Same Sh*t, Different Decade

I was cooking a nice Middle Eastern dinner this afternoon, not paying much attention to the Cactus League game I had on TV, when the news scrolled across the bottom of the screen:  “Former MLB pitcher Dwight Gooden arrested for driving under the influence of drugs and fleeing the scene of an accident Tuesday morning in New Jersey.”  Many evenings as I wasted away in Tampa’s rush-hour traffic, I looked down from I-275 over Gooden’s old neighborhood, the ballfield at Hillsborough High where he’d first lit up all the scouts’ eyes.  If only he’d stayed away from that field, and become an accountant or something.  If only.

Gooden will remain forever linked in our collective consciousness with Darryl Strawberry (who was last seen on Celebrity Apprentice alongside Rod Blagojevich).  Both were first-round draft picks by the Mets – Straw in 1980, Gooden in ’82.  Both, of course, were black, inner-city kids whose world-wisdom was (shall we say?) limited.  Strawberry reportedly never saw a left-handed pitcher until he showed up in Kingsport, Tennessee for Rookie ball.  Gooden had to call his mother from the Appalachian League for help cooking frozen vegetables.  These were the kids who exploded onto the biggest stage, under the brightest lights, and brought home back-to-back Rookie of the Year awards.

I was still in diapers when thousands of Pacman-playing, MASH-watching Reaganites started hanging K signs all over Shea Stadium.  By the time I got my first glove (with Strawberry’s signature printed across the palm) and wrote my 2nd grade book report (on a G-rated picture-book biography of Gooden), Doc and Darryl had become sad punchlines.  Fame… money… the city… the ugly white mountains of snortable extravagance… wife-beating… tax evasion… the Pablo Escobar-fueled high-speed police chases….  Instead of adjacent plaques in Cooperstown, Doc and Darryl’s legacy became merely the most visible embodiment of everything that went wrong with America in the ’80’s.

After the requisite wrist slaps from Lord Bud, and the great American tradition of rehab, Doc and Darryl were reunited in the Bronx in 1996.  It was then that I fell in love with them (especially Darryl and his silky smooth lefty uppercut – undoubtedly the purest concentration of power and beauty in the tangible universe).  I lay awake in bed, ear stealthily pressed against boombox radio, as Gooden sweated his way through a thoroughly lousy performance yet somehow escaped with a no-hitter.  I listened in my dad’s car, on the way up to Boy Scout camp for my first whole week away from home, as Strawberry made his 300th homer a walk-off.  Theirs was the ultimate American tale of redemption, second chances, rebirth.

And relapse.  When I learned that Darryl had been arrested in Tampa in spring training of 2000 (for soliciting a prostitute, who turned out to be an undercover cop, with cocaine in his car) I was devastated.  When my very puritan mother heard about it, I was almost as embarrassed as if I’d done it myself.  I had spent years extolling the virtues of Darryl the Yankee (a wholly different person, I claimed, than Darryl the Met or Darryl the Dodger).  I touted him as an admirable role model, which explains why I haven’t really had one since.

So my initial gut reaction to the Gooden news was “same shit, different decade” (the fourth, for the record).  There must be a lesson to be learned from the never-ending series of self-inflicted wounds by two men who owned the world.  Did Doc and Darryl let us down, or did we as a society let them down?  Is an addict born, or made?  Either way, our treatment methods have a pretty long record of overwhelming failure –  just look at how many “recovering” addicts are back on the streets or back behind bars.  They often resort to violence and theft to feed their addiction; what we fail to realize is that we’re the ones creating the monsters – by forcing them into the shadows where they must seek out truly dangerous characters and pay them not only for the product but for the substantial risk involved.  We call addiction a disease, but most of us do so with tongue in cheek.  If we really believed that, we would be seeking a biological cure, instead of the psychological/spiritual counseling that does little more than help us non-victims sleep at night with the feeling that hey, we tried.

All I know is that I miss the innocent days when ballplayers used drugs just for fun.  Doc and Darryl’s story is a tragedy, but at least it’s a human one.  (It’s impossible for me to feel the same sympathy for the juicers because their drugs, though less destructive, made them seem less human.)  In Doc’s last appearance, he came out of the bullpen to retire Rickey Henderson with the bases loaded in the ALCS.  Darryl’s last homerun hit the back wall of Tropicana Field, the longest bomb I’ve ever seen.  Yet the lasting images are the mugshots.  The infinitely wise Bill Murray, reflecting on the fleetingness of glory in our otherwise tortured lives, summed it up for them:  “I was in the Virgin Islands once.  I met a girl.  We ate lobster, drank piña coladas.  At sunset, we made love like sea otters.  That was a pretty good day.  Why couldn’t I get that day over and over and over?”

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3 Responses to “Same Sh*t, Different Decade”

  1. Tommy Says:

    “I miss the innocent days when ballplayers used drugs just for fun.”

    There’s still Josh Hamilton.

  2. slavetothetrafficlight Says:

    Yeah, Hamilton’s a throwback to the twentieth century. Let’s hope his life turns out better. (Whatever you do, Josh, don’t listen to Ron Washington!)

  3. Cosmic Charlie Says:

    the most visible embodiment of everything that went wrong with America in the ’80′s? Two words: Len Bias

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