As I saw the news on Gooden heading back to jail I was reminded again of how easy it is to screw up your life. What a waste. When Dwight Gooden was mowing down batters in the mid 80's, I pictured a Hall of Fame career as his legacy, not an orange jumpsuit.
Gooden and his buddy Darryl Strawberry were actually very good role models in the "what not to do" category as I was going through high school. Strange because they started out as something very different for me. They were the reason I became a fan of major league baseball.
In the summer of 1986 I had just finished the 8th grade and although I liked to play baseball I didn't have much interest in following the Major Leagues. With the nearest professional team being a 14 hour drive to LA, I didn't have the benefit of going to games as a kid to spark a baseball obsession. My parents had just gotten cable and it was only then that I could see a game beyond the occasional Saturday Vin Scully broadcast. Now I could see Cubs and Braves games thanks to WTBS and WGN. For some reason that year I began collecting baseball cards. One of my first packs I ever bought had Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden in it. I knew almost nothing about them. But I began following them and the Mets in the newspaper. Wouldn't you know it, this was going to be the Mets' year. Strawberry in particular held a special fascination for me. His long looping and graceful swing produced some of the most picturesque home runs I had ever seen. Gooden's curveball and fastball were awesome.
I was hooked.
I followed the Mets faithfully that year and had posters of Gooden and Strawberry up on my wall. I annoyed the hell out of my dad that October as I hooted and jumped up and down during the World Series 6th game comeback. He was rooting for the Red Sox.
Anyway I stuck with the Mets for a few more years until most of the guys that I rooted for were gone. The year Howard Johnson and Kevin McReynolds were the main attractions I bolted for the Braves who were commanding much of my viewing time on tv. (It helped they were always on with their cable channel. Ted Turner was an evil genius) Although it seems I was just turning to another successful team when the Mets started losing, I actually started following and rooting for Atlanta the year before they came out of the basement. They still had Dale Murphy and he was something of a legend in Utah.
Anyway, Strawberry and Gooden went on to self destruction as is well known. Strawberry in particular was a good lesson for me as I was just reaching adulthood when he began his "I'm a screw-up, no wait I think I've changed, no really I'm totally messed up" cycle. Gooden was always a little more shy than Darryl so his screwups didn't quite make the headlines that Strawberry did, but his pattern has been very similar.
Dwight's 1985 stats were so good (24-4, 268 Strikeouts, 1.53 ERA) so early that it probably was impossible to live up to the hype he had created. Still, we'll always wonder how good he and Strawberry could have been without the booze, drugs, and partying. Seeing them both stand in prison garb has never made me angry, just sad. These were my first baseball heroes. The only orange I ever wanted to see them suited up in was found on the uniform of the New York Mets.
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