The New York metscame into muggy St. Louis last month in all their glory, leading everybody elsein the National League East. The Mets are known as Kid and Mex, HoJo andMookie, Nails, Mac, El Sid, and by some names that aren't so innocent. They'realso known as a brash and arrogant collection of accused bat corkers, camerahogs and huge egos. The Mets inspire such name-calling largely because they canlay claim to being the best baseball club on the planet, and there are at leasttwo reasons that they probably will be able to make that claim well into the1990s. They are Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, who are known as Straw andDoc, among other things.
Here are fourways to look at Straw and Doc:
The first isthrough the eyes of a former player. "Most guys have talent, but not thatextraordinary talent, so people can't understand what those two have had to gothrough," says Tim McCarver, a Mets TV announcer and a major league catcherfor 21 years. "Darryl and Dwight have had to mature under so many eyes. Yetthey seem to have done it. Without them, the Mets are a good team. With them,it's not stretching it to say that the Mets are a great team."
The second way tolook at Straw and Doc is through the eyes of an artist. "The similaritiesbetween them are amazing, aren't they?" says LeRoy Neiman, the popularpainter and an unregenerate Mets fan. "They are the two I've drawn the mostof all the Mets. The first time I saw Gooden, I didn't know who he was, but Iknew he was somebody. Darryl has that, too. They both have a grace you can'texpress in words. I think they're the most extraordinary pair in baseball, insports...."
July 10, 1988
The third view isthrough the eyes of baseball's best handler of pitchers. "If I could haveone player off the Mets' roster, it would have to be Gooden," says SanFrancisco Giants manager Roger Craig. "A guy who will go get you 20 wins [ayear] for 12 years. He's got the perfect delivery for the split-finger. I'dtalk to him about throwing it, but, believe me, I wouldn't insist.
The fourth isthrough the eyes of the best manager in baseball. "If I could pick one guyin all of baseball to start an expansion team with, it'd have to beStrawberry," says Whitey Herzog of the St. Louis Cardinals. "I'd puthim at cleanup, get me six jackrabbits and a plumber to hit behind him, and I'dhave myself a——team. Strawberry's the guy."
Straw and Docdress side by side in the visitors' clubhouse at Busch Stadium and then walkout into the sun and the gaze of curious fans. The previous evening, thelefthanded-hitting Strawberry, even though he was playing with a sore thumb, astrained groin muscle and a tender hamstring, had driven in four runs, two on amonstrous home run off Cardinals lefthander Larry McWilliams, to lead the Metsto a 6-2 victory. The day before that, Gooden had won the game against theChicago Cubs. In the bottom of the seventh, after having thrown a no-hitter tothat point, he blasted a two-run homer to the back row of the bleachers at SheaStadium and then ducked his head and sped around the bases, unable to suppressa childlike smile. In the next inning, Gooden lost his no-hitter and hisshutout, but not the game, as the Mets won 11-3.
Who could haveguessed a year ago that this is how things would be going at midseason of 1988?Back then, Gooden had recently been activated following a four-week stay at theSmithers Alcoholism and Drug Treatment Center in Manhattan, for rehabilitationfrom cocaine abuse, and a month in the minors. Strawberry was in the throes ofa separation from his wife, Lisa, who had charged that he had beaten her. Hewas also at odds with his teammates, some of whom had lambasted him publiclyfor missing two games in a key series with the Cards because, he said, he wasill. However, on one of those days he spent several hours publicizing a rapnumber he had recorded the day before. Both Doc and Straw were victims of theirown bad decisions.
In 1988, with theaid of each other and the passing of time, they have re-assumed their starstatus as if they had simply taken a long coffee break. Each has changed—forthe better. Gooden is now a precision pitcher in a power pitcher's body, whileStrawberry, thanks to having developed more discipline at the plate, hasfinally begun to come fully into his own.
In his sevenno-hit innings against the Cubs, Gooden threw only 74 pitches. "Better thatway," he says. "I had good velocity. I was 96 to 97 [mph] on most of myfastballs, even though I didn't have my good stuff. Only threw one fastballthat wasn't in the 90s, but the curve wasn't as hard as I'd like."
Doc then turns toStraw and asks, "Did it look like I had my good stuff?"
Strawberry teaseshim, tilting his right hand back and forth, as if to say, "Justso-so."
