They were so good, it was scary. Doc Gooden came equipped with a fastball that popped, accompanied by a killer curve that turned hitters’ knees to jelly. Darryl Strawberry had that sweet swing, the kind of long-ball stroke sluggers are born with.
Doc and Darryl.
So good and yet so bad.
Now, they are together again, both suspended from baseball, both ambushed by their addictions, left to consider wasted talents. At age 30, Gooden’s repeated violations of his aftercare program got him suspended for the entire 1995 season. Strawberry, who turns 33 in March, is out for 60 days after testing positive for cocaine on consecutive days last month. He also faces a jail sentence for tax evasion.
At a time when they should be at their peaks, Doc and Darryl will not play this game for a while. At a time, when they should have been tidying up Hall of Fame credentials, they are left to wonder how everything that was so right went so wrong.
It could have been different.
These two were special, Gooden a power pitcher who struck out everyone in sight and Strawberry a slugger with a home run swing. Their skills scared the New York Mets, who were afraid of rushing them, concerned that force-feeding them to the majors too soon could disturb their natural development.
In the beginning, the Mets seemed to be wrong. In the end, they may have been right.
The Mets of the early 1980s were a woebegone bunch, a team drifting along with little direction and no star with the potential to change it. And then, along came Doc and Darryl.
Strawberry arrived first, a long, lean kid with a sweet swing that can’t be taught, the kind of stroke a hitter either has or doesn’t. By 1982, at age 20, he was the most valuable player of the Texas League with a franchise record 34 home runs for the Mets’ Jackson farm club. The next year, he was in New York, hitting 26 home runs and demanding center stage on a franchise where that position was conspicuously vacant.
The following spring, Gooden showed up in spring training. He was a teen-ager, a down-to-earth kid with an arm that turned heads. A year earlier, he had struck out 300 hitters in 191 innings in Class A, earning an invitation to training camp.
They stuck Gooden in the back of the clubhouse in St. Petersburg, Fla., where the Mets trained that spring, and issued him uniform No. 60, because he wasn’t supposed to stick around. But he simply wouldn’t let them cut him. He was that good.
That spring, Strawberry and Gooden arrived in New York together, the cornerstones of a team that two years later would win the World Series. They were the Mets’ 1-2 punch--pitching and power, the kind of combination that could keep a team on top for a long time.
They were young and seemed to have it all. And then, quite suddenly, it all began slipping away from them.
After the World Series, Gooden missed the Mets’ victory parade. The following spring, he tested positive for drugs. At age 22, with 58 victories in his first three seasons, he was in trouble.
Strawberry showed support for his buddy by wearing Gooden’s uniform trousers on opening day. It might have been prophetic. He wound up walking in his buddy’s shoes, too.
Gooden came back and had some good years--18 wins in 1988, 19 in 1990. But trouble kept finding him. There were rape charges, later dismissed, a brush with Tampa police, a series of nagging injuries and eventually, a dropoff from outstanding to ordinary.
Strawberry had his own problems, domestic and otherwise. Each spring, he promised “a monster year,” but, despite consecutive 39-home run seasons, he never quite delivered. In 1990, he did his own stretch at the same rehab center where Gooden had been treated in 1987.
He left the Mets that year, signing with Los Angeles. Again, injuries interfered and he disappeared just before opening day last season, a drug dropout. He went back to rehab and the following June, Gooden did the same thing.
It’s strange how their careers have seem tied to each other, through success and failure, through triumph and tragedy.
Doc and Darryl.
So good and yet so sad.