This column may appear to be a baseball story, but it really isn’t. It discusses one of the greatest “can’t miss” phenoms to ever appear in a major league uniform. On the surface it sounds like the tale of a future Hall of Famer whose success on the field could only be matched by his popularity. Instead it’s the account of an alcoholic and drug addict who saw his career and personal life go down the tubes. It may also be a story of redemption, but the jury is still out on that one.
Dwight Gooden was one of the best pitchers to ever don a New York Mets’ uniform. Nicknamed “Doc” at an early age, Gooden was as close to a sure thing as a professional athlete could be. He made his major league debut in 1984 at the age of 19 and immediately won 17 games and the National League Rookie of the Year award.
In 1985 he posted an astounding record of 24-4 and won the Cy Young award, rewarded to the best pitcher in the league. The following year, he was an integral part of the last Mets’ team to win a World Series, beating the Boston Red Sox in a series best remembered for Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner letting a ground ball slip between his legs.
By the age of 21, Gooden was being compared to Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller and already ticketed for induction in Cooperstown. Fans loved him and his fabulous fast ball. They called him Dr. K and hung Ks on the outfield wall at Shea Stadium every time he recorded a strikeout. He was the best pitcher in baseball and nothing but fame and fortune awaited him.
Instead, his career careened out of control. Gooden made the mistake of hanging out with the wrong crowd. He smoked pot and drank too much, and when he tried cocaine he was hooked. He missed the 1986 World Series victory parade because he was in a fleabag apartment hung over from a night of drug use. It was a sign of things to come.
The more cocaine took a hold of his life, the further south his career ventured. The Mets released him in 1995 but he had one more shining moment with the Yankees in 1996 when he threw a no-hitter, but that was it. His career soon became what might have been.
In the midst of his ongoing drug habit Gooden was involved in two disastrous marriages (how could they not be disastrous?) and fathered seven children. Any attempts to be a good husband and father were negated by his cocaine use. He tried rehab several times to no avail because his addicted “heart” wasn’t in it.
Nothing seemed to be able to change him. Not concerned family members, not rehab, not his collapsing career and not even time in prison. The rational side of Gooden would tell him to stop, but the addicted side always won out. This pattern of behavior went on for almost 25 years.
The incident that finally changed him was when he drove his 5-year-old son to school while physically impaired and got into an accident. Gooden was arrested and charged with child endangerment. A friend asked a television reality show, “Celebrity Rehab,” to get a hold of him and see if he would appear on the program with all expenses paid. Despite obvious reservations about exposing his most intimate thoughts in public, he eventually agreed.
This time the rehab had an effect because Gooden wanted to succeed. His determination and efforts in aftercare led the judge in his child endangerment case to give him probation instead of throwing him in jail. It gave Gooden one last chance to redeem himself. That was two years ago and as an alcoholic and drug addict it is still day-to-day whether the one-time superstar can remain clean.
As part of his catharsis, Gooden has written about his life as a drug addict in a book simply titled “Doc: A Memoir.” It covers his childhood and baseball career, but only at the margins. This time is clearly about how he became consumed by drugs and how they almost destroyed his life. Gooden is extremely candid about all his mistakes. There are many times you really despise him. But he is hard on himself as well and makes no excuses.
The obvious lesson Gooden imparts is that cocaine and alcohol can destroy your life. Gooden admits there are “functional addicts” who can handle a few drinks or a little cocaine and stop there. But it’s not him and it may not be any of us either. His experience is a sobering lesson on the destructive power of drugs and a good reason to read his book.
David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.