Doc Gooden: 30 Years On

1991: Dwight Gooden of the New York Mets pitches during a Mets game versus the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. (Robert Beck/Icon SMI)

The 1986 Mets were a big deal. For nearly a decade the team was one of the worst in the league, but the arrival of two rookies, Darryl Strawberry in ’83 and Dwight “Doc” Gooden in ‘84, would help transform the team from a bunch of losers into the World Series-winning Miracle Mets.

Both were All-Stars. Strawberry, baby-faced and kind of jolly, and Gooden, always kind of rangy-looking with a fast-baller’s squint, were consistently paired by the media and fans—two young, black ballplayers resurrecting a losing team.

Throughout their careers they were also paired because of their repeated drug abuse and arrests, but recently their lives have diverged. Strawberry has become a minister and runs a well-regarded substance abuse clinic. Gooden lives in New Jersey making regular appearances at fan events to sign baseball cards, but since his retirement in 2000 has dealt with relapse after relapse

In July, ESPN premiered a Judd Apatow-directed 30 for 30, “Doc & Darryl.” The documentary, which is quite good, pairs Gooden and Strawberry once more and traces the ascent of the ’86 Mets and the drug-fueled downfall of the two players. It is poignant to see the two reunited, drinking coffee at a table in a diner on what looks like a chilly day. They talk with the ease of old teammates. The drug abuse is in the past. Strawberry is enjoying a new life, and things even seem to be looking up for Gooden.

Baseball is always a little bit about nostalgia—part of the point of a ballpark is a hotdog and remembering when you were a kid and everyone sings a song at the 7th inning stretch—and the documentary situates the ’86 Mets and Gooden and Strawberry in the fuzziness of the past. They even bring in superfan Jon Stewart to talk about how amazing the team was. The World Series victories are a foil to the personal turmoil of the players, but all of it seems to be comfortably behind them.

Yet while their days playing baseball are in the past, and the Mets are good once again, addiction is a chronic disease that never really goes away. Strawberry, in his way, deals with it every day by channeling his experience with the illness into his work. Gooden’s story is different. A few weeks after the documentary came out, during the dog days of summer and one of the hottest Tri-State-Area Augusts in recorded history, Gooden didn’t show up to a radio appearance alongside Strawberry.

When Strawberry got on the air, he opened up to host Joe Beningo about why Gooden wasn’t there: “My fear is—and I know addiction—my fear is that people don’t change, they die. They die this way, and I just hope the light comes on before it’s too late. I’m worried. A lot. It’s a real struggle. It’s very difficult to talk about because I know the drill, I know the deal.” His comments set off a very public discussion of Gooden’s addiction, much of it playing out in the sports pages of the New York Daily News, where Strawberry commented again that Gooden is “a complete junkie-addict.”

In his own defense, Gooden insisted that he is fine and missed the event due to traffic, and later said he was just “finishing up some minor health issues.” But in subsequent days, he appeared outside his apartment looking quite frail and wearing the same pair of clothes—a “Doc Gooden” white tank top and black athletic shorts. Gooden’s ex, Janice Roots, published an open letter to him in the Daily News where she pleads with him: “You have been so busy taking care of other people for your entire life, you’ve lost sight of the most important person—and that is you.”

The letter is painful to read, and it’s clear that Gooden’s illness has had an affect on Roots, as well as the rest of his family. The next day, Gooden’s son, Dwight Jr., also issued a statement to the paper: “On behalf of myself and my brothers and sisters we would like to thank Darryl, Janice, members of the media, friends and most of all, the fans for their concern for our father’s health. His problems have been well documented and publicized through the years. At this time our only concern is his health and that he takes care of himself. There has not been a single day that our love for him or his love for us has ever wavered. One thing that has always been constant has been our Father’s determination to provide for us.”

