Doc and Darryl : The Baseball was Effortless; Real Life Took Some Work


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On an average day, in a nondescript diner, two gods of baseball sat down to talk about being living legends. Like Darryl Strawberry and Dwight “Doc” Gooden, millions of young men play baseball; a minuscule number of them will ever get paid for it. Most of those will flame out, having never tasted the air outside the minor leagues.

And every one of baseball’s eventual failures would saw off a toe or two for the chance to live just a fraction of the baseball perfection that Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden lived through in the 1980s.

Their stories are similar. Both were born to strong mothers who helped them navigate a childhood with an alcoholic father. Gooden’s was distant, and seemed able to communicate meaningfully with his son only through baseball. Strawberry’s father was explosive when drunk, once brandishing a shotgun at his wife and children. They each dominated their high school leagues—Gooden in Florida, Strawberry in California—before being drafted by the Mets, in the first round, without ever playing an inning of college ball. Both earned Rookie of the Year honors: Strawberry in 1983, Gooden in 1984. And both would see careers and lives derailed by their addictions.

In ESPN’s Doc and Darryl, baseball fanatic and director Judd Apatow (Bridesmaids, 40 Year Old Virgin) gives us a story that is simultaneously awe-inspiring and heart-rending. We’re treated to clip after clip of Strawberry’s swing, which is a thing burly men will call “gorgeous” out loud with no sense of shame. (Those men are right. It is a painfully beautiful swing.) We watch young Gooden, in his 1985 prime, making batters a decade older look like foolish children at the plate. Watching these two play baseball against mere mortals simply seems unfair.

These clips are interspersed with behind-the-scene details that contrast the on-field success. We learn that the first time Strawberry met Gooden, the pitcher was passed out head-down at the bar. He was nineteen years old. We see the newspaper clip from Darryl Strawberry’s first domestic dispute: he separated from his first wife amid allegations that he abused her. We watch Strawberry go to jail after going on the run from a recovery program. We see Gooden’s mug shot from a scuffle with police officers. We listen to Strawberry talk about using drugs shortly after finishing chemotherapy for colon cancer.

But for ex-baseball players, the most brutal revelation may be this: after the Miracle Mets won the 1986 World Series, Doc Gooden went by his drug dealer’s house, where he got so wasted he missed the NYC parade.

Doc Gooden won the World Series, and missed the parade. No metaphor could convey the roller coaster of addiction as well as that fact.

Both men take responsibility for their recovery; at the moment, it seems Strawberry has had a more effective turnaround. He met his current wife Tracy at a recovery group, and the two have now established their own ministry, building a church and helping others navigate their journey toward sobriety. For Strawberry, an important moment came when he realized he was living his own father’s story: “There I was, doing exactly what I said I wouldn’t do—what my father had done.”

Gooden’s recovery has been marked by multiple setbacks—at one point, one of his counselors describes it as a thing that constantly stands behind him, “day to day, and sometimes minute to minute.” Yet there’s a quiet dignity to Gooden; he hasn’t yet accomplished the steady, consistent recovery Strawberry is living, but like the ’86 Mets, he just keeps getting up to the plate. Strawberry is the wily veteran that’s earned our respect; Gooden is the gritty underdog that absolutely has our heart.

At one point, Strawberry has this to say about recovery: “Until you forgive yourself, you’re going to struggle. I don’t want my life to be a tragedy; I want my life to be a celebration.” And there are certainly things in Doc Gooden worth celebration.

There’s a heartbreakingly human story about his last great baseball moment. With his father facing an open-heart surgery he might not survive, Gooden made a decision only baseball people can understand: he pitched anyway. It was a way to honor his father who, though flawed, managed to give his son baseball, the one thing that worked well in his life. After walking the first batter, Gooden pitched a rocky, emotional no-hitter; it would be the last game his father ever saw him pitch, watching it on TV in his hospital room.

That’s a heroic act: knowing your father well enough to understand he’d want you to pitch, and then giving your dying father a major-league no-hitter. It’s a story few men will ever have the opportunity to live; even fewer will have the talent. For Doc Gooden, baseball was almost effortless; it’s real life that’s difficult. Fans hope he continues to battle for sobriety the way he once faced down batters.

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