Answer Man: Dwight Gooden talks ’86 Mets, grandkids, addiction, sobriety and Tuffy Rhodes

David Brown
Big League Stew

With a top fastball and unparalleled curve, Dwight Gooden burst upon the major league scene at 19 years old in 1984 with the New York Mets. By the time he won the Cy Young Award in 1985 with one of the best seasons ever, Gooden already had begun a decent into drug and alcohol abuse that made success impossible for him to enjoy, contributed to stunting his growth as a pitcher, and nearly killed him.

Gooden recently published a critically acclaimed memoir, and has been participating in All-Star game festivities the Mets have been hosting. We got a chance to catch up with Gooden at FanFest for the latest Answer Man session.

David Brown: The reaction to the memoir has been good, but how is it selling?

Dwight Gooden: It's been a lot better than I expected. I put a lot of hard work into it — nine months, it took, to complete. The reviews, the sales and just the feedback I've been getting from fans has been overwhelming at times. I got into some real depth about my life. The good and the bad, all of the details about what I was going through at that time. But it's also been rewarding, and great therapy for myself. I'm happy I did it, it was a big burden off of me. Coming clean. You're only as sick as your secrets. My goal was not only to help me, but to help others who are struggling, either in situations like I was, or those who may have a family member or friend going through that.

DB: You wrote a memoir in the past about your life. How is this one different?

Doc: This one is totally different. I put my heart into this. I was ready to do it. I think when I did "Heat," I was telling half of the truth, but not the whole truth. Plus, at that time, to be honest, I was in a little bit of denial that I had a problem, that I suffered from the disease of drugs and alcohol. I did "Heat" because friends were saying, "Hey, you should do a book." This time around, after doing "Celebrity Rehab" and getting involved with with NAA, I felt it was time to tell my story in my words, to put my heart into it and remove that mask and know that I am an addict and an alcoholic, but I'm just not active in it. I just felt the time was right. I would just write down chapters myself, things that I would talk about — the things I struggled with.

DB: How long has it been since you were high?

Doc: March made two years that I've been clean and sober.

DB: How does it feel? Is it liberating? Do you feel like you're always one mistake away from using again?

Doc: It's everything, but you try to live in the moment and cherish it. I can say that my worst day being clean and sober is a lot better than my best day when I'd get high. I know that it can take one mistake, but I'm also not going to be God. When I talk to kids I tell them about how I've been incarcerated, I've been in rehab, I've been in institutions. The only thing I haven't been is buried in a cemetery. That's right around the corner if I choose to live that life again. Today, I feel like I'm a free man. I've got nothing balled-up in me. Nothing to be ashamed of. And life is great.

DB: As part of your All-Star game duties, you're here to host the MLB2K13 Perfect Game Challenge final. What can you say about it?

Doc: It's a great event and I'm happy to be here for the finals. The winner pitches a perfect game and gets to win $250,000 from a million-dollar prize pool. That's going to change his life forever. But to see the two guys at the end battle each other, it's a great opportunity.

DB: What is your video game experience? Do you play anymore? Did you use to?

Doc: My kids play all of the games now. My kids are from 3 to 27 years old and they, starting with the 8-year-old, play the games now. When I was younger, like in the '80s, in spring training we had tournaments among the players. But back then, it was like Nintendo (game systems). We used RBI Baseball. Once that left, the technology of the games has sort of passed me by. I like watching it, and I'll try to play my guy one a little bit — my 8-year-old — but he doesn't teach me even the basic stuff. But the kids love it and I like watching them play. It's challenging.

DB: Is it neat to be a video game character?

Doc: It's different, not only for us but for the kids, especially our boys who love playing video games. I'm actually looking forward to seeing how the guys use the pitchers today.

DB: Hey, you said that you were the father of someone who's 27. I can still remember clearly you breaking into the majors at 19. What's it like to be dad to someone who's almost 30?

Doc: That means I'm getting old, haha. Eh, it's all right. My son, Dwight Jr., is the oldest, obviously, and I have seven kids and three grandkids. One of them is 9 — older than my two youngest kids. So at that point, I knew it was time to call it quits. But it's good and challenging, because I'm now involved in what they're doing. My daughters, who are 21 and 22, are in college, so I follow them around with their sports careers. Dwight Jr. is an agent, and he designs stuff — things like socks, working with Nike. With my 8-year-old, I actually coach his baseball team and football. That's challenging, because at that age, they just want to pitch and hit — they don't want to learn the fundamentals. My 16-year-old plays ball down in Tampa. Wade Boggs is actually his coach, so that's pretty cool. My 18-year-old boy plays basketball, so we'll see what happens with that.

DB: Does your 16-year-old have a chance to be a college player, or even pro?

Doc: College, for sure. Darren has a great arm. He has a great arm. He's a pitcher and a center fielder. He could go either way. Obviously with me, I'm a little biased and I hope he becomes a pitcher. As long as he's having fun and fulfilling his dreams, that's what's important.

DB: They're giving away a quarter of a million dollars today in this Perfect Game Challenge. What did you get for pitching a no-hitter in real life?

Doc: I got a watch (laughs). I think it's still around somewhere. My mom has a room which has all of me and (cousin Gary) Sheffield's memorabilia. Yeah, Mr. Steinbrenner gave me a watch and it's engraved with my name and the date and the whole thing. He gave all of my teammates a watch.

DB: Have you had a chance to visit with Lenny Dykstra?

Doc: No, I haven't had a chance to visit with him. I haven't seen Lenny since 2011. I've talked to his son a couple of times — Cutter Dykstra — so from what I hear, he's hanging in there. From my honest opinion, and obviously he is a great friend of mine — we started our friendship back in 1982, and when he first came up, he lived with me — but I think he needs to be in an institution where they can help him mentally. I don't think prison's the right place for him.