Straw gets onwell with the Mets pitchers. In the Shea Stadium clubhouse, his cubicle isflanked by those of six pitchers, three on each side, and his best friend onthe team, besides Gooden, is David Cone, the young righthander. Straw amusedthe entire staff early in the season by taking the mound during a workout inMontreal. How did he do?
"Well, Strawhad good velocity. He was bringing it," says Gooden.
What about hiscontrol? Doc chuckles and says, "Bad."
Now, in St.Louis, the Cardinals are finishing batting practice. Straw and Doc walk ontothe field together and chat with Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith at the battingcage.
Ozzie: Say,Straw, what was that you did to us last night?
Straw: Aw, I justgot a hanger, Oz. I just got a piece of it.
Ozzie: Pretty bigpiece. And what was that stance, that corkscrew?
Smith mimics thenew stance Strawberry has been using this year, in which he lifts his rightfoot just before he swings, as Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh did.
Straw: It helpsthe balance.
Ozzie: You don'tneed help. That home run only went about 10 rows back. And you, Doc, who wasthat you took deep the other day?
Ozzie: So how'sthe curve doing?
Doc: Good. Realgood.
Ozzie: Thanks,Doc. Thanks a lot.
Doc: Aw, Oz, youknow I can't get you, anyway.
Strawberry andGooden get down to business. Straw enters the cage and with an easy golflikeswing hits one long drive after another down the power alleys. Doc lopes alongin the outfield, casually shagging flies.
"In New York,if you move your fork on the dinner table, people read about it," saysSmith. "'So for them to excel is extraordinary, yet so natural. Right now,they're feeding off each other, not worrying about what other people think.It's a gift, being able to play like they can play. And now they're realizingthat it's a gift. A Strawberry, a Gooden? Talentwise, they don't come alongevery day. It'll be my pleasure to say I played against them and beat themsometimes."
Straw and Docwear the same size shoes, and each has a young son who carries his father'sname. They also live within walking distance of each other in town houses onLong Island. However, despite their many similarities, Strawberry and Goodenare very different men.
Strawberry isoutspoken. If he is hit, his first reaction is to hit back. He seems youngerthan 26. The key to his success is the power in his arms, hands and wrists.After five years in the major leagues, he's just beginning to realize hispotential.
In late May,Straw is sitting in front of his locker at Shea as a driving rainstorm delaysthe start of a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Like lightning to a rod,10 or 15 reporters converge on him, and he starts talking: "Really, I'm notto the point where I'm hot yet, and that's kind of scary.... I'm just startingto get it in my mind what I can do, not what anybody thinks I can do.... We'rehealthy, we're playing well, we're happy, and everybody hates usagain."
Across the roomis Lee Mazzilli, New York's 33-year-old pinch hitter, known as Maz. Once he,too, was a young Mets star, but he didn't have as many good players around him.Nor did he have Strawberry's gifts. Mazzilli was one of the Mets who criticizedStrawberry for sitting out those two games last year.
But seasonschange. On June 13, Straw and Maz combined to end a Mets five-game losingstreak, with a 2-1 win over the Cardinals at Shea. Strawberry touchedMcWilliams in the fourth inning, hitting a ball off the bullpen wall beyondright-field for his 13th homer of the season. Then Maz got the game-winner, achop single over a drawn-in infield, in the 12th inning. Strawberry was thefirst out of the dugout to high-five Maz as he crossed the plate.
"One thingthat can never be rushed is experience," says Mazzilli. "Darryl has themost talent in baseball. But he was a kid. Now he can use that talent. To acertain degree, I went through that. I know the demands on him. I know there'sno question that he has more talent than anyone I've ever seen. There's nobodyeven close. I'd like to have Darryl's talent just for one year, to see what Icould do with it."
Another Met whohas been outspoken about Straw is Keith (Mex) Hernandez, the 34-year-oldlefthanded-hitting first baseman and No. 3 hitter. In the April issue ofEsquire magazine, in which Strawberry ripped several of his teammates, he saidof Hernandez, "Who the hell knows where his head was half the time lastseason." Mex is sitting on the bench in the dugout and makes a face whenthe Esquire story is mentioned. But Hernandez has respect for Straw. "Forsome reason, Darryl listens to me," he says. "I think it was the secondhalf of '86 when he finally moved closer to the plate against lefties. Hey,everybody has to be shown. Ken Boyer showed me. Anyway, since then, Darryl'sbeen a terror. An enforcer. Since [Jack] Clark left, he's the dominant hitterin the league."
