Beneath a blue skystreaked by high-flying clouds, and with a salty breeze wafting through thepark's trees, the young man in the Nike T-shirt and the New York Mets pantswalked slowly to the plate.
"Come on,Doc!" shouted a voice from the dugout along the first base line.
Dwight Goodenswung the bat above his head, reached out to tap the plate, set himself in thebox and looked out at the pitcher. It was Dec. 21, a comely Sunday afternoon inTampa, and for at least one blessed moment, Dr. K was lost in nothing but thegame of baseball. His slo-pitch softball team, the Neighborhood All-Stars, waslosing 10-3 in the eighth inning to the club from Town and Country SportingGoods. But Gooden was perfectly happy, because there is nothing he would ratherdo on a Sunday in the off-season than play shortstop and bat third at Henry andOla Playground in the town where he grew up and learned the game.
"I lovesoftball," Gooden had said. "I get to hit more often than in baseball,and I can be a power hitter in this game. It's fun. We have four or five guyson the team who play professional ball. By the time we're through with ourseason, the softball season has already started, and it's tough to get in [aleague]. We just go around and find teams to play."
January 5, 1987
And Gooden, forthe most part, just plays it loose and swings away. With nephew Gary Sheffield,a minor leaguer in the Milwaukee Brewers' system, on first base in the eighth,Doc crushed the first pitch, sending it in a towering arc toward the fence inleft centerfield.
"That's outtahere!" shouted the on-deck hitter, Vance Lovelace, a minor league pitcherwith the California Angels. The ball fell 10 feet beyond the fence, about 285feet away, and Gooden trotted very slowly around the bases. The blow began atwo-inning rally that ultimately carried his team to a 12-11 victory. The goldin his teeth flashed in the light as he high-fived his way into the dugout.
"You lookedlike Reggie!" cried centerfielder Marvin Lancaster. Gooden laughed.
"Hey, Doc,what'd you hit?" someone asked.
"A hangingslider!" he replied.
And he sat downand smiled again. "I really enjoy this," Dwight Gooden said."Sometimes we play three or four games on a Sunday. I really look forwardto these games. It's so relaxing. It's fun. Just fun."
And it was abouttime for some of that, what with the ordeal that he had just been through. The22-year-old Gooden—the 1985 Cy Young Award winner, the ace of the 1986 worldchampion New York Mets, "baseball's Mozart"—was now finished with themost difficult week of his life. Late on the night of Dec. 13, Tampa policestopped Gooden in his silver Mercedes for what appeared to be a routine trafficviolation. But what ensued led to Gooden's arrest on charges of battery on apolice officer and violently resisting arrest, both felonies bearing maximumpenalties of five years in prison and $5,000 in fines, and a third charge ofdisorderly conduct, a misdemeanor for which he could serve a maximum of 60 daysin jail. Also arrested were four of Gooden's companions: Lovelace, 23,Sheffield, 18, Phillip Walker, 23, and Derrick Pedro, 17, all on charges ofbattery on the police and violently resisting arrest.
For Gooden, theincident brought to a dramatic climax what had already become the mostbewildering year of his life in the limelight. It was a year in which he notonly lost movement on his fastball and control of all his pitches but alsoappeared, in the eyes of Gooden watchers everywhere, to be losing his grip onhis life outside the game. No sooner had he been released from jail thanobservers were recapping other incidents and affairs in which Gooden hadexercised questionable judgment.
In January, hesprained an ankle, and for 10 days he hobbled around without reporting theinjury to the Mets, who learned of it via an anonymous phone call. He was finedon the last day of spring training for missing practice because of an autoaccident in which he variously claimed to be the driver, a passenger or awitness. There was the incident at the Hertz rental car counter in April, whenhe, his sister and his fiancèe, Carlene Pearson, got into an argument with arental clerk over their mileage account. Carlene had to go out into the rain torecheck the odometer, and when the clerk still doubted the mileage Dwight'ssister threw a drink at the clerk. To that incident he pleads innocent, sayingit was his sister and Pearson who did the arguing. "I was the referee,"he says. Besides, the clerk was wrong.
