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Romano to Dwight Gooden: Sorry Doc, we can't help but worry about you

Former New York Mets player Dwight Gooden greets fans before a baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets on May 28, 2016, in New York. [Frank Franklin II | Associated Press]
Former New York Mets player Dwight Gooden greets fans before a baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets on May 28, 2016, in New York. [Frank Franklin II | Associated Press]
Published Aug. 23, 2016

The words are angry, but the voice is not. Even on one of his worst days in one of his worst summers, Doc Gooden sounds forever friendly. Polite. Hopeful, if a little weary.

The guy never changes, you think, and then wonder if that isn't part of the problem.

It is the afternoon after rumors of Dwight Gooden's possible drug relapse seemed to have sparked a national suicide watch, and he is calling back now from his Jersey City apartment to assure you all is well.

The Tampa native doesn't know why former teammate Darryl Strawberry has told the world Gooden is spiraling out of control in the grips of cocaine. ("I'm done with Darryl.") He's at a loss to explain why a former housemate has alleged the same. ("I invited her in when she was homeless.'') He swears everything is fine, even though his oldest son has hinted at possible problems. ("I'm healthy, clean and sober.'')

And, yes, you want to believe. What's left of the dreamer in you needs to believe.

For, around here, Doc was always a sentimental favorite. Not as brusque as Gary Sheffield. Not as smug as Wade Boggs, nor as distant as Tony La Russa. Doc was the baseball star most likely to show up unannounced at a beaten-down Little League field and start playing catch with the neighborhood kids.

He is 51 now, and fortunate to have lived long enough to still be the target of gossip. He knows this. If the alcohol and cocaine didn't kill him, the shady characters could have. So each day, he now says, is a blessing. And each hour carries the curse of a nearly 30-year addiction.

"I'm one of those guys who is never safe,'' Gooden said. "I'm at risk when my life is at a low point and I get wrapped up in self-pity, and I'm at risk when things are going well because that's when I let my guard down. I'm like an arrow with points on both ends.

"So now I just live in the moment.''

Lately, the moments have been harder to get through. His mother, Ella Mae Gooden, passed away in Tampa on July 1, leaving Doc feeling more hopeless and bereft than usual. He missed a radio appearance and another appointment last week, leading Strawberry to wonder aloud about the direction of Gooden's life.

Theirs has long been a complicated relationship from the time Gooden showed up with the New York Mets as a 19-year-old in 1984, barely a year and a half out of Hillsborough High. Strawberry was already a budding star at 22, and together they headlined a brief, golden era of New York baseball.

Gooden wasn't just a star, he was a happening. A 102-foot mural was painted on the side of a New York hotel within eyesight of Times Square where Gooden would remain frozen in mid-windup for nearly a decade. He skipped past Sports Illustrated covers and went straight to the cover of Time.

He was just the third pitcher in baseball history to make four All-Star teams by age 23, which is an important demarcation point in the Gooden story because he never made another All-Star team again.

By then, Gooden and Strawberry were already beginning a descent into alcohol, drug and legal woes. Both would be suspended from baseball, both would serve prison terms, and neither would fulfill the Hall of Fame legacy that had once seemed certain.

These days, Gooden makes a living off memories. He makes appearances at baseball card shows and other events and gives inspirational speeches at schools and corporations.

He also, he says, attends two or three meetings for addicts each week. He insists he has been sober for more than four years, even though a recent Gooden/Strawberry documentary by filmmaker Judd Apatow hinted at possible relapse issues. After his weight ballooned to nearly 300 pounds a few years ago, Gooden has looked gaunt in recent appearances. Some have described him as frail.

"I have to go to meetings because I don't trust myself. Recovery is the only thing in my life that I've never been able to handle on my own,'' Gooden said. "If I was using again, people would know about it. I'd be in places where I wasn't supposed to be, I'd have people talking about me, I'd be in prison.

"I'd probably be dead.''

Gooden once moved from Tampa to St. Petersburg to escape the temptations of his wilder days, but left the Tampa Bay area for good in 2008. Twice divorced with seven children between the ages of 6 and 30, he lives with three of his kids in New Jersey and makes the three-hour drive to Maryland to visit his two youngest.

It was his eldest son, Dwight Jr., whom Strawberry says alerted him to Gooden's recent troubles. On behalf of his siblings, Dwight Jr. released a statement Sunday night that said the family was concerned about Doc's health and was hopeful he would now seek help after a period of stress and sadness.

"He has been planning on taking a break from the spotlight to rest and regroup and address his health,'' the statement read. "We will be pushing this respite up. We, as a family, are currently planning his best course of action and thank you all for your concern, messages and prayers.''

While never quite reaching the point of anger, Gooden says the last few days have been hurtful. His older children had to live through his many scandals, but he was hopeful 11-year-old Dylan and 6-year-old Milan might be spared a life of salacious headlines.

"I've beaten myself up over the years. I've got guilt. I've got shame. I've been embarrassed. But I've always tried to take responsibility. I always admitted my problems,'' he said. "If fans turn their backs on me, I would totally understand it, but I've always tried to treat people the right way.

"Through it all, I've always had a good heart.''

It is that heart that always brings us back. By now, Gooden's career is little more than a baseball footnote. A memory without the foundation to hold it securely in place.

Yet around here, the story of Doc Gooden continues to carry on. And it's because of that wide smile. That quiet, almost shy, manner. That sweetness that is much too rare in our culture of celebrities.

No, Doc Gooden has never changed on us.

And that is why we worry still today.