saturdays we spent watching baseball games and listening to games on the radio.
And something just came across to me that he would probably want me to pitch. So after the no-hitter, when I flew home, he did see the game. When I got home, he was on life support and the doctors told me he saw the game and after the last out, he had a tear in his eye. And I remember giving him that ball. He never made it home from the hospital. He ended up passing away, but the last game he actually saw me pitch was the no-hitter.
BLOCK: I'm sure there were lots of bittersweet moments for you because as proud as your parents must have been of what you did, you knew they were also deeply ashamed of your troubles, your addiction and your suspensions.
GOODEN: Yeah. It was like a roller coaster ride through my career and for - as my life off the field. I remember in 1987, when I was going to rehab, when the Mets got me and I tested positive, I remember coming home and telling my parents. My mom was actually happy that I was getting help because she knew up until that point something was going wrong.
My dad, I knew I had crushed him and hurt him real bad. He just kind of dropped his head. Now, my relationship with my mom is better than probably it ever could have been.
BLOCK: How much do you think she trusts you now?
GOODEN: She trusts me a lot more now than, say, a year ago. And I say that because she still has all my rings and my jewelry locked up in her safe and I don't know the combination.
BLOCK: Wait - she keeps your rings, your jewelry, your World Series rings, too, right, locked up?
GOODEN: Yeah. She's got it all locked up in her safe and she has this room where she keeps all my awards and stuff. But all the jewelry, she keeps locked up, yes.
BLOCK: Why does she keep it locked up?
GOODEN: Like, my mom, she's been a part of Al Anon and just from the stories she's heard about, you know, addicts pawning their jewelry to get drugs.
BLOCK: Hum, that's interesting. So it's something that she's still holding onto. She's sending you a little message there.
GOODEN: Yes. And she's got every right to.
BLOCK: And you say you've been sober now for, what, about two years?
GOODEN: Two years. March made two years.
BLOCK: You've had, of course, a lot of chances before, a lot of recoveries before that have been blown. You've relapsed. You must think that people now, even if they're pulling for you, are thinking, you know, why should we believe him now? Why will this time be any different?
GOODEN: And that's their right because like you just said, from my track record and I can't guarantee what's going to happen next week or next year. It's a lifelong commitment and I'm in it now. I feel good about myself. I have peace within myself. And the main thing is I don't carry the guilt and the shame that I had before that kept leading back to, you know, self-destruction.
So, you know, everything's great today and that's all I can guarantee is that I'm clean and sober today.
BLOCK: Dwight Gooden, his memoir written with Ellis Henican is titled, "Doc." Mr. Gooden, thanks very much.
GOODEN: All right. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.