The day after theMets won the World Series, a seven-gamer in which he went winless, Goodenmissed the team's victory parade, pleading a beer hangover. And after theSeries, in a widely publicized episode, he and Pearson broke off theirengagement amid reports that he was the father of a child born in March toanother woman, Debra Hamilton of Tampa. Gooden says that his fiancèe had knownabout the child for months and that their breakup had nothing to do with thechild. Contrary to those who would see a disturbing pattern, one suggestingthat he is not handling the pressures of wealth and celebrity well, Good-enhimself sees no pattern at all.
"They havenothing to do with one another," he says. "They'll write that stuff,but they're unrelated."
Unrelated or not,they came during a year in which Gooden had demonstrated his mortality on thefield, too. Here was the young man who two years before, at 19, had finishedhis Rookie of the Year season with a 17-9 record, 276 strikeouts in 218 inningsand an ERA of 2.60. The era of Dr. K was born. In 1985 he was praised even morefor his maturity and poise on the mound as he had an illustrious season: a 24-4record, with 268 strikeouts in 276.2 innings and an ERA of 1.53. He seemed tobe somehow magical. At 21, he was clearly a young man on his way toCooperstown.
It was againstthis backdrop that the problems began. In May and June, during the worst slumpof his career, he had a 3-3 record, with two no-decisions, and an ERA of 3.99.Some blamed cool weather. Others saw hitters finally adjusting to him andlaying off the high gas they had chased the year before. Still others saw himsuddenly pressing. "I was trying to do too much," he says. "It wasa mind thing. When I started struggling, I tried too hard. I startedoverthrowing the ball."
Whatever it was,the man who had been nearly perfect no longer was. Oh, he finished the year at17-6, an exceptional season for almost anyone else. His ERA went up to 2.84,and his strikeouts fell to 200 in 250 innings. Those perceived failings, alongwith the small curves his life was taking off the field, led to rumors that hewas taking drugs. "That bothered him," Lovelace says. "All he hasto be is nice and relaxed and everything would fall into place for him. If theystart rumors about you, you're not going to relax. It's on your mind."Gooden not only denied the gossip, but he offered to put a drug-testing clausein his next contract. His performance in the World Series, in which he wasknocked out of two games, deeply disappointed him.
"I didn'tpitch like I wanted, not like I should," he told his best and oldestfriend, professional boxer Troy Davis. "But I was kind of nervous. A lot ofpressure on me."
But none of it waslike the pressure he felt on Dec. 13. Gooden and six companions attended abasketball game between the University of Florida and the University of SouthFlorida at the Sun Dome in Tampa. On their way home, after stopping at Chili'sHamburger Grill and Bar for a couple of drinks, the group ended up headingsouth on Nebraska Avenue. There, Tampa policeman Jeffrey Smith said, he sawGooden's Mercedes and Sheffield's Corvette weaving through the traffic andchanging lanes.
He pulled themover. The police account of the incident differs sharply from the accounts ofwitnesses. "They laid him [Gooden] on his belly, and they started kickinghim," said Daniel Hopkins, a 25-year-old drywall finisher who lives in atrailer near the scene of the arrests. "You could hear the breath go out ofhim every time they kicked him. I mean, there were eight or nine cops kickinghim or hitting him, and he's on his belly all chained up. They treated him likea slab of meat. They were kneeing him to pieces. Then they threw him in theirwagon like a butchered hog."
"It was like abarroom brawl that had spilled out into the parking lot, and the police werejust wading in to break it up," said passerby Jerry Halstead, a marketingexecutive from St. Petersburg. "The only difference was, the two guys beinghit by the police weren't fighting back. One guy [presumably Gooden] was lyingface down on the ground, and two or three officers were hitting him with theirfists, and one guy was hitting him with either a billy club or a flashlight....It was just like they [the Tampa police] went nuts."
A third witness,Joe Riley, said he saw police struggling with Gooden when a female officersuddenly came running across the street and hit him in the face with aheavy-duty flashlight. "It was like he melted and went to the ground,"Riley says. Riley is black. Hopkins and Halstead are white.
