He fooled the Mets, he fooled their followers, he fooled himself. So, instead of being on the mound for the scheduled season opener this week against the Pirates, Dwight Gooden was 20 minutes and a world away from Shea Stadium, in the Smithers Alcoholism and Drug Treatment Center on Manhattan's Upper East Side. He was about to enter the second week of a rehabilitation program for cocaine abuse that will last—depending on how you look at it—either 28 days, or a lifetime. There is no telling when he will pitch again, although Mets general manager Frank Cashen said, "In a best-case scenario, one to two months."
Certainly other athletes have fallen and will continue to fall. But the shock waves following the news that Gooden had tested positive were truly extraordinary. After all, he was one of the biggest names in sports—Dr. K, idol to millions. It happened on the eve of the 1987 baseball season to the defending world champions, and to somebody who may have missed a lot of appointments but was always "a good kid."
"I don't know if I'm blind, but I couldn't believe it," said Met pitcher Ron Darling last Wednesday, April Fools' Day. "I love Dwight like a brother, and I don't care if he never pitches again. I just want him to get better."
First baseman Keith Hernandez, who in 1985 acknowledged involvement with cocaine, said, "I never saw anything wrong with Dwight. I didn't read anything into his pitching patterns. Even if I had had suspicions, I might have kept quiet. But no, I was shocked."
April 12, 1987
Also disclaiming prior knowledge that Gooden was involved with cocaine, Joe McIlvaine, the Mets' vice-president for baseball operations, said, "You can't really know anything until something actually happens."
For the Mets, something big started happening on Thursday, March 26, the day Gooden gave a urine sample. He had insisted all winter on being tested for drugs—"a cry for help," some would later call it. The Mets were informed on Monday, March 30 that the test had come up positive, indicating that Gooden had ingested cocaine during the 48 hours before the test. Cashen waited two days, "the most agonizing 48 hours of my life," before confronting Gooden. In the meantime he informed commissioner Peter Ueberroth and the Mets' board of directors. The commissioner, in turn, told the Mets that unless Gooden sought treatment, he would be suspended from baseball.
On Wednesday morning Cashen and McIlvaine met with Gooden. According to team sources, he first denied any contact with cocaine but then broke down in tears and admitted he had used the drug. Said Cashen, "Dwight was—how can I put this in a masculine way?—very, very distressed. But who knows, maybe this is the thing for him. At least we caught this thing now." That day Cashen put a little perspective on the scandal when he said: "The sudden fame and fortune he achieved was nice. But we sort of robbed him of his youth."
On Thursday morning, as Met fans were reeling from the news, Gooden flew to New York. The shock and amazement were very real, but the truth is that nobody wanted to believe that the 22-year-old Gooden, whose three-year record includes 58 victories, a 2.28 ERA, 744 strikeouts, 1 Rookie of the Year award, 1 Cy Young Award and 3 All-Star Game invitations, was following in the footsteps of Steve Howe, Vida Blue, Mike Norris and baseball's other troubled cocaine users. In fact, Gooden had been leaving clues everywhere, but the Mets either looked the other way or refused to follow them to their logical conclusion. "We wondered about the missed appointments, but we wrote it off to immaturity," said one club official.
On Dec. 27, 1985, almost a year before Gooden's now-famous fight with the law, Hillsborough County detectives, acting on an informant's tip, pulled over Gooden's car in an isolated area of the Ybor City section of Tampa. Police reported finding 1) a holstered pistol on the floor of the front passenger seat, 2) some $4,000 in cash and 3) a bag of baking soda. Herman Cousin, who describes himself as Gooden's "best friend," was riding in the backseat of the car that night. SI's Armen Keteyian talked to Cousin last week, and while Cousin explained the gun away as "protection because a lot of guys are crazy around here," and the money as something Dwight always carried around, he came up empty on the baking soda, which is commonly used to "cut" cocaine and also as an agent in free-basing.
Q: Why would somebody have baking soda in his car?
A: Good question.
Q: Got any answers?
