Work in Sports
High Price of Hard Living
Reckless years in the fast lane, fueled by alcohol and cocaine, have cost former New York Met phenoms Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden the prime years of their careers
By Tom Verducci
Issue date: February 27, 1995
THE HOOD of the silver-blue Mercedes resting in the circular driveway of the new $1.2 million house in Rancho Mirage, Calif., is still warm. On this Wednesday afternoon in mid-January, Darryl Strawberry has just returned from providing a urine sample at a local hospital as part of his drug-testing agreement with Major League Baseball.
"There's a lot of sobriety out here," Strawberry says of the Coachella Valley as he offers up bottled water and stretches out on a leather sofa. The valley also has perfect desert weather, streets named after movie stars and more than 80 golf courses, 600 tennis courts and 10,000 swimming pools, one of which is just over Strawberry's left shoulder on the other side of the patio doors.
Strawberry chose this resort community as his home last May after seeking treatment for cocaine abuse. "And I don't even play golf," he says. He is living in self-imposed exile, talking about his former home cities, New York and Los Angeles, as his versions of Sodom and Gomorrah.
"It became a lifestyle for me," Strawberry says. "Drink, do coke, get women, do something freaky . . . all that stuff. I did it for so long. I played games when I was drunk, or just getting off a drunk or all-night partying or coming down off amphetamines.
"With alcohol and drugs it was the excitement. That's how I got addicted. It was an exciting way to escape from everything else. Coming to the major leagues at such a young age and coming to New York . . . maybe someplace else it would be a little different, but New York is a party place, an upbeat place.
"Man, I put up some good numbers. But I look back and wish I could've done it like I'm doing it now: clean. I just got tired of ((the lifestyle)) after eight, nine, 10 years. They would have never caught me because I'd done it ((drugs)) for so long. I grew up in a fast place, L.A."
Strawberry had provided a urine sample the previous day as well. The day before that, on Monday, Strawberry had spoken at a Martin Luther King Day rally at the El Cerrito Community Center, a few miles north of Oakland. He had talked about the importance of keeping children off drugs and alcohol, referring to them several times as "the young youth today."
"I've been through drugs and alcohol myself," he had said into the microphone. "I overcame that through the grace of God."
The cocaine he had scored less than 48 hours earlier, on Saturday night, lingered in his system as he spoke at the rally. More fatefully, it was in the urine samples he provided on Tuesday and Wednesday. He didn't realize, as he sprawled across his couch, telling a reporter he was clean, that he'd been caught.
It begins with one beer, the way an inferno starts with a spark or the way a massive freeway pileup begins with one car. Dwight Gooden's pattern of self- destruction continues when he orders another beer and then another. On this night, in June 1994, the lights and the music and mostly the alcohol at the Manhattan nightclub are soothing him.
He has been a hard drinker since 1986, when he was 21 and in his third year in the majors -- abstaining from alcohol only on the two nights before a starting assignment and, flushed with youth, money and stardom, indulging on all the others. At 22 he landed in a drug rehab center after testing positive for cocaine. Now, nearing his 30th birthday and into his third straight losing season, he is drinking out of self-pity. The alcohol hits him like Novocain; it numbs the pain of his depression but cannot remove it.
The beers are not enough, so, as he often has, he switches to something harder. Vodka has always been a favorite. It makes him forget about his combined 22-28 record in 1992 and '93, about how terrible his team, the New York Mets, has become and about the injured toe on his right foot, which has kept him on the disabled list for the past five weeks. The drinks keep coming.
Man, I'm hammered, he thinks. He presses on deep into the night, so deep that he still is drinking when he notices the place is closed, the doors are locked and everybody else except the people who work in the club have gone home. That's when one of the employees pulls out the bag of cocaine. You want some?
I know I shouldn't, he thinks. But that notion passes quicker than one of his old fastballs, dissolving completely into the fuzziness of his alcohol- polluted mind. What the hell, he thinks. I'm on minor league rehab for my toe. They won't test me.
Within 48 hours a representative of the testing agency used by Major League Baseball arrives in Binghamton, N.Y., home of the Mets' Double A affiliate, to collect a urine sample from Gooden.
The career paths of Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden began as parallel lines -- twin, unbending inclines headed straight to Cooperstown. How could it be that instead we are left with this ugly tangle of trouble? They both were National League Rookies of the Year, the 21-year-old Strawberry in 1983 and Gooden, at 19, the following season. When Gooden started his first major league game, in '84, Strawberry ripped a home run to centerfield for the game- winning RBI. Before either one of them had turned 25, they were stars, millionaires and, in '86, world champions as members of one of only four National League teams in this century to win as many as 108 regular-season games. How did those parallel lines wind up as twisted as those on a New York City subway map, the two of them intersecting over and over again?
Intersections: In the off-season following the Mets' World Series victory, Gooden was arrested for brawling with Tampa police and Strawberry was ordered by a Los Angeles superior court to stay away from his wife, Lisa, whose nose he had broken with a punch to the face. So when Strawberry reported to spring training in 1987 and discovered he had been assigned a locker next to Gooden's, he cracked in his typical dark humor, "Look, it's Assault and Battery together."
Six weeks later Gooden spent Opening Day in Smithers Alcoholism and Treatment Center in New York City, being treated for cocaine use, while Strawberry, wearing Gooden's uniform pants, drove in the winning runs with a three-run home run. Three years after Gooden checked into Smithers seeking treatment for drug abuse, Strawberry checked into Smithers for alcohol abuse. Both of them now admit they sought treatment halfheartedly. Little wonder then that last year Strawberry and Gooden both had occasion to check into the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage for cocaine abuse. One going and the other coming, they missed each other by only 79 days.
Last Aug. 14, Strawberry picked up Gooden upon his release from the Betty ( Ford Center and drove him the one mile down Bob Hope Drive to Strawberry's new home. He escorted Gooden through the grand marbled foyer and into the living room.
"Doc, you've got to get out of Florida," Strawberry said. "You've got to change your environment to keep from using. The most important thing they told me at Betty Ford was to change the whole atmosphere and get away from the people who use."
Gooden has maintained his home in St. Petersburg since moving there in 1987 from his birthplace, Tampa. Within a week after leaving the Betty Ford Center last summer -- and three days after attending a counseling session in New York with Robert Millman, a psychiatrist who represents Major League Baseball, and Joel Solomon, a psychiatrist who represents the players' union -- Gooden was drinking and using cocaine again with friends in Tampa. And five months after that, Strawberry tested positive for cocaine.
"It just goes to show you," Gooden says now, "it doesn't matter where you are. Drugs, alcohol . . . it's everywhere. What's more important is that you can never let your guard down."
Another intersection: Today neither Strawberry nor Gooden has a team to call his own. They are suspended from baseball. They are the eighty-sixed Mets.
And yet they are so different. Strawberry is a complex puzzle. None of the Mets was better around children when making charitable appearances. Even now he is pouring a healthy portion of what's left of his money -- he's estimated to have earned about $25 million as a baseball player -- into the Strawberry Patch Youth Project, a San Francisco Bay Area drug and alcohol prevention program that he founded with Ron Jones, one of his closest friends and a former drug dealer. Strawberry is, even as he approaches his 33rd birthday, as naively eager for love and acceptance as a puppy in a pet-shop window. He has a natural capacity to charm people. He can turn any room into a happy place merely by strolling in with that cool, smooth, long-legged glide, and he can energize any ballpark, hit or miss, with that beautiful, looping swing.
Sadly, he can just as easily transform himself into something rotten. His transgressions contradict -- even obliterate, for many people -- that core of goodness. Alcoholic, drug abuser, batterer and now convicted tax cheat. His career has been a long screech of tires during which all you could do was wait for the crash. The chronic tardiness, the enormous mood swings, the erratic behavior offered a cacophonous prelude to disaster for all to hear. "A walking stick of TNT," says Strawberry's former Met teammate Ron Darling, who's now a pitcher for the Oakland A's.
Contrasted against Strawberry's dark streak was the apparent benevolent light of Gooden: accommodating, consistent, industrious, quiet. Indeed, after 1985 the tight friendship between the two ballplayers loosened to a comfortable acquaintance. They were not as close as the public thought. Or, as Strawberry says, "I never partied with Doc."
"The few times Dwight was late for anything," Darling says, "everyone would ask, 'Is the cab stuck in traffic? Was he in an accident?' When Darryl was late, you thought right away, Darryl screwed up again. Doc was Teflon and could do no wrong. Darryl was a ticking time bomb."
The way Strawberry remembers it, his first experience with cocaine occurred in 1983, soon after he was promoted to the major leagues. He liked to drink beer and he had smoked pot sometimes, but now two of his veteran teammates were asking him to try something new. "There's a couple of lines in the bathroom for you, kid," he remembers them saying. "This is the big leagues. This is what you do in the big leagues. Go ahead. It's good for you."
Strawberry tried the cocaine. Damn, he thought, that's good. So began a career whose trademark has been its volatility. He did not create a new controversy every day; it only seemed that way. In a seven-day span in June 1987, Strawberry overslept twice, each time needing a teammate to roust him from his hotel bed with a phone call from the ballpark; was fined $250 and benched for two games for those latenesses; charged the mound after almost being hit by a pitch; and blasted a 450-foot home run. So often did he drop bombs that when asked about his weird week, he replied in all earnestness, "Weird? Why? Just because I was late twice, got benched, was fined and had a fight? It's part of the game."
Still, what happened within a four-day span earlier this month was shocking even by his standards. Between Feb. 6 and 9 Strawberry received a 60-day suspension from baseball because of the positive drug tests, was released by the San Francisco Giants and pleaded guilty to the charge of failing to report and pay tax on more than $350,000 earned from appearing at card shows from 1986 to '90. Sentencing is scheduled for March 15. As part of the plea arrangement Strawberry is expected to be sent to prison for three months and held under house arrest for another three months.
Last week, according to Jones, Strawberry entered his third rehabilitation center in the past five years.
"Every time I think he's coming out of it, something else happens," said Richie Bry, Strawberry's agent from 1980 to '88, even before learning about this month's positive drug tests. "You don't know what to believe from him anymore. I think Darryl is basically a good person but very immature and subject to being influenced heavily by other people, some good and some not. He's easily misled and easily succumbs."
The recent bout with cocaine cost Strawberry what appeared to be a perfect fit for him. During his 29 games with the Giants, who signed him after his release from the Los Angeles Dodgers last May, Strawberry enjoyed the benefits of playing for an understanding manager, Dusty Baker; having Barry Bonds and Matt Williams in the lineup, which allowed him to play a supporting role for the first time in his career; and having his older brother, Michael, on the team payroll as his personal chaperon. Strawberry lost all of that on Jan. 14, when he hooked up with some friends for a Saturday night out in San Diego.
"He had all of that riding and still went back to cocaine," says Jones, who says he is reformed after going to prison twice, once on a drug charge and once on a weapons charge. "That's how powerful that ---- is. Darryl told me ((he used again because)) he felt a lot of pressure was on him, like going to jail and his ex-wife bothering him. Darryl has never been one to be honest with himself."
Until the recent relapse Strawberry said he had been clean since last April 2. That night began with a private lecture in the office of Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda, before an exhibition game in Anaheim against the California Angels. "Get yourself going," Lasorda barked. "We need you to carry us."
How many times have I heard that? Strawberry thought. Only my whole career. Why is it always on me? I'm tired of it. I don't want to hear it anymore.
He hit a home run in his last at bat that night and then disappeared into his own black hole of despair, drinking and drugs. He got so high he never went home. His new wife, Charisse, called his mother, Ruby, late the next morning, which was a Sunday. Darryl had weekend custody of his two children from his first marriage, Darryl Jr. and Diamond, but after staying at his house they were to return that day to his ex-wife, Lisa. Did Ruby know where Darryl was? Ruby was rushing off to church, so she let her daughter Regina talk to Charisse and left without being clear as to what the call was about.
When Ruby arrived at the Blood Covenant Christian Faith Center in Pomona, Calif., where she also works as a secretary, the parishioners comforted her. They had heard news reports that Darryl was missing. "It's going to be O.K.," they said. Ruby had no idea what they were talking about.
Strawberry remembered that the Dodgers had an exhibition game in Anaheim that afternoon -- the last before the regular season began on April 5 -- but he could not muster the energy to go. I'm tired, he thought, too tired. I am not going through another season like this. The partying, the drinking. . . . I'm just so tired.
Late in the day he phoned his lawyer, Robert Shapiro, and agreed to meet with him the next morning. Shapiro, who two months later would be on national TV representing a fugitive named O.J. Simpson, brought Darryl into his office while Ruby, Charisse and Michael waited outside. Shapiro told Strawberry it was time he admitted he was an alcoholic and a drug user. For years Strawberry had been afraid to make that admission because he was worried, for one thing, about how it would be received by his family, his team and the media.
Shapiro told him he would take care of everything, including how it played out in the press. When the door opened, Shapiro gestured toward the family and asked Strawberry, "Is it O.K. to share it with them?" Strawberry nodded and told them.
"Tears welled up in my eyes, and I had a big lump in my throat," Ruby says. "It made me realize some of the things that were going on. I couldn't understand some of the things that were happening with him. He didn't care what was going on with the family. He was not in touch with us.
"Now that I look back I can understand a lot of his behavior. I used to wonder why he never made eye contact with me when he talked. I kind of brushed it off. You know, he was always on the go, never had much time. He was always kind of looking over my head, looking for someplace else to go or something.
"I remember one of the first things he did after he left the Betty Ford Center. We were sitting in my home, on opposite sides of a room. I told him, 'You know, that's something you never used to do.' And he said, 'What's that? What are you talking about?' And I said, 'You can look me in the eyes when you're talking to me. You never used to do that.'
"From what I understand now, a lot of things were going on before he came back to L.A. That was something we weren't aware of."
Marking the beginning of a life gone wrong is an inexact science. When did the downward spiral begin for Darryl? With that night after his rookie season when he met Lisa Andrews at a Los Angeles Laker game at the Forum? With that first powerful hit of coke? With his sophomore year at Crenshaw High in South Central L.A., when he was disciplined by his baseball coach for having a bad attitude and quit the team? Or with those childhood nights when he remembers his father, Henry, would come home loud and angry after drinking and gambling? Darryl, the middle of five children, remembers being hit by his father "for little things" before Henry left Ruby in 1974, when Darryl was 12.
"It starts with abuse: verbal and physical abuse," Darryl says. "It leaves scars you carry to adulthood." Ruby doesn't remember Henry's striking Darryl so much, saying, "I'm not that kind of mother. I would not have allowed it with my kids." But she does concede it's important if "that's the way he remembers it." Teammates and friends always have noticed how Darryl has sought love, often desperately.
"Yes," Ruby says, "because Darryl didn't have the father he wanted, or one who acted the way he thought a father was supposed to. It caused him to act out in different ways. Some children need that father figure, especially boys. Darryl needed it, but he didn't have it and looked for it in other places."
The Mets selected Strawberry with the first overall pick of the 1980 draft, their decision clinched when Strawberry, then fresh out of Crenshaw High, posted an impressive score on a test that measures aggressiveness, mental toughness and self-confidence. After giving Strawberry a $200,000 signing bonus, New York had scout Roger Jongewaard accompany him to its Kingsport, Tenn., rookie league team. "I went with him as a buffer because of all the attention he was getting," Jongewaard says. "Darryl did such a great job handling it, he really didn't need me."
Less than three years later, in 1983, Strawberry was in the big leagues. He had 26 home runs that season, beginning an unprecedented run of hitting more than 25 home runs in his first nine seasons, all but one of them with the Mets. Only two other players in history had hit that many homers in more than their first four seasons: Frank Robinson (seven) and Joe DiMaggio (six). During that span Strawberry never hit 40 home runs in a season, and he averaged 92 RBIs -- a relatively low total for someone with his power. He also missed an average of 21 games a season in those years. And he played just 75 games over the 1992 and '93 seasons because of a herniated disk that required surgery.
"He should have averaged 100 RBIs and 40 home runs," Jongewaard says. "He has underachieved. And that's a hard thing to say because he put up some very good numbers, but that's how much talent he had."
Those sort of expectations alternately inflated Strawberry with pride and wore him down. In typical Straw-speak, one day he would promise "a monster season" and the next he would complain about having to carry too big a load. His quotes were often outrageous and typically hollow. He continually drifted, as if pulled by the current, and if he ever sought moorage during his years with the Mets, he did not find it at home or in the clubhouse.
"I was at their wedding," a friend says of Darryl and Lisa's marriage, "and they were at each other's throats from Day One. It was like they hated each other from the start. And his mother didn't like her at all. That put a drain on Darryl. And it was no secret how they went through money. It was almost like a contest they had to see which one could outspend the other."
Darryl married Lisa in January 1985, two months before signing a six-year contract worth $7.2 million. Much of that money was scheduled to be deferred. It wasn't long before he dipped into that account.
The Strawberrys would separate and reconcile routinely over the next seven years. Once, at dinner with another couple, Darryl and Lisa shouted obscenities at each other so loudly in a restaurant that "we were embarrassed," says one of the other diners. "I said to Lisa, 'Why don't you try being nice to him?' And she said, 'If you only knew what he puts me through.' "
One of Lisa's attempts at reconciliation occurred in Houston during the 1986 National League Championship Series. Darryl says he spent one night drinking with friends at the hotel bar, and when he returned to their room he found Lisa had chained the door shut. He banged furiously on the door as they screamed at each other. When she finally opened the door, Darryl uncorked a punch to her nose that sent her to a hospital.
"It was scary," he says. "I did some of the same things in my marriage that I felt my father did to me and our family. It's unfortunate it had to happen like that, but I was turning into him. That's what I found out later from the people at Betty Ford."
Lisa filed for legal separation and an order of protection on Jan. 29, 1987. She and Darryl reconciled eight months later. On June 2, 1989, Lisa began divorce proceedings. The Strawberrys reconciled again later that year. At 3:45 in the morning of Jan. 26, 1990, during a fierce argument in which Lisa whacked Darryl in the ribs with an iron rod, he pulled out a .25 caliber pistol and pointed it at her. He was arrested and jailed briefly on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon, but no charges were filed.
Recalling that night in his 1992 autobiography, Darryl, he wrote, "Just be glad, I remember saying to myself as I tried to find something positive in this whole mess, that you aren't involved with drugs." That, of course, was a lie. Eight days after the fight, at the Mets' recommendation, Strawberry checked into Smithers for alcohol abuse. As it turned out, this was a convenient move to help avoid prosecution. That was another one of Darryl's lies. "Going to Smithers was my cover-up," he admits now. "I never even bothered telling them about the drugs."
Strawberry continued to drift. On Nov. 8, 1990, he signed as a free agent with the Dodgers. "My first choice was to be back home," he said at the ensuing press conference, only to turn around moments later and say, "The Mets were the only organization I wanted to play for."
He tried religion, claiming in January 1991 that he was born again. He was free of drugs and alcohol, he said, while rationalizing, "I can have a glass of wine or beer if I choose. I choose not to." An L.A. teammate said that was a lie and that Strawberry still was sucking down beers. Born-again teammates on the Dodgers, Brett Butler and Gary Carter, would invite him to breakfast, but Strawberry wouldn't show.
"It wasn't a farce," his mother says. "I think he was genuinely trying to get his life together. But at the same time he did not want to admit to anyone how much trouble he was in."
Darryl and Lisa split again in January 1991, and she resumed divorce proceedings on May 28, 1992. The divorce was finalized on Oct. 15, 1993. Lisa was granted the couple's house in Encino, a 1991 BMW 750i, a 1989 Porsche 928, a 1991 Mercedes SL, $300,000 in cash, $40,000 in attorney's fees (in addition to the $55,000 Darryl had already paid for her attorneys and accountants) and $50,000 a month in spousal support. Darryl was ordered to pay another $30,000 a month in child support.
"His marriage was a bad one from the beginning," Ruby said in 1991. "Darryl wasn't that kind of person until he got involved with Lisa."
Lisa Strawberry did not respond to SI's attempts to reach her through her attorney.
On Dec. 3, 1993, less than two months after his divorce was finalized, Strawberry married Charisse Simon. The wedding occurred three months after Strawberry was arrested on a battery charge for allegedly striking her. Simon did not file charges. The couple has an 11-month-old son, Jordan, and is expecting another child in June, the fifth for Strawberry by three women. (In 1990 Strawberry was found by means of a blood test to be the father of a child by Lisa Clayton, of Clayton, Mo., who had filed a paternity suit against him.)
Strawberry's domestic problems affected him on the field. He admitted during spring training in 1987 that there were periods of "several days, even weeks where I didn't concentrate at all." Then his deportment grew worse. That year he reported late to work at least four times (once remarking, "It's tough getting up for day games"), walked out of training camp once and begged out of a critical game against the first-place St. Louis Cardinals with a virus after spending the afternoon recording a rap song. After that, Met teammate Wally Backman remarked, "Nobody I know gets sick 25 times a year." To which Strawberry responded, "I'll bust that little redneck in the face." And all that happened in a year when he had career highs in batting average (.284) and home runs (39).
"When a guy gets to the ballpark at five-thirty, six o'clock at night and he's sending somebody out for a burger or chicken and it's his first meal of the day, that's a sign of trouble," says Steve Garland, a former Met trainer. "And that happened a lot."
"You could always tell the days Darryl didn't want to play," says former Met Dave Magadan. "I mean, you knew. He'd show up looking as if he was knocking on death's door. You knew he wasn't going to play or you'd get nothing out of him."
On those days Garland or one of the New York coaches would mention to manager Davey Johnson that Strawberry appeared as if he wanted to sit the game out. " ---- him," Johnson would snap back.
"That's right," Johnson says now. "I'd get the farthest away from him that I could so that he had no chance of getting the day off. My attitude was, he was going to play -- screw him. Maybe he'll understand he has to keep himself ready to play and get his damn rest. Usually he'd be so mad at me, he'd go out and hit two home runs. It happened more than once."
"I don't know about that," Magadan says. "Most of those times Darryl was a nonfactor."
Johnson knew Strawberry was cheating himself on the field and called him into his office on numerous occasions. The speech, Johnson says, was always the same: "You've got to take care of yourself. You've got to get your rest. You can't keep this up." Strawberry would nod and say, "Thanks, skip. I hear you. I'm going to turn things around." And the minute Strawberry walked out the door he would forget what he had heard.
Says Bry, Strawberry's former agent: "Management is so afraid to say anything to players, especially the high-paid ones. They see them on a daily basis. They're scared to death of the players, afraid to confront them if they know something's wrong. That's what happened with Darryl."
On Sept. 18, 1989, in anticipation of a New York loss, Strawberry and Kevin McReynolds began undressing in the clubhouse in the ninth inning of a game at Wrigley Field. The Mets staged a rally, however, forcing the two players to scurry back into their uniforms as their turns in the batting order approached. Johnson fined them $500 each and called a meeting the next day.
"Mac knew he was wrong, but what he really didn't like was being linked with Strawberry," Johnson says. "What really upset me was that during the meeting Darryl was saying, 'What's the big deal?' " Johnson and Strawberry nearly came to blows. Several players, including Darling, prevented a fistfight only by stepping between them. "What most people don't know," Darling says, "is that that kind of confrontation happened on planes and buses and in the clubhouse between Darryl and Davey maybe 20 times. That happened all the time."
Strawberry could be mean and antagonistic, especially from his usual spot in the back of the team bus. He would shout loud enough so that Johnson, sitting in the first row, could hear him. He once ridiculed Johnson so viciously for not giving enough playing time to outfielder Mookie Wilson that Johnson had to fight back an urge to run to the rear of the bus and pummel Strawberry. On another day Mackey Sasser, a Met catcher troubled by an embarrassing hitch in his throwing motion, was not as restrained. He charged Strawberry and came away from the assault with blood gushing from his nose.
"Darryl always thought ((ragging on people)) was funny," Magadan says. "But a lot of times it was vicious. And he wasn't always drunk. A lot of times it was on the bus right after a game."
Nobody caught more heat from Strawberry than Carter, the veteran catcher who struggled with injuries from 1987 through '89, his last two years with the Mets. "It got to the point of being very malicious," says Carter. "But a lot of it had to do with his drinking. You just let it go. I knew what it was all about. It was about money. He hated it that I was making more money than he was, even though I'd tell him, 'Darryl, you're going to make 10 times as much money in this game as I ever did.' It was the same thing with Keith Hernandez. That's why they had the fight."
In spring training of 1989, while lining up for a team picture, Strawberry suddenly took a punch at Hernandez, the Met first baseman, shouting, "I've been tired of you for years!"
"That was where it really started to unravel for Darryl," Darling says. "He lost a lot of respect, and I think he was embarrassed. Keith and Gary were at the ends of their careers, and the team was passing to Darryl and Dwight. And they were never able to lead the team in the same way. They were never able to take the team from Keith and Gary and take it another step."
As the pressure grew and as the Mets failed again and again to make it back to the World Series, Strawberry began to see himself more and more as a victim. "Other guys would have a bad year and people would make excuses for them," he says, "but if we didn't win it was my fault. My own teammates would say things about me. I could never figure that out.
"Listen, I hold myself accountable for all that's happened. I take full responsibility for what I did. But me and Doc were two young stars, black players, who came to New York, and the expectations were extremely high. I don't think any other two players in any sport came to New York at that age with expectations so high. The pressure, it was so great. That's why I want to help kids now. I didn't have anyone say, 'Let me help you.' If I had had someone like that around, maybe I'd have had a different way of dealing with it."
When Strawberry, at 21, and Gooden, at 19, joined the Mets, they became part of a team that played hard and lived harder. That group evolved into a ball club fueled by an intense desire to be the best but very often driven also by alcohol, amphetamines, gambling and drugs. Young, impressionable and unsophisticated, Strawberry and Gooden were driftwood in the current.
"When Doc came out of Smithers in 1987," Garland says, "he talked to me about how prevalent the drug use was on the team. He started calling off names. He rattled off more than 10 -- more than half the team. Probably around 14 or 15. And I thought the '84, '85 and '86 teams were wilder."
Gooden recalls the time on a team charter in 1986 when the door to one of the bathrooms popped open, revealing a teammate inside using cocaine. "A lot of us saw it," Gooden says. "We just looked at each other and said, 'Nobody saw nothing.' "
Between 1986 and '91, of the 22 Met players who appeared in the 1986 World Series, eight were arrested following incidents that were alcohol- and/or battery-related (Strawberry, Gooden, Darling, Rick Aguilera, Lenny Dykstra, Kevin Mitchell, Bob Ojeda and Tim Teufel) and a ninth was disciplined by baseball for cocaine use (Hernandez). The charges against Aguilera, Mitchell and Ojeda were eventually dropped.
Johnson, the New York manager from 1984 through part of the '90 season, has admitted he drank too much in those years. He kept a refrigerator stocked with beer in his Shea Stadium office. A former Met player even remembers one of the coaches smoking pot on a beach in Florida during one spring training.
Moreover, Johnson says he knew "a couple of the New York veterans, not including Strawberry, were using amphetamines." Says Garland, "The guys who used amphetamines, maybe the numbers weren't great, but those who did use them used them almost every day. They depended on them so much they felt like they couldn't play without them."
After the 1986 season the Mets traded Mitchell, who had grown up around gangs in San Diego, because he scared the suits in the front office. They worried he was corrupting Strawberry and Gooden. "It was a mistake," Johnson says. "Mitch would have one or two drinks, but that's it. He was a good influence on them. He played hard. He had the street smarts they lacked. He could spot trouble and tell people to get lost. They needed that."
Says Gooden, "Davey's right. They should have never traded him." The most influential player on those Met teams of the mid- to late-1980s was < Hernandez, the smarmy first baseman who, during 1985 drug trials in Pittsburgh involving 23 baseball players, admitted using cocaine while he was with St. Louis in the early '80s. Hernandez advised Strawberry on how to break out of a batting slump: Go out and get totally smashed. Strawberry remembers the time Hernandez told him he'd found the perfect drink, of which he needed only five or six in a night: "Dry martini," Strawberry says, laughing.
The other veteran pillar of the team, Carter, was ignored or, worse, ridiculed. His crime? He was a conservative family man. "There was a lack of respect for Gary Carter," Garland says. "He was clearly in an overwhelming minority -- or I should say an underwhelming minority."
The game was changing in those years, what with salaries and the memorabilia business beginning to boom; with the social status of players shifting, as revered icons became disposable celebrities; and with cocaine, as it was in the rest of American society, readily available.
Says Darling, "Darryl and, to a lesser extent, Dwight were the first athletes I'd ever seen who surrounded themselves with an inner circle of about eight to 10 associates. I felt like I never really knew either one of them. These people will tell the big star whatever he wants to hear. Their whole existence is contingent on one thing: making the man happy. It was not a real world."
The vortex of these changes -- the money, the empty adulation, the cocaine -- spun more quickly for a team from New York. The Mets became such a sexy, star-studded team that they were chased by fans carrying video cameras, the newest high-tech assault weapon of an increasingly aggressive audience. Just getting out of a hotel became an exercise in subterfuge.
The Mets were a portable party. Who among them would dare to be the grinch who turned down the music? What stick-in-the-mud would confront a teammate about drinking too much? The dynamics of the baseball clubhouse, especially the New York clubhouse, would not allow that. "All ballplayers like their beer," says a Met insider. "The difference with this team was they liked all the stuff harder than beer."
And so any talk about overindulging was done with a winking eye and a chuckle. Strawberry would see Gooden with liquor and say, "Man, you drinking again?" And Gooden would catch Strawberry doing likewise and remark, "Man, you're an alcoholic." Just something else to laugh about, that's all it was.
When Gooden got out of Smithers in 1987, his counselor there, Allan Lans, was given added responsibility as the Mets' psychiatrist. But Lans was distrusted by many players, who figured he was a spy for management. Gooden would joke to Strawberry, "Doctor Lans says you're a time bomb waiting to go off," and later Doc would simply say, "Tick, tick, tick. . . ." as he walked by Darryl.
Strawberry often left the clubhouse after games with cans of beer in a paper bag. On travel days, he and Gooden would pack large bottles of Stolichnaya vodka in their carry bags to take aboard the team charter planes.
"If we wouldn't have partied so much, we would have won more," Strawberry says. "We had a team full of drunks. We'd go into a town and couldn't wait to go out drinking and partying, always asking each other, 'Hey, where you going tonight?' If we had 24 guys on the team in those days, at least half of them were hard drinkers or drug users. That was a hard-living team."
"What I remember," Gooden says, "is we'd be on the road and we'd come back into the clubhouse after batting practice and we'd be saying, 'Yeah, let's kick some ass and then go out and show everyone we own this town.' Whether it was Montreal or St. Louis or whatever, we wanted people to know it, like we were taking over the place."
Several players were so heavily involved with poker playing that Johnson or one of his coaches occasionally sat in for a few hands in the clubhouse. "My fear," Johnson says, "was that the stakes were getting out of control, and one player would be into another player for a dangerous amount of money. That bothered me more than anything. I didn't want to see guys get hurt financially. Then there'd be animosity."
Johnson was fired during the 1990 season, in great part because Met management saw the players getting away from him. He disputes Strawberry's assessment that the team drank itself out of more titles. "I enjoyed those teams, and we were in contention every year," he says.
But Magadan, sometimes one of Strawberry's harsher critics, says, "I would agree with Darryl on that. We just lost perspective. I think a lot of guys lost sight of what our goals were. We'd go on a six-game road trip, say to Chicago and St. Louis. And instead of thinking, Let's win five out of six or six out of six, guys would be thinking, In Chicago I can go out to this restaurant and this bar, and in St. Louis I can go here and there. It was almost as if the games were getting in the way for some guys. They'd rather skip them and just go out."
Last August, on one of his first nights back home in St. Petersburg after his stay at the Betty Ford Center and his counseling sessions in New York, Gooden grabbed a cold beer from his refrigerator and jumped into his black Mercedes. One for the road. He headed north on I-275 to Tampa for a night out with friends. Already under a 60-day suspension from major league baseball, he was risking an even harsher sentence. So what? He was feeling worthless and alone. Everyone seemed to be giving up on him.
The beer started his familiar chain reaction: a few more beers that led to hard liquor that led to cocaine. "If I don't drink, I have no desire to use coke," Gooden says. "You could put a bag of coke in front of me right now and I'd have no desire for it at all. Once I drink, especially when I get drunk, the desire is there. The hard stuff leads to coke. It was the same thing over and over.
"My problems have never been here in St. Pete. I was always getting into trouble in Tampa. It's strange. I have a son in Tampa, and I go there all the time to see him. If I go to Tampa during the day, I'm fine. But in Tampa after the sun goes down, it's like I'm a vampire. I change. Get a beer for the ride, meet my friends, go to a club, and I'm in trouble.
"Why did it happen? That's one of the things I'm trying to work out with my counselor. It's tough trying to pinpoint it. It's not any one thing. It's not that simple. Why go out and get ---- faced to the max? I still can't pinpoint it."
Gooden was the greatest pitching prodigy ever. He struck out more batters (276) in 1984 than any rookie in history. At 20 he was the youngest Opening Day pitcher this century and the youngest Cy Young Award winner ever. He is the only pitcher this century to have 200 strikeouts in each of his first three seasons. Of the first 100 games he started in the big leagues, he lost only 19.
"He was by far the greatest pitcher I'd ever seen," Darling says. "I pitched behind him in the rotation, so I always charted his pitches. Those first two years, I swear, it seemed like he was 0 and 2 on 75 percent of the hitters. It was like Little League, where the other team has no chance except to bunt. If you told me Dwight was going to win 300 games and strike out 400 people one year, I'd have believed it. That's how good he was."