None of theseaccounts appeared in the police reports. According to the police, Gooden gotout of his car and "started yelling, using profane language" andaccusing Smith of "police harassment." At one point, after Goodensurrendered his license, Smith said that he turned his back on Gooden to walkover to another car when Gooden started "yelling, 'Give me my——ing licenseback.' "
Then, Smith said,Gooden "came up from behind in a combative manner with his arms up,yelling." When he raised a hand to defend himself, Smith said, Goodengrabbed his wrist and said, "You don't——ing touch me." Smith said thatwhen another officer grabbed Gooden around his neck to subdue him, the pitcher"started struggling violently."
Hopkins said thatGooden got out of his car after the police pulled him over, and that he stoodbehind his Mercedes. As police searched him there, Hopkins recalled, Goodensaid, "What are you arresting me for? Just because I'm driving a nice car,that don't mean I'm a drug dealer. I ain't no druggie!" When police orderedGooden to lie down on the ground, says Hopkins, Gooden protested, "I ain'tno dog!"
Police finallyforced Gooden to the ground. Sandra Riley, Joe Riley's wife, saw Gooden lyingon his stomach, his hands and feet bound together behind his back. "I saidto my husband, 'They have him like a hog!' " she said. Hopkins said he was"shocked" when the police started beating Gooden. "When you're downon the ground," said Hopkins, "and have eight or nine guys kicking atyou, how can you defend yourself? I thought Gooden came out of it a lot betterthan I thought he would. I thought his ribs had been busted."
(Police later wentto Hopkins to question him about what he had witnessed. "They were tryingto confuse me," said Hopkins, "but I know what I saw. I'll take a liedetector test if I have to.")
If the Tampa BayBuccaneers had long since put the city to sleep, the Gooden affair suddenlywoke it up. Col. David M. Parrish, the head of the Hillsborough County jail,where Gooden was booked, had not seen such a swirl of activity for some time."We had a mass murderer here a couple of years ago," Parrish said."It went crazy then."
Gooden also foundhimself at the center of a civil rights controversy. All of the policemeninvolved at the scene were white, and everyone in Gooden's group was black. BobGilder, the head of the Tampa chapter of the National Association for theAdvancement of Colored People, fired off a telegram to the U.S. JusticeDepartment asking for an investigation.
"According toall the witnesses I talked to," said Gilder, "they handcuffed his feetand hands behind his back and beat his ass. If this is true, somebody's got todo something downtown [at City Hall]. Dwight had complained to me before thatthey were following him. They might not have known it was Dwight. They followall niggers in Mercedes. They think the only people who can drive Mercedes andwear jewelry are drug dealers. I would bet my last sweet potato pie that theythought Dwight Gooden was a drug dealer when they stopped him."
Gilder was furtheroutraged at the release of the results of a blood test made at the hospitalwhere Gooden was taken for treatment after the scuffle. They revealed that hisblood-alcohol level was .111, just above Florida's legal limit of .110 fordriving while intoxicated. The police had nothing to do with the test, saidGilder, and the report was not theirs to release. "That's another violationof his goddam civil rights," Gilder said.
Gooden went intoseclusion immediately after his ordeal. And as the accounts of the witnessescame in, the police department issued the following statement: "Discussionsare now being conducted between defense attorneys and the State Attorney'sOffice, and it would be inappropriate to make any further statements at thistime." It now appears that both sides want to settle the whole thingquickly and quietly, for the sake of both Tampa and Gooden.
Gooden firstsurfaced to make a public statement on Friday, Dec. 19, when he called a pressconference that was intended, in part, to ease the racial tensions in the city."I don't want to see anybody get hurt, especially around the holidays,"he said. "Merry Christmas to everybody."
His left eye wasstill bloodshot from a blow to the head, but the puffiness visible in thepolice mug shot had disappeared. By Sunday, when he showed up at the softballfield, the redness in the eye was almost gone. For him, the long year wasalmost gone, too. "I'll start working out in a few weeks," he said."I'm very much looking forward to next year. Should be an excitingseason."
Only on the field,one would hope.