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Oh Doctor!

For old postings, check out the Table of Contents, an easy-to-read reference guide for previous stories .

Alas, this again has nothing to do with walk-offs, but it's as good a Mets-related story as I can tell, even if it is a little bit of a downer. This seems like as good a time as any, with the news of Dwight Gooden's fugitive status being resolved on Thursday.

As was mentioned in a previous post, I was a Shea Stadium tour guide for 10 weeks or so in the summer of 1994. Long story short, I showed up at an open audition advertised in the New York Times and showed enough enthusiasm in a videotaped tryout to be one of 20 or so employees hired by Nickelodeon, which was building a mini-carnival beyond the right field bullpen.

In order to prepare us to give tours, we had a couple of weeks of rehearsal time. The tour script was dreadful (those in the know realized there was no way Jay Horwitz, the Mets PR director, could have approved any of this), penned by someone who hadn't attended a game in 20+ years, who thought that the announcers broadcast the game by watching it in a tv studio. The tour guides were a devoted group of Mets fans and historians, so each worked his/her own stories into their tours. After a few sessions in front of Nickelodeon management, we were sent to different sections of the park for walkthroughs. Mornings, before players arrived, we had access to the right field bullpen, the Mets dugout and warning track (one tour guide, an aspiring actor named Lane Luckert, had me take pictures of him recreating Tommie Agee's catches in the 1969 World Series).

June 24 was a Friday and it seemed like a good night to stick around and watch a game, so I called my friends, Dan Gordon and David Cooper, and we sat through a disgusting, miserable, wet, rainy night of baseball. Dwight Gooden pitched for the Mets against the Pirates and got smoked. He gave up two home runs to Dave Clark, and left in the sixth, charged with nine runs and a loss in an awful performance. This came on the heels of two very-well pitched Gooden outings, so it seemed rather odd.

I don't remember why, but we ended up working the next day, a Saturday, perhaps because it was close to the date of the park's opening and they wanted to make sure we were ready for the supposed throngs of fans who would want to see the "inside" of Shea Stadium. When we got to the office at Shea that day, we were told to rehearse on our own. So each guide went to a different part of the ballpark to practice. I walked down to the basement, on my way to the Mets bullpen.

As I was thinking about how I could make the story of Joe Pignatano's vegetable garden sound more exciting, someone crossed my path, heading the opposite way. It wasn't just anyone though. It was Dwight Gooden. Now it couldn't have been later than noon, and the Mets weren't playing until 7 that night, so perhaps I should have thought that something was odd about his appearance. I don't think that quickly though. As Gooden walked by, I felt I had to say something. Not knowing that my future career would be in sports journalism, and that I'd talk to famous athletes regularly, I didn't know when my next chance to talk to Dwight Gooden would be. So, once he was about three or four steps past me, I yelled out "Better luck next time out, Dwight!!!"

What happened next has bothered me for the last 11 years. Instead of ignoring me, or thanking me, Dwight Gooden did neither. But as he continued to walk, I could hear his reaction very clearly- laughter. It wasn't a cackle and it wasn't a soft sound. It was a good, honest laugh.

That really struck me as odd. I went looking for my fellow tour guides and told them what happened and did the same with my family and friends. None of them could answer my question. Why did Dwight Gooden laugh?

Dwight Gooden wasn't my favorite Met of that era, but I was certainly a fan of his. I was at the Mets-Pirates game in September, 1985 when Gooden hit his first major-league home run. I was at the Mets-Cubs game in 1988 when Gooden homered, and threatened to throw a no-hitter.
In my collection of sports memorabilia, I have a really, really nice Dwight Gooden pastel drawing, done by sports artist John Kiely in 1986. I got it autographed by Gooden at a baseball card show, who had a wide grin when he saw it, asking if I was the artist who drew this picture of him rearing back to throw a fastball, with "K" placards lined up in the background.