DB: Thinking back to when he was a player, he was rambunctious, but could you see then, his life turning the way it has now?

Doc: At that time, I couldn't imagine. Part of that was me going through my own struggles. Lenny was a great player, but he's been doing a lot of the same things I was doing, but on his level, with his choices. A drug is a drug. I can't imagine, though, going through the things he's going through now.

DB: When Keith Hernandez shaved his mustache, did a little bit of you die inside? ... Which way do you prefer his face?

Doc: Haha! Actually, no. I tell you what — he looks younger without the mustache. It took some getting used to, though. It looks good now.

DB: What is Kevin Mitchell like?

Doc: Kevin Mitchell's great. That was, in my opinion, one of the worst trades the Mets could have made. Kevin was a guy, in '86, he played a lot of different positions. Obviously he had a lot of talent. And nothing against Kevin McReynolds, who was a great player also but trading Kevin changed the whole atmosphere because, if a team wanted to brawl with you, he was going to protect guys. He kept everybody loose. On the plane, he had a great sense of humor. I just think that was a big loss.

DB: Have you heard from him lately?

Doc: I actually saw him at a Steiner (memorabilia) signing at the Roosevelt Fields mall on Saturday. He was there with myself, Barry Lyons and Jesse Orosco. It was good to catch up with those guys. Kevin looks great, like he's still in shape to play. Same personality, just likes to have a good time. I really miss him, just being around him.

DB: The '86 Mets always reminded me of the '85 Chicago Bears in how you all liked to have fun and were charismatic in addition to being the best team.

Doc: There were a lot of similarities there, on and off the field. That was a great time, that was the era. In '86, we just had guys with different personalities, but it all came together and all the credit goes to Davey Johnson. He know how to deal with each personality. Our goals in spring training — because we came so close in '84 and '85 — were to dominate and win the World Series. I remember the first days of spring training, we had the meeting when everybody usually talked — from the owner, occasionally, to the GM to the manager and coaches. Davey was the only one who spoke that year. And he said, the only goal was to dominate, win the World Series and take care of business. And that was it. Everything took place from there.

DB: If we had to send a baseball team to another galaxy to defend Earth, are the '86 Mets the one?

Doc: Yes, definitely hands down. The chemistry we had, the competitiveness, and knowing that each guy had the other's back.

DB: Did you ever talk to Dock Ellis about him pitching a no-hitter while tripping on acid?

Doc: Oh, nah, I never talked to him.

DB: Can you imagine it?

Doc: Me, personally, I never took acid, but I find it hard to believe. I find it very hard to believe.

DB: How is Gary Sheffield doing as an agent?

Doc: He's got Jason Grilli and he's signed a handful of minor-league guys. He really has taken control of the whole flow of the area. He's very competitive. I think he'll do great, and it was a good field to go into. I think he's going to be all right.

DB: Is Sheffield a Hall of Famer?

Doc: His numbers speak for itself. I'm sure that, during that era, a lot of guys will get punished because of the mistakes of others. But his numbers speak. Hopefully he'll get in.

DB: What about you?

Doc: I think I'll always be on the outside. I think I'm in a situation where the (veterans) committee has to get me in. But you never know. To me, the success I had early on was always compared to what I did later. I still think I was a great pitcher overall, not just an '84-85-86 pitcher. I'm sure they look at all my off-the-field stuff and wonder "What could have been, or what should have been?" But still, numbers are there. A lot of guys who are in the Hall of Fame, my numbers are just as good if not better.

DB: Did doing drugs prevent you from being a better pitcher for a longer period?

Doc: Off-the-field stuff might have contributed, but there was nothing I could have done to top '84, '85 and '86. Normally, players will have those type of years in their fourth or fifth years. I had my best years at 19 and 20, so anything after that is not going to compare well. But as you get older, nobody was the player or pitcher they were early in their career. So it was an unfortunate situation where I'll be judged that way. But from '84 to '88, I had thrown more pitched than anybody in baseball. Even in my last year in the minors, I had 190 innings and 300 strikeouts. I accumulated so many innings in my first few years, and you probably won't see that again. I think the wear and tear played a big part.

DB: And when you tried to measure up to what you had done early in your career, did it mess with your head?

Doc: In 1986, for example — I like to use this — if I pitched a game and threw a 3-0 shutout, the first question would be, "What happened? You only had four strikeouts. They wanted to see 10 strikeouts, they wanted a complete game, they wanted a no-hitter or close to it. So the expectations of the media and fans became my expectations, and it kind of would take a toll, when I'd medicate myself with drugs and alcohol. I knew, when the game was over, that I was going to get high to celebrate it, or get high to forget it.

DB: Do you remember the Tuffy Rhodes game?

Doc: Oh, yeah. I broke my toe because of that game! That was 1994. Opening day in Chicago. I mean, it's about 20 degrees. We were aware of Tuffy Rhodes because of the scouting report. I knew he had a big year in Triple-A the season before.

About the third pitch of the game, he hits a home run off me. The second at-bat, he comes up and I say, "We'll see what happens." First pitch, he hits a home run off me. Now he's got two home runs. So he comes up again a third time, and I'm going to throw a curveball in the dirt, and then I'm going to drill him. I wanted to throw a curveball in the dirt so it wouldn't look too obvious. So I throw the curveball and I hang the curveball and he hits his third home run! So after the third home run, I go and kick the bat rack and break my toe.

The only thing positive about the game was that — somehow or some way — I still got the win. The thing that was toughest: He hit three home runs off me opening day, and we go back in August and he's got five home runs. But he hit three off me opening day. Yeah. So.

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