"Darryl'scomfortable up there," says McCarver. "He's hitting his pitch, going toleft center. He's showing he learned something from Keith. And one day, Darrylwill hit a baseball farther than anyone has ever hit a baseballbefore."
Strawberrydoesn't have far to go. Early this season he blasted a homer in Montreal'sOlympic Stadium that, had it not hit a bank of lights near the roof, would havetraveled an estimated 525 feet, just 40 feet shy of Mickey Mantle's famous blowout of Washington's Griffith Stadium in 1953. And Straw has continued to hitthe long ball. On Saturday he hit his 20th home run, his 11th against a lefty,to move ahead of the San Francisco Giants' Will Clark for the league lead.Through Sunday, he was hitting .301 with 53 RBIs.
"I've alwaysbeen outspoken," says Straw. "I've said things, and I've meant whatI've said. If you criticize me, I can criticize you. I had a real tough time inNew York. I had to sit down and take a look at what life was all about. I feelproud of myself now, that I didn't let anyone run me out of town. But I had togo through experiences. I had to learn if I was strong. I am. I know itnow."
Strawberry wasalready Gooden's model when they attended instructional league together in thewinter of 1982, back when Straw was 20 and Doc was 17. "Doc was groomedlike I was," says Straw, "to come up and dominate on the major leaguelevel." The next season, during spring training, Gooden, who would go 19-4with 300 strikeouts in 191 innings in the minors that year, asked Strawberry,who would join the Mets in early May, if he could borrow his spikes for goodluck. "I was so nervous," says Gooden. "He asked me, 'What size doyou wear?' I said, 'Same as you.' I didn't really know. But turned out we bothwore 11's. It was just fate."
"I had tothrow Darryl before the public at an early age," says Mets media directorJay Horwitz. "From him I learned what not to do with Dwight. We had lost 97games the year before Darryl came up. So he had to be the story."
After the 1986season, the story turned grim. Strawberry now has 167 home runs, lifetime, themost in Mets history. But with that swing of his, says former teammate KevinMitchell of the Giants, "you kind of expect him to hit 20 home runs everygame." In '86, Straw had 27 homers, but because of his talent, the presskept referring to his total as "only 27." That winter he becameestranged from his wife and son. The separation was a failure of a most cuttingnature for Strawberry, who had been raised in inner-city Los Angeles by hismother, Ruby, a single parent after his father, Henry, moved out when Darrylwas 13. By the spring of '87, he felt adrift. "I had to see if I wanted tolead a different kind of lifestyle," he says. "I found out that Ididn't want that at all."
One eveningduring last year's All-Star break, as Strawberry stood outside the HyattRegency in Oakland, he was urged to enter a car by two beautiful women andtheir driver. It was a tempting offer, but Straw thought about what hadhappened to Doc and declined. Later, he stood by the hotel bar with a boyhoodfriend, Eric Davis of the Cincinnati Reds. They looked at each other andlaughed the way two old friends who have made something of themselves can laughwithout having to say anything specific.
Recently, quotingone unnamed source relying on information from a second unnamed source, TheCincinnati Enquirer linked Davis with possible drug use, a charge Davisvehemently denied. "If we weren't black, we wouldn't have to go throughsome of the things we go through," Strawberry says. "So what else isnew? When you're younger, you think it's unfair, wrong. You get mad. You wantto hit back. But how do you hit back against a label? Then, if you realizewhat's important in life, you accept that this is the way it is and go on aboutyour business. How long does it take anybody to grow up, especially when we hadto come up, with that talent, so quickly?"
Despite all thedistractions, including harsh exchanges with teammates and manager DaveyJohnson, Strawberry performed well in 1987. He hit 39 homers and drove in 104runs, while batting .284. He also set club records for total bases (310), runsscored (108) and extra-base hits (76). On July 20, Johnson made Strawberry theMets' cleanup hitter, and he played a major role in keeping New York in thedivision race until the last week of the season. He had come of age as aplayer.
By early fall,Straw and Lisa had reconciled. Lisa became pregnant, and on June 28, adaughter, Diamond Nicole, was born to the Strawberrys. Now most is right withStraw's world. Yet no one noticed that his resurgence began when Doc came backto the Mets. During his absence, Strawberry had worn the Doc's game pants."No one knows how that touched me," says Gooden.
"I'm relaxed,not trying so hard," says Strawberry. "I know I'm going to hit. I don'tknow if Doc's coming back turned me around or not. Maybe it turned the wholeteam around. I've always thought that we're better than we think we are. And wethink we're pretty good."