In the months after he was voted Rookie of the Year in 1984, Gooden, then living in Tampa, began using cocaine occasionally behind the closed bedroom doors of house parties. Life was so easy. It had to be celebrated.
"My nearest sister is 13 years older than me," says Gooden, who has five older siblings. "I don't want to say I was spoiled, but I had what I wanted growing up. Once I got to the big leagues, it happened so quickly for me. I got caught up in it."
Says Strawberry, "Doc came into the big leagues at 19. By 20 he was a big drunk hanging out in strip clubs."
"Not true," Gooden says. "It was my third year when I started to drink heavily."
By then, 1986, rumors about his drug use began to swirl. People called the Met front office claiming to have knowledge of it. Gooden missed an exhibition game because of a friend's car accident, he claimed. He missed the team's ticker-tape parade following the World Series victory because, he says now, he was hung over from the night before and overslept. He called off his engagement to Carlene Pearson and fathered a son, Dwight Jr., by another woman, Debra Hamilton of Tampa. Then he had that brawl with the Tampa police after they stopped his car.
So on March 24, 1987, at Gooden's urging, his agent, Jim Neader, met with Met vice president Al Harazin to work out a voluntary drug-testing plan. Gooden was supposed to attend the meeting but did not show. "Test for everything," Neader said. The next day, Neader told Harazin, "Go ahead, test away." So the following day, the Mets took a urine sample and sent it to St. Petersburg General Hospital.
"I feel like I have to do it," Gooden said at the time. "I want to convince the Mets more than I do anyone else."
On March 30 a test came up positive for cocaine. On April Fools' Day the Mets confronted Gooden with the test result. His first reaction was to deny it. Then he broke down and cried.
"It was an absolute bombshell," Johnson says. "I thought it wasn't true. He was on time, worked hard and set a good example for the other pitchers. He had one of the best work ethics I've seen."
Gooden's life was a lie, and the Mets unwittingly helped perpetuate it. Under the overzealous mothering of the front office and its publicity staff, Gooden was told when to speak, whom to speak to and, sometimes, what to say. Such was management's paranoia that during Gooden's first workout at Shea Stadium after his first drug rehabilitation, reporters were sequestered in an auxiliary locker room with a guard posted at the door. The press was even refused access to the press box. The Mets weren't about to let Gooden become a loose cannon like Strawberry. Problem was, they failed to let Gooden be himself.
"I became this person I really wasn't," he says. "People said I was this quiet, nice, shy kid. Sometimes I just wanted to yell, ' -- -- ' or ' ---- ' or just blow somebody out. But I'd always stop myself and say, 'I'm not supposed to be like this.' Jay ((Horwitz, the team's public relations director)) would ask me to do an interview, and even if I didn't want to do it, I'd say, 'O.K., I'll do it.' "
"The problem with Dwight," Johnson says, "is he couldn't say no. He was too nice. Evidently, he knew people in Tampa who could get you in trouble. It was like he was the lucky one, and it would be wrong for him not to be their friend, like he wanted to prove to them he wasn't acting like a big shot and turning his back on them."
Says Gooden, "That's 100 percent true. I have to be more vocal -- in any situation." Gooden, despite Horwitz's concern, decided on his own to be interviewed for this story.
"I'm not going to sit back and just take things in anymore," he says. "I have to be me. I'm going to be a little more selfish." Gooden checked into Smithers in April 1987 immediately after testing positive for cocaine. He felt awkward being there and refused to open up to Lans. I can handle this by myself, he thought. You're not much of a man if you have to go to someone else with your problems.
The counselors tried to teach him how alcohol acted as his gateway to cocaine, but the lesson didn't stick. Three weeks after he checked out of Smithers he was drinking again. "If I won, I went out drinking to celebrate," he says. "And if I lost, I went out drinking to forget about it."
After Gooden's four weeks in Smithers, Major League Baseball began testing him for drugs as often as three times per week. As he continued to test clean over the years, baseball officials relaxed their vigilance. First they stopped taking samples on the days that he pitched. Eventually the frequency of the testing shrank to four random tests over each half of the baseball season. And, Gooden says, Lans began cutting back on Gooden's aftercare, excusing him from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in New York because Gooden was such a celebrity that his appearances there were a distraction.
Meanwhile, Gooden's drinking problem deepened. With Strawberry gone to Los Angeles, the Mets plummeted to fifth place in 1991 with a 77-84 record. It was the first time Gooden had played on a losing big league team. New York's deterioration continued, with 90 losses in '92 and 103 losses and a last-place finish in '93. Gooden suffered the first two losing seasons of his big league career in those years. He tried finding solace inside a bottle of beer or vodka. It was a never-ending search. It was in those years too that his arm started feeling unresponsive.
"I didn't think it happened before, but in '92 and '93 all the drinking started to affect my performance," he says. "It was cumulative. After a while, abusing your body catches up to you. I'd be the first to admit it."
In December 1993, after one of his nocturnal sojourns into Tampa, another drug test turned up positive. Inexplicably, according to a high-ranking major league official, baseball's medical people chose to let it slide without informing the executive council or the players' union. "They didn't do him any favors by doing that," former trainer Garland says. "It does make you wonder if there were any other times they did the same thing."
But the dirty test last June was not ignored. The Mets told Gooden he was facing probable suspension for violating his aftercare program. Gooden, in deep denial, told friends that it was no big deal, that he simply had missed a test because of oversleeping. He learned of his 60-day ban on June 24, a day he was scheduled to start against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Mets, paranoid as ever, coaxed him into going ahead with his start anyway. After all, baseball wasn't ready to announce the suspension, so what would people think if Gooden was scratched from his start? It turned out to be the worst performance of his career. "If I had to do it again," he says, "there's no way I'd go out there."
At first, Gooden says, Millman and Solomon, his counselors in New York, did not recommend that he undergo another inpatient rehabilitation. His aftercare program, including the testing regimen, needed to be stepped up. Gooden, after meeting with the doctors on July 1, went home to St. Petersburg. At an outing over that Fourth of July weekend, he decided, "Well, I'll just have a couple of beers."
He continued to slide. "I always knew one or two guys who had the coke," he says. "It wasn't like I had to go driving through some bad neighborhood and roll the window down." Once, on the morning of scheduled drug tests, he called up Lans and said, "I was using last night. Should I still go ahead with the test?" Lans advised him, yes, he should let himself be tested.
Finally, on July 22, he checked into the Betty Ford Center. When he broke the news to his wife, Monica, that he was heading to the clinic, she looked puzzled and asked, "Why?"
"She didn't know how bad it was," he says. "She'd always be asleep in bed when I'd be coming home late."
But three weeks after Gooden left the clinic, his depression returned and his cocaine use continued. "Looking back on it," he says, "I should have called Jim ((Neader)) and told him what I was feeling. It's almost like you want to isolate yourself from the world. I didn't want to see anybody, even my family."
Then on Sept. 15 the Mets confirmed that Gooden had again violated his aftercare program. Baseball withheld any further action, essentially allowing him more time to pull himself together. But more samples came back dirty. On Nov. 4 he was suspended for the 1995 season.
"People ask, 'How can you use when you know you're getting tested?' " Gooden says. "It's not that easy not to. I remember when Otis Nixon tested positive again ((in 1991, while with the Atlanta Braves)). I was like, Oh, man, how could a guy do something like that with so much on the line? Now I understand."
Gooden claims he has remained clean since then and has the test results to prove it. "I want the tests," he says. "It's one thing to say it and another to have the proof to show it."
He has devoted himself to his three-times-a-week Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and his two-times-a-week sessions with a personal counselor in New Port Richey, Fla. One of the members of his AA group is a 70-year-old man who has been attending such meetings for the past 30 years. Gooden was shocked to hear him talk about episodes of still wanting to go back to alcohol. Another AA group member explained he has had nine relapses and is working hard to stave off a 10th.
"I see why," Gooden says. "You can never have this thing beat. I have to accept that. I still have my days where I get down. The difference is it doesn't stay with me as long as it did in August and September."
On Jan. 27 Gooden flew to New York to meet with Millman and Solomon. As the . plane descended to LaGuardia Airport, the side on which Gooden sat banked toward Shea Stadium, as if genuflecting. Gooden caught plain sight of the giant horseshoe with the great expanse of green laid out so invitingly inside. Overwhelmed, not with sadness but with joy, he nearly cried. At that moment he wanted to be standing on the mound, a fresh baseball in his hand, the possibilities all new again.
"C'mon, let's get inside and talk," Gooden says, gesturing toward his Mercedes as the rain begins to fall. The wheels are equipped with brilliant rims that gleam even in the late-morning gloom. Gooden selected the rims and ordered another set for Monica's Mercedes convertible. To keep himself occupied, he has turned his love for customizing cars into a serious hobby. At the moment he is tinkering with a 1974 Porsche and a 1969 Chevy. Renovation. It is what he's doing with his life.
Slipping behind the steering wheel, Gooden is still perspiring slightly from one of his typically grueling workouts with Larry Mayol, his personal trainer. He appears to be in terrific shape, and when he throws the baseball, he says, it feels like it is flying out of his hand again. "Not having alcohol in your system," he says, "it seems like it makes you meaner, quicker."
Wearing blue Met shorts and a blue nylon Met training jacket, he looks and talks as if he still were the Met ace. In fact, he has no employer, which would seem to be a daunting proposition for someone who supports an extended family. Beginning in 1987, with a $320,000 house for his parents and a $530,000 house for himself and Monica, Gooden has purchased five of the seven homes on his block, a waterfront cul-de-sac. One of the houses is the home of his nephew, Florida Marlin outfielder Gary Sheffield. Gooden wants to buy the remaining two houses from their current owners and then erect a security gate at the entrance to the street, though he says, "It's Gary's turn to buy."
Gooden, who last year finished a three-year contract originally worth $15.45 million and has earned about $25 million during his major league career, says he is financially secure. What he wants is simply to pitch in the major leagues again -- even before his suspension is scheduled to end in November. He says he has been told by baseball officials that he could be reinstated by midsummer if he shows he has put his life in order, a claim Major League Baseball does not confirm. He has a standing offer from the Mets to start talking about a new contract as soon as he is reinstated to the game. He wants nothing other than that.
"It just feels like New York is my home," he says. "I belong to New York. It seems like I did all my growing up in New York.
"Obviously, I'd like to apologize to the fans for my actions, but I can honestly say I'm on the right track. I'm getting myself in the best possible shape physically so when that chance comes I'll be ready. It may be time to quit feeling like it can be 1985 again. But I'd be lying if I said I don't want to win 20 games again.
"I keep having these daydreams about coming back. If they let me come back in June or July, I can picture winning Comeback Player of the Year and going to a dinner to get the award and giving a speech. I go over that speech all the time."
The rain has let up and the faintest bit of sunshine appears. He has to be on his way now. He has an appointment with his counselor this afternoon and an AA meeting in the evening.
Before he goes, he is asked about being paired in infamy with Strawberry. The two of them started out as stars and were going to be the dominant players of their era, sure as sunrise. Now here they are, on the outside looking in, with messy lives to clean up and careers as uncertain as they were once assured. Doc and Straw. Teammates once again.
"It's sad," he says. "The stories are kind of similar. Except Darryl was more vocal and I wasn't. Maybe if I was more vocal and if he wasn't, maybe it would have turned out better for both of us. Maybe."
Issue date: February 27, 1995