One week after Mark McGwire clumsily asked for unofficial reinstatement to Major League Baseball, under far less controversy, the New York Mets granted absolution to two prodigal sons of another drug culture. The Mets' naming of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry to their Hall of Fame caused barely a ripple of attention, in part because the McGwire fallout kept its momentum but also because the announcement was, if anything, too long coming.
Gooden, who last pitched for the Mets in 1994, and Strawberry, who last played for the club in 1990, once were pariahs in Flushing because of the illegal drugs and alcohol that sabotaged, not enhanced, their careers. Time and reformed lives, however, have brought them back into good graces with their original team. The public anger directed toward them has waned with time and the understanding that sometimes even good people make bad decisions.
Would the same perspective someday apply to steroids, a drug of another choice and culture? The Cardinals, for instance, have kept a statue of McGwire in storage. The Athletics have shown no interest in retiring the number of McGwire, the all-time Oakland home run leader. The Hall of Fame voters want nothing to do with steroid users. Baseball lifers such as Whitey Herzog, Carlton Fisk, Jack Clark and Ferguson Jenkins have hammered McGwire.
"Eventually we will," former Mets manager Davey Johnson said about absolution of the juicers. "It's going to take a while. I don't blame the athletes so much as I blame the training techniques that led to that. Guys did it to get better. And as with all training techniques that make you better, with it comes more adulation, more press, more money and more fame."
Johnson and former Mets general manager Frank Cashen also will be inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame this summer. Johnson always was something of a rebel, a guy who questioned authority and was an early adapter to the trend of baseball statistical analysis. He was so inspired by Earnshaw Cook's 1964 book Percentage Baseball that he called up the author, a Princeton grad, engineer and consultant on the Manhattan Project, to discuss his ideas.
But Johnson was smart enough to use the numbers to complement, not replace, his skills as a leader of men. For instance, he chose Wally Backman over incumbent second baseman Brian Giles "even though Giles had 10 times more talent. Backman had great makeup."
In Gooden and Strawberry, Johnson managed two guys who appeared certain to be going to the Hall of Fame, the one in Cooperstown. At ages 19, 20 and 21, Gooden was the most dominating prodigy the big leagues have ever seen. If you think Tim Lincecum has been outrageously good in his first three seasons (40-17, 2.90 ERA, 676 strikeouts), Gooden was even better (58-19, 2.28, 744 strikeouts) -- while being four years younger.
Cocaine sent Gooden careening off the Cooperstown highway, the result, Johnson said, of a kind of social awkwardness. "Darryl could say no more than Doc," Johnson said. "Even if Doc wanted to say no, he would always wind up saying yes. He wanted to be a good guy. He wanted to be thought of as a good guy with his people."
Something else, though, happened to Gooden. Johnson said he remembers one game -- he thinks it was early in the 1987 season -- when he was so struck by a change in Gooden's mechanics that he hollered to his pitching coach, Mel Stottlemyre, "Mel, what in hell is going on?" Gooden had been such a smooth, savvy pitcher that when Johnson saw him at 17 years old he thought he was ready for the major leagues even then. His delivery was naturally long and loose, a machine operating under optimal viscosity. But on that day in 1987 Johnson noticed the pumping action of Gooden's hands and arms had been replaced by a more conservative, structured form in which he kept his hands high by his head. It was like driving a Maserati with the valet key.
"Mel said, 'Well, the front office wants his delivery to be a little less violent and a little more quiet,''' Johnson said. "I said, 'That's b.s. We don't have to do something like that to this young man.' I was really against that. If it wasn't broke, don't fix it."
Strawberry was moodier than Gooden, both more fun at his best and much darker at his worst. Johnson said he constantly had to tell Strawberry to take care of his body, to make sure he obtained proper rest, which was code for not lingering too long in bars.
"The Catholic orphanage in Queens loved Darryl," Johnson said. "All his fine money went there."
Gooden and Strawberry would have to leave the Mets to find some redemption to their lives and careers; ironically they found the greatest measures of both while playing for the Yankees. Strawberry actually posted a better on-base percentage as a Yankee than as a Met and won three more World Series rings. Gooden threw a no-hitter as a Yankee.
Despite much of their talent and time gone to waste, both still managed to construct better, more prolific careers than commonly assumed. Strawberry played 17 seasons, hit 335 homers and drove in 1,000 runs. Gooden pitched 16 seasons and compiled some aggregate numbers just as a Met (157-85, 3.10 ERA, 303 starts) that approximate those of Sandy Koufax as a Dodger (165-87, 2.76, 314 starts).
With time, their stories don't seem as sad and painful as they once did. Both men have found some sobriety in their lives, though only after a series of fits and starts to get there. And while they might not have made it to Cooperstown, they did make it to the Mets Hall of Fame, enshrined for the too-brief magic of their youth before the drugs and boozing took hold.
The likes of McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro have a tougher, longer road to redemption. Of course, the drugs they took enhanced what they did as ballplayers, inflating careers, not shortening them. The Hall of Fame in Cooperstown won't have them for that alone. The instructions on the ballot to consider character, integrity and sportsmanship were written specifically for on-fieldissues -- blowing up the apologists' arguments that if racists, boors and misanthropes could be Hall of Famers, why not juicers?
Redemption, too, remains farther out of reach for the juicers because coming truly clean -- that the illegal stuff works -- is too hard a blow to their professional pride.
"When I came up, Brooks Robinson had no muscles," Johnson said. "He had a closet, and in Brooks Robinson's closet was something like 100, 150 bats. And they went anywhere from 29 to 32 ounces. And as the season went on -- as a player you get tired -- he used to go to lighter and lighter bats. Well, when you're taking something that allows you to work out more, you never get tired."
In Johnson's last year as a big league manager, 2000 with the Dodgers, he walked into the clubhouse kitchen and saw one of his players fixing some kind of blended drink. The player told him it was a "protein drink," and asked Johnson if he wanted some. Johnson took a sample, no more than a half-inch of the stuff in a cup.
"I took one swig," Johnson said, "and my heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to pound right out of my chest."
Guys took powders and pills when they weren't even sure what was in them. The push for "bigger, faster, stronger" is embedded in an athlete's DNA. It is part of the evolution of man and of the sports he plays. As Johnson said, "If you could somehow have the 1927 Yankees playing the 2009 Yankees, the guys today are much bigger and stronger and better. There's no comparison."
Not all athletes, however, come equipped with the same moral compass. Some were guided by the external force of "the culture," while others made a decision that came from within. We understand it now. The ballplayers, though, don't give us such credit.
I will never forget the sheer honesty and courage of Ken Caminiti, who told me back in 2002 that not only did he use steroids, but also that they worked amazingly well -- made him feel like "Superman," turned warning-track fly balls into home runs -- and that he had no remorse about using them because so many others did, too. They were part of the unwritten rules of engagement of the era.
Eight years later, despite all that we now know about the Steroid Era, despite the Mitchell Report, despite BALCO, despite the positive drug tests, despite Kirk Radomski and Brian McNamee and Curtis Wentzlaff, Caminiti's voice remains too uniquely honest. Other than Jose Canseco, not a single prominent player has yet matched the level of truth of the late Caminiti.
Johnson may be right eventually. Maybe the day does come when the juicers are understood less judgmentally, as casualties of a culture, the way Gooden and Strawberry were of the preceding one. That day will come only with more time and truth.