He fooled the Mets, he fooled their followers, he fooled himself. So, instead of being on the mound for the scheduled season opener this week against the Pirates, Dwight Gooden was 20 minutes and a world away from Shea Stadium, in the Smithers Alcoholism and Drug Treatment Center on Manhattan's Upper East Side. He was about to enter the second week of a rehabilitation program for cocaine abuse that will last—depending on how you look at it—either 28 days, or a lifetime. There is no telling when he will pitch again, although Mets general manager Frank Cashen said, "In a best-case scenario, one to two months."
Certainly other athletes have fallen and will continue to fall. But the shock waves following the news that Gooden had tested positive were truly extraordinary. After all, he was one of the biggest names in sports—Dr. K, idol to millions. It happened on the eve of the 1987 baseball season to the defending world champions, and to somebody who may have missed a lot of appointments but was always "a good kid."
"I don't know if I'm blind, but I couldn't believe it," said Met pitcher Ron Darling last Wednesday, April Fools' Day. "I love Dwight like a brother, and I don't care if he never pitches again. I just want him to get better."
First baseman Keith Hernandez, who in 1985 acknowledged involvement with cocaine, said, "I never saw anything wrong with Dwight. I didn't read anything into his pitching patterns. Even if I had had suspicions, I might have kept quiet. But no, I was shocked."
Also disclaiming prior knowledge that Gooden was involved with cocaine, Joe McIlvaine, the Mets' vice-president for baseball operations, said, "You can't really know anything until something actually happens."
For the Mets, something big started happening on Thursday, March 26, the day Gooden gave a urine sample. He had insisted all winter on being tested for drugs—"a cry for help," some would later call it. The Mets were informed on Monday, March 30 that the test had come up positive, indicating that Gooden had ingested cocaine during the 48 hours before the test. Cashen waited two days, "the most agonizing 48 hours of my life," before confronting Gooden. In the meantime he informed commissioner Peter Ueberroth and the Mets' board of directors. The commissioner, in turn, told the Mets that unless Gooden sought treatment, he would be suspended from baseball.
On Wednesday morning Cashen and McIlvaine met with Gooden. According to team sources, he first denied any contact with cocaine but then broke down in tears and admitted he had used the drug. Said Cashen, "Dwight was—how can I put this in a masculine way?—very, very distressed. But who knows, maybe this is the thing for him. At least we caught this thing now." That day Cashen put a little perspective on the scandal when he said: "The sudden fame and fortune he achieved was nice. But we sort of robbed him of his youth."
On Thursday morning, as Met fans were reeling from the news, Gooden flew to New York. The shock and amazement were very real, but the truth is that nobody wanted to believe that the 22-year-old Gooden, whose three-year record includes 58 victories, a 2.28 ERA, 744 strikeouts, 1 Rookie of the Year award, 1 Cy Young Award and 3 All-Star Game invitations, was following in the footsteps of Steve Howe, Vida Blue, Mike Norris and baseball's other troubled cocaine users. In fact, Gooden had been leaving clues everywhere, but the Mets either looked the other way or refused to follow them to their logical conclusion. "We wondered about the missed appointments, but we wrote it off to immaturity," said one club official.
On Dec. 27, 1985, almost a year before Gooden's now-famous fight with the law, Hillsborough County detectives, acting on an informant's tip, pulled over Gooden's car in an isolated area of the Ybor City section of Tampa. Police reported finding 1) a holstered pistol on the floor of the front passenger seat, 2) some $4,000 in cash and 3) a bag of baking soda. Herman Cousin, who describes himself as Gooden's "best friend," was riding in the backseat of the car that night. SI's Armen Keteyian talked to Cousin last week, and while Cousin explained the gun away as "protection because a lot of guys are crazy around here," and the money as something Dwight always carried around, he came up empty on the baking soda, which is commonly used to "cut" cocaine and also as an agent in free-basing.
Q: Why would somebody have baking soda in his car?