MAJOR LEAGUE ALL-STAR GAME : Baseball : Gooden Has Star Next to Name Again

The New York Mets devote nine pages to Dwight Gooden in their 1988 media guide. There is no mention, however, of why he did not make his first start of the 1987 season until June 5. There is no mention of the four weeks he spent in the Smithers Alcoholism and Drug Treatment Center in Manhattan.

It is left to Gooden to open those pages to his past. In so doing, he says the experience has given him a better grip on himself and his future. A reminder, as he said Monday, of how much he cherishes his profession and how much he might lose.

He said it while autographing dozens of team balls in the clubhouse of the National League All-Stars. He will face a formidable American League lineup as the NL's starting pitcher in tonight's 59th All-Star game, but he already has faced and seemingly beaten the tougher obstacle of cocaine abuse.

A year ago, after a volunteer drug test came up positive in late spring, Gooden spent that month in Smithers and another month with the Mets' Tidewater farm club, regaining his pitching form. He was 6-2 with the Mets at the time of the 1987 All-Star game, which he watched with friends and relatives at his Long Island townhouse.

"I tried to kick back and relax, but I could only watch a few innings because it was too hard. I wanted to be there," he said. "It's kind of funny, but after the first time that you play in an All-Star game, you kind of have the feeling that you'd rather have the two days off.

"Last year, when I had the two days off, I realized how much I'd rather be here. Last year, sitting at home, was another reminder of how much is at stake and how much I could lose.

"I mean, there were times last year when I felt I'd hit rock bottom, so I take nothing for granted anymore. This is my fourth All-Star game and it's just as exciting as the first, when I was 19 and had gone to spring training with the expectation of spending the season in triple A.

"To start this game after all the problems and distractions I had last year . . . well, it's a big honor, pretty much my greatest accomplishment. I can't forget what I went through and don't want to."

Either Greg Maddux of the Chicago Cubs or Orel Hershiser of the Dodgers might have started, if each hadn't pitched Sunday. Both have more victories than Gooden, who was 11-5 in the first half.

But this seems appropriate almost. Call it a signpost marking a year's growth. The national stage. A chance for Gooden to continue . . . what? Proving something, perhaps?

"No, it's not so much that I've been trying to prove anything," he said. "It's more a matter of showing I can stay clean, showing kids the dangers of drugs and that there's more to life. All of this has made me a better person. I really believe that."

So does Dr. Allan Lans, associate director of the Smithers clinic and a man who frequently travels with the Mets, an in-house crisis counselor.

"Dwight is stronger now," Lans said Monday. "He went through hell, in a sense, and survived. That alone can serve to enrich and ennoble a man.

"That's not to say it's a constant, a steady state. Doc still has his ups and downs. He's not 100% happy all the time, but we've worked on having him remember the launching pad no matter how much he's in orbit."

The image helps Gooden maintain his perspective and keep his feet on the ground. He was married in November and that, too, has contributed to a more stable environment.

"Doc's life has become more settled, more peaceful," Darryl Strawberry, Gooden's teammate and close friend, said Monday. "He has a better grip on his life, both professionally and personally."

Strawberry and Gooden have both had to cope with the albatross known as potential. Gooden, in the words of Manager Davey Johnson, was great at 19 and unbelievable at 20, going 17-9 as a rookie and 24-4 in mocking the sophomore jinx.

The great expectations and the desire to justify his large salary may have haunted Gooden in 1986, when he was 17-6, outstanding for most but below his previous levels for control, consistency and strikeouts.

"He tried to improve on perfection and he didn't need to," Johnson said. "I'd try to tell him that, but you have to experience that kind of stress to know what it can do to you. Getting to the top is the easy part."

Then, too, Gooden has had to cope with the Big Apple. No Eden for the young and restless. No escape for the struggling pitcher who felt he should have been doing better. As did others. "What's Up Doc?" asked a headline in '86.

"A Reggie Jackson can shine in that environment, can use the controversy to his advantage, but others may find all that attention suffocating," Johnson said. "The celebrity status can lead you do to strange things."

Pressure. Potential. "When you expect to do well and don't do well," Strawberry said, "you don't know who to turn to, where to turn to, who your friends are. On top of everything, it's a little tougher in New York."

Frank Cashen, the Mets' president, has said, "We stole Dwight's youth." Lans agreed.

"We all go through different phases, trying on different styles," he said. "Dwight, in some ways, was deprived of that."

Said Strawberry: "Doc and me, we were expected to step in and dominate. We were expected to be superstars from Day 1,"

Gooden's behavior began to erode with his performances on the mound. He was 0-2 in the 1986 World Series, missed the victory parade up Broadway while reportedly recovering from a hangover, later tangled with Tampa, Fla., police in an incident involving a traffic violation and arrived at New York's LaGuardia Airport Jan. 30 to find that a former girlfriend, passing through a metal detector on her way to the gate, had been arrested for carrying a loaded pistol.

"I was at a point where I didn't know which way to turn," Gooden said in reflection. "I just wanted to run."

Three months later, he entered the Smithers clinic and emerged to go 3-0 at Tidewater and 15-7 in 25 starts with the Mets. Now, a married homebody and a winter resident of St. Petersburg, Fla., having moved across the bridge and away from the turmoils and temptations of hometown Tampa, Gooden is back in the All-Star game.

"I take all the blame," he said of his drug use. "No one forced me to do it, it was my choice, but it will never happen again, never.

"I still see some of the same people at times, I'm still in the same atmosphere at times, but when they go party, that's when I make my exit. The temptation is always there, but I remember how I hurt myself and how I hurt others."

There is one other change. Gooden knows he can be only as good as he can be. He has regained enough confidence, he said, to believe he can be as good as anyone, but he will not attempt to live up to others' expectations or duplicate his success at 19 or 20.

He is tied for the league lead in shutouts, second in complete games and innings pitched and tied for third in strikeouts. He is 20 pounds heavier than he was at 19 and the quest for strikeouts has been replaced by a drive for consistency and wins.

"He can win with power and he can win with finesse," Strawberry said.

Said Gooden: "I don't think I can ever top what I did in '85. I got caught up in it the last two years. I'd get one strike on a batter and only think about getting two more. I'd worry about what people were saying and try to match what I had done before, which would make it worse. Now I don't let anything interfere. What people think is out of my control. I just go out and pitch my game."

And now Doc Gooden is giving more attention to the game of life. There's nothing about that in the media guide.

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