Last January, Gooden turned an ankle but neglected to inform the Mets. He failed to show up as promised at the New York Baseball Writers Dinner to accept his 1985 Cy Young Award. He missed an exhibition game, reporting falsely that he had been involved in an auto accident. In April he, his fiancèe, Carlene Pearson, and his sister Betty got into a much-publicized argument at a Hertz counter at La Guardia Airport. While he was an effective pitcher last year (17-6, 2.84 ERA), he was not the same pitcher. "He fell in love with his curveball," some said. Or: "He wasn't gripping the ball right." Or: "He was dropping down."
After the World Series, Gooden missed the Mets' victory parade up Broadway because, he said, he "overslept." On Dec. 13, Tampa police stopped his Mercedes and a ferocious battle ensued that left Gooden bruised and beaten. The police department also took a beating for its overzealous-ness. Gooden was placed on three-year probation, and as part of his community service, he made a local "Say No to Drugs" commercial.
He kept missing appointments. Twice he failed to show up for ceremonies retiring his uniform at Hillsborough High in Tampa. Another time, according to his high school coach Billy Reed, he was supposed to throw out the first ball at the opening of the Little League he played in as a kid, but turned up at another Little League instead and threw out its first ball. Still, he reported to spring training clear-eyed and cheerful and. though he wasn't pitching very well, it was generally acknowledged that power pitchers often start slowly.
In the meantime, the Mets kept urging him to leave Tampa and move permanently to New York. "What worried me was the bad influences on him from his friends in Tampa," said Met outfielder Darryl Strawberry. "He had so many leeches, friends, hangers-on. He's got to move out of Tampa."
Peer pressure can indeed be a powerful influence. Still, while a 22-year-old is young by baseball standards, he is old enough to be responsible for his own actions. Others sought to explain Gooden's conduct by pointing to his pressures at home. He has a 13-month-old son, Dwight Jr., born out of wedlock and now living with the pitcher's parents. His father, Dan, already beset with arthritis, reportedly had to be cajoled into accepting dialysis treatment for his kidney, and he now sits in proud silence at home. At the time of his drug test, Gooden's now-former fiancèe, Pearson, was about to go on trial for trying to carry a loaded derringer last January through the metal detector at La Guardia, on her way to meet Gooden's flight; last week Pearson was sentenced to five years' probation in Queens Supreme Court.
Although teammates and management professed shock at Gooden's involvement with cocaine, in Tampa, Chris Hoyer, chief assistant to State Attorney Bill James and the man who prosecuted Gooden after the Dec. 13, 1986, police incident, told Keteyian, "From my conversations with law enforcement officials, I can assure you this revelation did not come as a surprise to them. I know a lot of people in the community, including the law enforcement community, who have been concerned about his welfare for a couple of years." Hoyer said that Gooden had been listed on Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office surveillance reports as having visited a notorious "drug bar," the Manila Bar & Restaurant on East 7th Avenue in Ybor City. The surveillance reports, Hoyer said, were furnished to Ueberroth's office. Hoyer said he believed that the commissioner's office shared the information with the Mets. A team spokesman declined comment on whether the team received the reports.
In addition to questions about the Mets' vigilance was the question of why Gooden would volunteer for a drug test and then take cocaine a day or two before the scheduled test. Maybe his denial was so strong that he was unaware of what he was doing. Maybe he thought he could beat the test the way he could beat, say, the Pirates. Perhaps his sister, Mercedes Pedro, had the answer when she said, "Maybe he wanted to get caught."
One of the last people to spend time with Gooden before he left for New York was Pedro's son, Derrick, a senior and a leftfielder at King High in Tampa. He and his famous uncle spent part of Wednesday afternoon shooting pool, eight ball, in the Gooden home. "I asked him what he planned on doing," said Derrick. "He said he wanted to get himself together. He wasn't strung out on it or anything. He just wanted to get off it. Go to the center and get cleaned out. Then go back to his career."
When Gooden finishes rehab, during which he will continue to draw his $1.5 million salary, he'll be welcomed back with open arms, and not just because the Mets need his arm. "He's got 23 brothers in the locker room," said Bob Ojeda, who was to replace Gooden as the Opening Day pitcher. "I know the word gets overused, but we do love him. He deserves compassion and friendship."
But all the compassion and friendship in the world are not going to undo the damage. As Mitch Webster, an outfielder for the Expos, put it, "I feel sorry for Dwight Gooden. But I feel sorrier for all the kids who looked up to him."