Gooden is quietand sensitive. If hit, his first reaction is to avoid being hit again. He seemsolder than 23. The key to his success is the power in his legs. After fouryears in the major leagues, it seems as if he has already done just abouteverything a pitcher can do, except throw a no-hitter.
"Theno-hitter is just a matter of time," says catcher Gary Carter, a.k.a. Kid."When Doc's got his breaking ball, I haven't seen too many people do muchwith him. The thing about Dwight is he's blessed with a strong body, stronglegs. He could be great for a long time."
When Goodenspeaks of pitching, there is a softness in his voice. "I always rememberseeing things as a pitcher," he says. "I went to watch the Reds inspring training when I was a boy growing up in Tampa. My father took me. He wasalways saying, "Don't be afraid to throw the breaking ball when behind.' Soin a way I've been pitching my whole life. Every timeout, I learn more and moreabout myself. People can give you advice, but when you go out there on thatmound, you're all alone."
To suggest thatthere is a softness about Gooden might seem ridiculous, yet there it is. Thesoft voice, the lack of pretension. "Straw's in a world of his own,"says Mitchell. "You look at his size, his stroke.... But Doc is so nice.He'll come inside on you, but never too far. Never. Yet if the hook is working,you've got no chance. God couldn't hit him then."
This softness inGooden is surrounded by an iron constitution. Except for his stay at Smithers,Gooden has never missed a start because of injury, illness or hangover, and hehas never used so much as a cube of ice on his arm. Through Sunday he hadstarted 142 big league games and completed 49 of them. Gooden's motion is sofluid that it's one of the reasons he has never been good at holding baserunners on. The jerky motion of the pick-off is anathema to him.
When Doc was 19,he was a 190-pound flamethrower. Now he's a 210-pound metronome of consistency."You see him, you have to think about a Tom Seaver or a Nolan Ryan,"says Mets pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. "I don't know if anyone can throwas hard as Nolan for as long as Nolan has. But if anybody can do it, I think itwill be Dwight."
On May 20, Goodenmissed inside and hit Dodgers shortstop Alfredo Griffin on the right hand,breaking it. Afterward, Gooden stood impassively on the mound. "I wasthinking, How did I hit him? How did I miss that much?" he says. "Iheard he later said I tried to [hit him intentionally]. But I've never thrownat anybody in my life. I don't need to do that. That's not pitching. When I saythat I pitch in and out, up and in, I don't mean the same things as other guys.They think, If a guy hits you, come back and hit him. But to me that doesn'tmake sense. That's not baseball."
Gooden spendshours studying the box scores and the scouting reports. "Usually, I want torun it away from righthanders and in on lefthanders," he says. "I getmore ground balls that way. The curve, the change, they set up the fastball.The fastball is my pitch. I study because I'm not going to let certain guysbeat me. I don't care if I have to walk a Mike Schmidt, a Dale Murphy, anAndres Galarraga four times a game. They're not going to beat me if I can helpit."
Gooden is thirdon the Mets' alltime winning list, with 84, behind Tom Seaver (198) and JerryKoosman (140). He's also the youngest player ever to have won the Cy YoungAward and to have played in the Ail-Star Game. His earned run average thisseason after his 7-2 victory against the Houston Astros on Saturday was 2.90,which seems high only because Gooden had a 2.46 lifetime ERA going into thisyear. His 11-4 record seems unremarkable because his lifetime winningpercentage is .735. Whitey Ford's was .690; Christy Mathewson's, .665; CyYoung's, .620; Bob Gibson's, .591. Last season, even though Gooden didn't startpitching until June, he tied for fifth in the Cy Young vote with Ryan, who,incidentally, is a .517 pitcher over his career.
"Thattravesty he went through [his drug rehabilitation] helped him," saysCarter. "He turned a negative into a plus. I didn't say turning. I meanhe's already done it. His marriage seemed to stabilize him."
It seems ironicthat a pitcher with Gooden's control would need stabilizing. But his erraticbehavior first manifested itself on the mound. As 1986 drew to a close, he wasnot the same pitcher he had been, even though he finished with a 17-6 recordand a 2.84 ERA. He was laboring, and the fastball was not his best pitchanymore. In the National League Championship Series against the Astros, Goodenpitched 17 innings with an ERA of 1.06, but was 0-1. Then, in the World Series,he was shelled by the Boston Red Sox: 0-2 with an 8.00 ERA. Those statisticsindicated that something was wrong with Doc.