***

You could read the public discussion of Gooden’s drug use a couple of ways. Maybe Gooden and Strawberry really do have some kind of beef and Gooden’s not using again; this would be weird, but it’s certainly not a sure thing that Gooden is using again. Or you could read it as a repeat of all the times Gooden wound up in the tabloids before—just a repetition of a cycle where the voyeuristic public gobbles up salacious news about a black athlete. But I tend to favor a third reading of this episode: It represents real progress in terms of how we think about and talk about addiction.

It’s too much to argue that Gooden’s fans—Mets nation—are going to be the ones to convince him to get help, if he is actually abusing drugs. No number of tweets are going to change his mind or force him to get help. “Fans can encourage, public calling can be made, and that’s probably why Darryl Strawberry did this,” David Christopher, a substance abuse therapist in San Diego who works with high profile addicts told me. “Fans will be useful on the backside. On the front, I doubt it. I think they are probably tiny blips on his radar right now and more of an irritant than anything. He has to pander to fans. They’re part of how he gets paid. I suspect they have no emotional leverage in his life. His family or people who really connect with him might be able to help him really make changes.” But regardless of whether Gooden cares about them, the interest of fans is a sign that people are invested in the idea of a healthy Gooden, and are not just armchair moralists.

Normally, addiction is a disease that gets hidden and only talked about behind closed doors. Think Prince or Robin Williams. Their struggles were played out in private, despite being public figures, and the public only became aware of the problems upon their deaths, which were presented in lurid detail as some sort of morality play. This is in contrast to basically any other disease. If Prince had had cancer, it would be have been front page news, there would have been casseroles sent and research funds set up and regular heartfelt outpourings of feeling. Addiction, historically, has just brought blame on the sufferer.

But it’s different this time with Gooden. There’s no blame, although there is accountability. Strawberry wants him to get help. His son and ex-girlfriend want him to get help. The fans want him to get help. Even the New York Daily News wants him to get help: “This is less a story of a New York icon unraveling than it is a high-profile example of a prosaic condition that tortures millions of Americans—an increasing number of whom are being dragged under by prescription opioid and heroin abuse,” the editorial board wrote in August. This is a radically different conversation we’re having about Gooden’s drug abuse than we have ever had about a celebrity before. This is partly a result of timing; for once addiction is being talked about while the subject is still alive. But there’s a bigger reason for this as well, which the Daily News touched upon: Addiction is now undeniably about all of us.

Of course addiction has always been a problem, since the beginning of time. Odysseus and his crew weren’t exactly eating bonbons on the island of the Lotus Eaters. But for most of the 20th century, it was pretty easy for white, suburban America to look at addiction and pretend it was something only affecting a subset of people, whether that was inner city communities or degenerate celebrities in Los Angeles. That’s changed, though. Now it’s painkillers and heroin. Their use is so widespread and deadly that the CDC has categorized opioid abuse as an epidemic. It’s worth remembering that neither Ebola nor Zika have been epidemics in the U.S., but roughly 78 people die daily from an overdose. It’s reached such a level that President Obama declared Sept. 18-24 “Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week.”

We have an entire week out of the year to be aware of a drug epidemic.

And there’s a reason. It’s part of everyone’s life. Whether it’s someone who one week is cooking pasta sauce at the beach and the next is dead, or a friend who lies about his close pass with death on a grad school application for fear of being rejected, it’s real. Because of its epidemic proportions, “this conversation that would have really been behind closed doors, now becomes open. And now it is public dialogue. It resonates on a different level now than it ever would have. This is a different kind of narrative for this country,” Christopher says. And it’s possible that Gooden is the first character in this new narrative around addiction. If he can get help, and talk about it with Mets fans and the city of New York, perhaps he will be the first person to make addiction a normal illness, like cancer or heart disease. A normal illness that we think about treating and managing, rather than hiding. He can be like Magic Johnson talking frankly about AIDS. If he does that, he can be bigger than the Miracle Mets and the 1986 World Series, and bigger than his disease. Gooden can win again.

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Benjamin Reeves is a New York-based journalist and senior editor at Worth magazine. He has reported from Latin America, Europe, and India and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, Miami Herald, Vice, and The Awl, among other publications.