June 28 was supposed to be a big day for Nickelodeon, as it was scheduled to be the grand opening for the mini-theme park. There were scheduled guests like the child actors from "Clarissa Explains it All" and the Adventures of Pete & Pete" and certain tour guides were selected as escorts (I was not chosen, but was selected to co-give a tour for Mets general manager Joe McIlvaine. When we showed a video of Mookie Wilson's grounder through Bill Buckner's legs, one of McIlvaine's kids responded by rolling up his shirt sleeve and showing his dad the goosebumps.) The centerpiece of this attraction, the "Guts Arena" would be host to a special show. We would give tours for the media that were expected to attend, including a reporter from Sports Illustrated. My fellow tour guides and I were quite excited.

Late in the afternoon we got word that while the park would open that evening, the media tours were abruptly canceled. At first we didn't know why, but eventually the news circulated to us. The Mets were holding a press conference to announce that Dwight Gooden had been suspended for 60 days for violating the conditions of baseball's after-care program (which he was in after being suspended for drug use prior to the start of the 1987 season). Bob Klapisch's book "High and Tight. The Rise and Fall of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry" (written with the two players) tells how Gooden admitted to using cocaine after getting drunk in a Manhattan nightclub on June 2. He had a drug test, as part of his after-care, on June 4. The results came back on June 20 and he had a meeting with the Player's Association on June 24, the day of his last start.

As detailed in this book, The Mets asked Gooden to pitch that night anyway, as the suspension would not be announced for a few days, a rather bizarre request under the circumstances. Gooden was incredulous, but agreed, and understandably, his performance was affected, thus explaining how he gave up nine runs.

So it turned out that Gooden knew his fate when we crossed paths at Shea Stadium on June 25. He knew he couldn't say anything, but he also knew that there wasn't going to be a "next time out." anytime soon. Laughter was probably his best medicine at that point.

The player's strike that August led to the end of the baseball season and eventually the end of Nickelodeon's entertainment venture at Shea Stadium. Gooden tested positive for cocaine again in September and in November it was announced that was he was suspended for the entire 1995 season. "Next time out" turned into never again for the Mets as the next time Dwight Gooden appeared in a major-league uniform, it was for the other team in New York, the Yankees.

There were more highs and lows in Gooden's career. I interrupted the watching of a Knicks playoff game to see the end of Gooden's no-hitter against the Mariners. In 1998 he was ejected in the first inning of a playoff start for the Cleveland Indians for arguing a play at home plate. In 2000, when it appeared his career was finished, he was back with the Yankees, beating the Mets at Shea Stadium in July. Gooden won a World Series ring that year, though he was ineffective in the postseason and did not pitch in the Subway Series. Gooden retired the next spring, leaving the game on a high note, with a won-loss record of 194-112 that left a lot of fans wondering how much better he would have been had drugs not gotten in his way.

This past Thursday was the 20th anniversary of Dwight Gooden becoming the youngest pitcher to win 20 games in a season (during the remarkable 24-4 campaign of 1985). It was also the day that Dwight Gooden turned himself in to Tampa police, after his latest brush with the law (Police said Gooden bolted after refusing to get out of his car after being pulled over in the middle of the night earlier in the week). When I heard the news, both of Gooden's fugitive status and of his eventual surrender, then saw video of him in an orange jumpsuit in a Florida courtroom, I had a pretty strong reaction. Because I know that this is no laughing matter.


Anonymous said…
True Metical students know that Doc's deterioration remains the saddest diagnosis in team history. But now we know another side of it. Thanks for a wonderful tour of the (unfortunately) seamy underside of Shea.
Excellent post. Here's a guy who could have had a Hall of Fame plaque gift-wrapped. Instead, he's throwing away his life.
Metstradamus said…
Great story...I can imagine that your experience would give you a cold chill in the pit of your stomach every time you reminisce about it.

I was at that same game where Gooden hit the HR against the Pirates...and I also saw Gooden walk by the ticket office a couple of days before he returned from his first drug rehab stint, before his start against the Pirates. He was signing autographs for young kids and thought that it was nice that he turned the corner. Apparently not. Sad.

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