On Oct. 28,Gooden, apparently suffering from a hangover, missed the victory parade upBroadway for the world-champion Mets. Two months later came the famous set-towith the Tampa police following an incident involving an alleged trafficviolation. The man who had always avoided being hit was caught in a sequence ofhits. One of them featured Carlene Pearson, Gooden's former girlfriend, who,while on her way to the gate to meet Doc when he arrived at New York's LaGuardia Airport on Jan. 30, was arrested for trying to get through the metaldetector with a loaded derringer. "I had hit rock bottom," says Goodennow. "I was in no-man's-land. I just wanted to run, leave, get away. Thosewere tough times."
Straw knew Docwas too accommodating to his old acquaintances in Tampa. "He's got to getout of there," Straw told reporters at the time. Good-en's high schoolcoach, Billy Reed, a Tampa native, said the same thing. But Doc just couldn'thurt people he knew—even if they were hurting him. So he volunteered for a drugtest in March 1987, tested positive for cocaine, took the rap and letcircumstances distance him from those who didn't mean him well. "Thehardest thing I've ever done in my life was facing my folks and telling themabout the cocaine," Gooden says. "My little boy was there, too. Sittingright there, listening to me."
Reporters shoutedquestions and cameras whined as Gooden checked into the Smithers clinic onApril 2. "Even later during my stay, it was like that," Gooden says."I'd go to the kitchen to get something to eat, look out the window andthere would be reporters and cameramen."
"He wanted toget better," says Dr. Alan Lans, Gooden's counselor and an associatedirector at Smithers. "This is never easy. Do you have any bad habits? Youever try to quit a habit? It takes concentration, hard work. But he's gettingbetter all the time."
After he left theclinic, Gooden gave up on his hometown. He bought a house in nearby St.Petersburg for his parents, one he can also use occasionally in the off-season.But New York is home now. "I know I said I thought about giving up thegame, but I didn't say that right," says Gooden. "That's not what Imeant. I love baseball, and I didn't realize how much until I was away from it.Everything in baseball is familiar to me. It's who I am."
Monica ColleenHarris, who's three years younger than Gooden, and Doc were friends fromchildhood. She is the sister of Randy and Randall Harris, who played with andagainst Gooden in high school. "They used to say, "Don't be lookingover there,' but they were laughing," says Gooden. "Besides, she was soyoung." But even as he began to hit bottom, he noticed her through thehaze. She worked the drive-in window at a local Burger King. Doc found himselfheading for Burger King often. Then he told one of his relatives to get herphone number. When Gooden was released from Smithers, he called Monica rightaway. The two were married in Tampa on Nov. 21. It seemed like a whirlwindcourtship, but it was an old relationship that had merely changed. It was afastball set up by a curve.
"It meanssomething to have a nice meal waiting for you," says Gooden. "To havesomeone to listen and understand what you mean. To leave the game at the park.She doesn't press me to go out. She lets me call the shots."
"When he wasstriking out 16 batters a game, he was just throwing," says Johnson."Now he's a little bigger, happier, more mature. And he'll just go on fromhere."
"All thisstuff made me a better person," says Gooden. "It showed me how much Icare about the game of baseball." Yes, soft is the wrong word for Doc. Yetthere it is.
When Mets generalmanager Frank Cashen is asked if he would ever let Straw or Doc go, he mullsthe question over only briefly. "I have no present intent to do so,"says Cashen. "But Mr. Darling, Mr. Cone and Mr. Myers have to be signed.It's not an easy set of circumstances."
Strawberry'scontract runs until the end of next season, when he'll be eligible to become afree agent. Gooden's contract is up this year, when he'll be eligible forarbitration. "With the numbers we're about to throw up there, there won'tbe any question [that the Mets will sign us]," says Strawberry. "Youhave to believe in yourself before anybody else will. And I know I'm going toget mine."
And Gooden?"I think we're one of the best teams," he says. But is he the bestpitcher? Doc drops his head and smiles as if he's embarrassed. The voice goessoft. "When I'm down off the mound, I can't answer that," he says."When I'm on the mound, out there by myself, I feel there is no betterpitcher. I don't put anybody before me. I think I'm the best at it. But youcan't always win."
Losing is part ofgrowing up. Even the best baseball club on the planet will win a third and losea third of its games, just like the worst club. It's the other third that makesthe difference. Straw and Doc have always had great futures. But now that theyalso have pasts, those futures may finally be within their reach.