Saturday, February 17, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

For Gooden, sobriety is biggest victory

Typically, the exchange is benign, a simple, "How are you doing?" begets a polite, "Okay.'' But when you are talking to Dwight Gooden, that in itself could be a victory.

Because for all Gooden won coming out of Tampa — 194 major-league games, National League Cy Young and rookie of the year awards, three World Series rings — the urge, always, is to talk about what he lost.

A festering drug addiction ravaged not only a potential Hall of Fame career but a life — the result of a litany of troubles that tends to get top billing over what is on the back of Gooden's baseball card.

There were the failed drug tests and multiple rehab stints, a jail term amid numerous legal issues, suicide attempts, financial woes, two divorces, ugly headlines, embarrassing accusations and constant denials and excuses.

So given all that, how could he be doing?

Yet when you ask Gooden the question, the voice comes over the phone strong and clear.

"Everything's great," he says. "March 7 will be three years for me being clean and sober."

That, he tells you, is now his biggest victory. To finally understand. To have taken the responsibility and the 12 steps to recovery that have allowed the four-time All-Star pitcher to piece his life back together.

"I'm proud of that," he says. "Unfortunately it took a while, a long time. A lot of beat-downs. A lot of embarrassment. A lot of sad days. A lot of hurt — to my family, friends, fans, everybody — to get to the point I am now."

"Doctor K" is, somehow, a baseball season from 50 now, living in New Jersey, making a second career of speeches to youth groups, personal appearances and promotional work for both the Mets and Yankees, card shows, fantasy camps, earning enough to be "comfortable."

He says he not only goes regularly to AA/NA meetings and therapy sessions, but knows he has to accept it as part of his life. He spends as much time as he can trying to make up for what he missed with his seven kids, who range in age from 27 to 3 and are scattered among New York, Maryland and Tampa. (He also has three grandkids, the oldest of whom is 10.)

"I enjoy every day," Gooden said. "Even the simplest things bring joy. There's a lot of laughter these days."

There should be plenty of smiles Saturday, when Gooden returns home, one of six players being inducted into the Ted Williams Museum during the Dinner with Ben Zobrist & Friends event at Tropicana Field.

He'll have family there, expecting at least his mother, Ella Mae, his sister Betty (mother of former major-leaguer Gary Sheffield) and three of his children. He hopes to see plenty of familiar faces, welcoming the chance to thank those who helped him through Belmont Heights Little League and Hillsborough High.

And he's excited to have a permanent marker at the Trop, having pitched briefly — and not very well — for the Devil Rays during his final season in 2000. He says he has not been back to the dome since taking in a 2008 World Series game.

"It brings everything full circle," said Gooden, who won his rings with the Mets (1986) and Yankees (1996, 2000). "It's definitely a tremendous honor for myself."

He has had a few others, particularly proud that the Mets were willing to look past all the bad and put him in their team Hall of Fame in 2010. "That brought closure to my career," he said.

He talks openly about his past to help others but also because it's good for him. He went into explicit detail last year in a tell-all book, DOC, that includes his run-ins with Tampa police, the depth of his addiction and attempts at denials, and how his breakthrough came, as corny as it seems, during a 2011 stint on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.

"Doing the book was great therapy," he said. "To get everything out there, to come clean with everything. It was sort of like removing that mass."

Another big step, he said, was learning at the Pasadena (Calif.) Recovery Center to accept his career for what it was, escaping the sense of loss he lived with daily, more than he let on publicly, over what he could have done on the mound straight.

"I just can't beat myself up anymore or let that lead me to depression because I didn't get to Cooperstown or I didn't meet all these expectations," he said. "When people said those things, it would bother me, but I had to come to the conclusion that my career was okay. … I have to look at it and be very happy."

That's not a bad answer either.

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