By Jason Keidel
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If you’ve had the pleasure to spend time in a room or on the phone with Doc Gooden or Darryl Strawberry, you’ve done more than spoken to a wildly gifted athlete. More than chatted with a Big Apple icon.
There’s something special about both men, beyond their physical contours and baseball résumés. There’s a charm, a humility, a savant’s reticence to parade his brilliance.
And a pain in each man’s voice. It’s the kind of pain that comes from failure. Profound failure. Not the kind that comes while strolling back to the dugout after a strikeout or surrendering a home run. Something inside the soul. From falling short of what they and the world thought they should be. The kind of pain that only famous people must feel.
We’ve long linked the two men because of their baseball feats. Because they played on the same team at the same time, both representing a resurgence, a revival after that long slumber of the 1970s.
But it turns out that Doc & Darryl are hardly chummy, and are far more Bette Davis and Joan Crawford than Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie. As far as Gooden sees it, he’s had enough of Strawberry.
Doc is furious with Darryl. He says Strawberry has been disrespecting and disparaging him for some time. All in public, with the press. Everything from calling him out on myriad addictions to calling him homeless. Who knows what’s really been said or when? The only thing we can confirm is Doc’s feelings.
If you watched the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary on the dynamic pair, you likely sensed the stiffness between them. Even under the best pretense, a celebration of their high deeds under brown leaves, you felt the frost in that diner as they faced each other in that booth, the tension while they tugged on the straw in those plastic cups. They spent much of the time gazing out the window or staring down, but rarely looking at each other.
Last summer I interviewed Strawberry about the 20th anniversary of the 1996 Yankees and the dynasty that squad spawned. He beams when you mention the Yankees years. You get the sense that his time with the Mets was equal parts talent and torment, grateful for the fame and fortune and winning, but there was a clear and deep burden that came with it. But the mere mention of the Yankees — of George Steinbrenner, the second chance and second act of his career — is like throwing open the curtain to allow a decade of sunshine to beam into the room.
When I got to Doc, Strawberry spoke of him in familiar, familial tones. “He’s my brother,” Darryl told me. But even through the smile I sensed a fatigue in his voice, almost as if he were tired of the bromides, of feeding us what we want to hear. He does care about Doc, but his tone was loaded with fine print. Strawberry sounds like a man who’s been through a lot, yet also someone who feels fairly good about his own place right now.
Speaking to Doc is an entirely different thing. He is not only hurting, but he’s humble. There’s a disarming modesty to Doc that compels you to hug him, to help him, to reach across the table, to put your palm over the phone so he doesn’t hear you cry. To just ask if he’s OK. Yes, it took me weeks just to reach Doc. Maybe a dozen phone messages, dozens of calls and a few missed appointments. It’s easy, facile, almost a cliché to blame it on a binge. But it’s not for a reporter to be presumptuous. You can form your own opinion.
Maybe that’s what Darryl wants and means to do — to help, to counsel, to save. But something is lost in the message. Maybe Doc is defensive. Maybe Darryl is offensive. It seems the tipping point came last summer when Doc didn’t show for a WFAN event that Darryl attended. Darryl then said publicly that he worried Doc was dead or dying. Maybe Doc doesn’t want his business in the street like that. Maybe Doc didn’t show for a valid reason. Maybe Darryl, based on his experience as an addict and someone who now counsels addicts, saw something, was haunted or reminded of something.
By nearly all accounts, including his own, Darryl has had a nice stretch of clean time. He’s not only sober but helping others get sober through rehab facilities he runs. Perhaps Doc isn’t quite there with Darryl. But who can really parse the particulars, between rumor and anger, between the lies, the truth and the opaque world in between?
No matter how sincere or superficial things got between them, this is sad. Is Doc right? Is Darryl taking gratuitous shots at his former teammate and brother? Or is Darryl making an educated guess on the low life arc of the addict? That’s really between them.
And not even the media has a unified sense of the spat. A piece by Kevin Kiernan in the New York Post has Doc saying he will never speak to Darryl again. Yet a piece from the Daily News on the same day has Doc forgiving Darryl for the barbs and accusations. In both cases, however, Doc is not currently speaking to Darryl. It’s taken on surreal contours, maybe more befitting the Daily Bugle or Daily Planet.
No matter your side of the aisle, this is a shame. Even those of us born and raised as Yankees fans feel the abject sadness of it all. As Yankees fans, we winced while the Mets bogarted the bold ink and owned the ’80s, as they knocked the Yankees off the back page and from their perch as the baseball core of the Big Apple. Even then, we appreciated the alchemy of those Mets teams in general, and the athletic magic of Doc and Darryl.
We all get old and die. But along the way we do a few things, and make a few friends. If you don’t make the most of a given career, you can’t go back and fix it. But you can fix a friendship. Doc and Darryl may have retired from the diamond, but here’s hoping they patch things before they retire from life.
Please follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel