By Jason Keidel
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Perhaps the worst-kept secret in sports history is spilling onto the national stage.
Doc Gooden may be in peril.
The backdrop consists of a wide confluence of recent events, spawned by nostalgia, with the 30th anniversary of the Mets’ last World Series championship and the 20th anniversary of the Yankees’ dynasty-hatching title in 1996. Hence the stars of each squad had been summoned to myriad media spots.
The latest iteration of the “Save Doc Gooden” campaign started last week when the former pitching great missed a WFAN appearance. But Darryl Strawberry, the other half of the iconic tandem scheduled to appear before a studio audience, did show up. And when asked about Gooden, he said he was quite concerned.
Then Strawberry took his crusade to the tabloids, calling Gooden a “junkie-addict” in the New York Daily News. It felt crude and abrupt, but Strawberry felt compelled to do it, under the weight of their friendship, under pressure from Gooden’s friends and family, and under the banner of survival.
Gooden has asserted that his mental and physical health are fine. To the experienced eye, however, it’s hard to buy it.
Not because he’s a liar. Not because he’s a bad guy. Not because we don’t want to believe him. Rather, there’s nothing in his life, his bio, his conduct to suggest everything is fine. The only one saying Doc Gooden is doing well is Doc Gooden.
Normally, there would be a gaggle of surrogates flooding the phones or newspapers with quotes supporting Gooden’s assertion. But you have heard none. If you saw the front page of the Daily News earlier this week, you saw a tired and gaunt Gooden, a person who hardly looked like someone of sound spirit.
This is not a criticism or condemnation. This is not a judgment or official diagnosis. This is, like millions of you, a fan who wants the laconic, iconic pitcher to grow old with us. Though he is from Florida, we long ago adopted him, a de facto New Yorker for 30 years. We love him.
A few months ago, I wrote a feature on Gooden, his time with the Yankees, and his relationship with George Steinbrenner. I would love to tell you how many times he backed out of a scheduled interview. But they were too frequent to recall.
Coincidence? Perhaps. People close to Gooden — particularly his mother — have been in poor health, which could have clouded his daily thoughts. But in total, the aggregate accounts of those who care for him or contact him with some frequency have encountered similar, if not identical, roadblocks.
This is classic addiction behavior. Three of my four grandparents were alcoholics. Both my parents have had chemical dependency issues. Surely you can finish the family algorithm from there. Those of us who have fallen through the trapdoor of addiction know it when we see it. And Strawberry sees it.
First, let’s erase the cultural partition of “alcohol” and “drugs.” Not only is alcohol a drug, it’s the king drug, wrecking more lives and families than all hardcore narcotics combined. The difference, of course, is Uncle Sam endorses and taxes booze, so it’s sanctioned. For more than a decade, alcohol was illegal, an abomination of legislation that finally was reversed. Not because the government saw the light or realized how wrong it was to regulate personal and private conduct, but rather because the powers that were could no longer find 12 jurors who would convict John Doe for making bathtub gin.
But the combination of alcohol and cocaine is the Dean and Jerry of drugs. Perfect. Yin and yang. The upper and downer. And Gooden loved the chemical combo the moment he indulged. And the narcotic cocktail has haunted him for decades.
You don’t have to be Dr. Phil or Dr. Drew to see Gooden’s pain. Ironically, Gooden spent time in Drew Pinsky’s “Celebrity Rehab” facility. He displayed the same, humble charm that made him a media darling from 1984 until 2000. But, like so many spins through the car wash of rehab, it hasn’t blunted his raging compulsion to use drugs. Not if all these pictures, anecdotes and accounts are accurate.
Then there’s the expected social media rampage. The online gangsters, from Joey Biceps in Brooklyn to Mikey Knuckles in Lodi, mete out their medieval sense of justice. Always declaring that addiction is a weakness, not an illness, the Twitter tough guys seem to know more than the American Medical Association, which properly asserts that it’s a disease.
At least 10 percent of Americans abuse booze or hard drugs — at least 35 million people, including that guy or gal you swore had it all together. But since the bruise is on the brain, our fear and ignorance kick in. Since we can’t spot it on an X-ray or wrap a bandage around it, it’s clearly not a “disease” as we understand them.
So when Strawberry missed the 1998 World Series with colon cancer, the city swathed him in prayer. Yet back when he and Gooden were squatting in red-eyed agony in the Shea Stadium dugout, they were coddled drunks, just kids abusing their blessed limbs with impunity.
Of course, we all morph into medics and shrinks and social workers when someone else is hurting, especially when it comes to mental illness, which we weaponize for our own aggrandizement.
You’ve heard it all before: He’s weak. He’s letting his team and town down. Why now? When they need him most? Selfish. You hear the same doomsday clichés over suicide. Chump. Coward. Narcissist.
Maybe Gooden let you down. Maybe you wince while explaining to your son the perils of addiction. Maybe you strolled through Queens in Gooden’s jersey in 1986 and have since chucked it into the dumpster of history.
Yet if Gooden had a brain tumor or pancreatic cancer, you’d speed dial FTD to order a bouquet for the heroic former pitcher.
Gooden seems to be in such soul-snatching pain that his ex-girlfriend has pleaded publicly for help while his son has, too, asked for support, according to both Strawberry and Gooden’s ex. Strawberry has apparently tried to reach his friend through back channels and private rooms. He has failed. So in abject desperation, he is now using the tentacles of media as his surrogate, a public intervention.
Gooden didn’t miss the 1986 World Series parade because he couldn’t find a ride. Strawberry drove to Gooden’s house to take him to Manhattan. But instead, Gooden’s was freebasing cocaine in a dark, dank shack designed to keep the addict inside the room and outside reality, Strawberry told me.
That day, which should have been the best of Gooden’s life, became a haunting precursor for the rest of his adult life. The WFAN event Gooden missed last week wasn’t the first, and it’s possible it won’t be the last.
For his part, Gooden says he does not use drugs and hasn’t for years. While I have no direct proof to the contrary, I would bet my life against it. There are a thousand reasons to suspect Gooden is still actively using, and only one reason to believe he’s not — his own statement. We would love to believe him. But if we love him, we shouldn’t believe him.
Forgive the cliche, but to know Doc Gooden is to love Doc Gooden. I asked for 15 minutes, and he gave me 45. Had I needed two hours, he would have happily obliged. When he spoke about Steinbrener’s avuncular fondness for his players, my eyes bubbled with tears. Likewise, when I spoke with Strawberry two weeks later, I was equally moved by his innate love for Gooden.
Gooden was warm, kind and candid. His low-key baritone and head-down humility is his personality, not his persona. He’s still so charmingly humble, deflecting praise and sprinkling it upon his teammates. He loves people. He loves baseball. He even loves Strawberry.
It just doesn’t seem like he loves himself. So someone has to do it for him, before we lose Doc Gooden again.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel