One of the greatest MLB pitchers of all time, Gooden shares stories of his personal and professional challenges, as detailed in his candid memoir, Doc.
Former MLB pitcher Dwight Gooden
Tavis: Dwight Gooden had what many considered a charmed career. Starting as a pitcher for the New York Mets, he was named rookie of the year and won one of the most prestigious awards in all of baseball – the Cy Young award.
Three world championships followed, one with the Mets, two with the Yankees, but all the while he was struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. He’s clean and sober now, but the road back wasn’t easy.
Dwight Gooden’s written a powerful new text about what he learned along the way. It’s titled, as it should be, “Doc: A Memoir.” Doc, I’m honored to have you on this program, sir.
Dwight Gooden: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Tavis: My pleasure. My pleasure to have you.
Gooden: Thank you.
Tavis: I want to start with one of the many stories in this book that just grab you.
Tavis: I read a lot of books and talk to a lot of authors on this program, and sometimes what’s missing in these books, believe it or not, are just powerful narratives, powerful stories. You did a great job in this book –
Gooden: Thank you, I appreciate it.
Tavis: – of being authentic, of being honest, and just telling stories. One of the stories that just grabbed me in this text – and I’m glad you’ve got to tell it and not me, because I think I’ll cry if I tell the story, so I’m going to let you tell it, since it’s your book.
But the story of the day you’re on the mound for the Yankees and you’re flirting with a no-hitter. But prior to the game starting you had been told your father was dying, he’s in the hospital, and you had to make a decision whether to play baseball or go see your dying father. I’ll let you tell the story.
Gooden: Yeah, that was talking about what was my best moments in baseball from a personal standpoint. You hit (unintelligible) no-hitter with the Yankees, a situation where my dad had been struggling with his kidneys. He was on dialysis for like 12 years.
Got to a situation where his health was deteriorating, and doctors told him we need emergency heart surgery. Said if he didn’t have the surgery he wouldn’t last a week, and if he do have the surgery, because of his health, he probably won’t last two weeks. We just don’t know where he’s at.
That day of the game I was supposed to pitch, I had permission to go home to be with my father the night before the surgery, and the morning I got up, I just thought about – I was looking in the mirror, brushing my teeth – I thought about all the time he spent with me in the playground, teaching me about mechanics, teaching me about responsibility, teaching me about your job and your responsibilities come first.
I just had this thing over me. I said, “You know what? He’d probably want me to pitch.” It just crossed over me, and I’m sure that day it was a power greater than myself that carried me through that game.
Because I had to call Joe Torre, who was the manager at that time, let him know I was coming in to pitch. He said, “No, you’re crazy. Just go home and be with your dad. Take as much time you need. When you’re ready, you come back.” I said, “No, I’ll see you tonight. I’ll be there to pitch.”
Then I had to call my mom, which that conversation didn’t go too well. She thought I should be home for my dad. She said, “He needs you, we want you here. All the family’s going to be at the hospital. You should come home.” I said, “No, Ma, I think he’d want me to pitch. I’ll call you after the game.”
I had to end up hanging up the phone with her because she just was, kept pressing and pressing and making me feel guilty. On my drive to the ballpark I was just replaying – it wasn’t like a thing where I felt guilty or anything. I just felt, like – I just felt good. It was weird. I felt totally different (unintelligible) the start, where mostly all my starts, even though as many as I played, I would get nervous before every start.
This start I wasn’t nervous. I was happy, and I was just reminiscing. I could just visualize the days I spent with my dad in the backyard and the ballpark, when he’s just teaching me all these drills, and just having the father-son talks as we were watching games on Saturdays.
So when I get to the ballpark, Joe Torre came in and (unintelligible) “Are you sure you’re all right to pitch?” I said, “I’m fine. Let’s let it go as a regular day.” The first three innings of that game, I was standing in the walkway that left from the dugouts to the clubhouse wondering, at that point, did I make the right decision?
Should I have went with my dad? Is he going to be okay? Is he going to be able to watch the game tonight? Am I going to pitch good? Because at the start of that season I didn’t start off too well.
So got through the first three innings. I remember about the sixth inning I was looking up at the scoreboard just to see who Seattle had coming up to bad, and I saw no runs, no hits, no errors. At that point, the heart started pumping a little faster. (Laughter) The butterflies start coming in.
Gooden: You start sweating more. That one more pitch before the hitter get in there, gets you a little bit more, you’re more focused now. Then I totally got locked in. I said, “I’m going as hard as I can for as long as I can right here.”
I remember in the ninth inning I walked the first two guys to start that inning, and the score was 2-0 at that time. (Unintelligible) came out to me (unintelligible) goes, “How you doing?” I said, “Don’t matter. I’m not coming out.”
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Gooden: “I’m staying in this game. I’m not coming out.” So now I get two outs, and then (unintelligible) I throw the worst pitch all night, a hanging curveball right there.
He popped it up, and (unintelligible) ball was coming down forever. (Unintelligible) makes the catch. Now the game’s over, the guys are carrying me off the field, I’m pumping my fist. I’m thinking about a year before, I was out of baseball. I’m back in New York, throwing a no-hitter in New York.
Is my father going to be okay? Did he see the game? I’ve got all these emotions going through my mind. When the game’s over I call home. My mom was talking to me. She said, “Yeah, he’s resting now.” I said, “Okay, I’ll be home in the morning.”
Obviously, I didn’t sleep. Flew home the next morning. When I get to the hospital to give him the ball, he was – at that point he had had the surgery. He was hooked up on the life support, and the doctor told me, he goes, “He did see the game, and after (unintelligible) he had the one tear in his eye.”
So I put the ball down, I was talking to him – still today I don’t know if he really was hearing what I was saying – but the moral of that story was he never made it out of the hospital; he ended up passing away. But the last game my dad saw me pitch was that no-hitter, and I get goosebumps now just thinking about it.
But that was one moment that I’ll always remember that will be precious to my heart.
Tavis: When I read that story, and I know that everybody and their mother has wanted to talk to you, you’ve been all over the place talking about, and will be talking about this book, so I’m delighted to put our show on the list. Thank you for coming.
But I don’t want to have the same kind of conversation that everybody else wants to have. Your troubles and your travails, you talk about it in the book and people know that.
But I’m struck by, of all the persons that you did disappoint – the fans, your family, your friends, yourself – when I read that story I wondered whether or not the person that you felt that you had disappointed the most with the addiction was your father, or whether or not I’m wrong about that.
Gooden: No, you’re right on with that, and I’m glad you bring that up. Because I remember in 1987 – like the way I was raised, I was raised, it was no excuse for the decisions I made, the bad decisions.
Gooden: I had a good family, a supporting family. I remember in 1987, when I tested positive for the first time for cocaine, and the drive home, I felt like – I lived about 30 minutes from the complex, but I felt like it was about five.
I was trying to figure out how do I tell this to my parents. I’m the youngest of five kids. My parents had me at a later age. So I remember walking in the house, my mom was kind of aware that something was going on even before then.
So I walked in the house and told them I had been suspended if I didn’t go to rehab. But I said if I go to rehab they won’t suspend me, but I’ve got to get rehab because I tested positive.
I remember my mom saying, “Okay, son, it’s going to be okay, and I’m glad you’re getting the help you need.” My dad never said a word. He just kind of dropped his head, and at that point, I knew I had crushed him.
Tavis: There ain’t nothing worse than your daddy just dropping his head.
Gooden: He just dropped his head.
Tavis: Didn’t say a word.
Gooden: Didn’t say a word. I’d rather him say, “Son, how can you do that, you let us down.” I’d rather him said that and then we moved on. But by him dropping his head, I never got the – I knew I hurt him, but I never got to hear from him.
Until he passed away he never brought it up, but I just knew I crushed him. It crushed him bad at that time. So I would say he was probably the main one I hurt the most.
Tavis: One of the reasons why – this is my own personal ax to grind, and let me just tell you why this is my ax to grind. It’s my ax to grind because sports fans, as you well know, better than I do, sports fans can be – they can be the impetus to push you to a no-hitter because they’re screaming and they’re yelling and you know that you’ve got all of Yankee Stadium wanting – and not just Yankee Stadium.
We love no-hitters in baseball, those of us who are baseball fans. Everybody’s pulling for Doc to pull off this no-hitter. So fans can be a real source of energy and inspiration.
Tavis: But they can also be the most unforgiving people in the world, as you well know, playing in New York City.
Tavis: How you did two teams in New York, I will never know. (Laughter) One team in New York is enough, because the fans are just unforgiving in the city of New York – and I love the Big Apple.
But the thing I could never understand, but I really came to get it better when I had to wrestle with two members of my own family – so you’re the youngest of five.
Tavis: I’m basically the oldest of 10.
Tavis: I have two siblings who have been addicted to crack.
Tavis: One of them goes on and off for years. We put him into rehab, try to get him help, and he just – but one of them has been off for a while now, but one of them just goes on and off, in my own immediate, one of my own – one of my brothers.
Tavis: So I know what this is like to deal with. The thing that has always so upset me about fans is that they’re mad at you because you’re not on the mound winning games for their team, and they blame you for it as if they don’t understand it is an addiction.
Tavis: If Dwight Gooden could control this, he wouldn’t be doing it. If my brother or sister could control it, they wouldn’t be doing it. It is an addiction. That’s not an excuse, because you made bad choices.
Tavis: But talk to me about how you have processed people being so unforgiving of you when what you have been wrestling with, by your own admission, is an addiction.
Gooden: Yes. It’s a situation, and I’m glad you bring that up. Like I say, they have no knowledge of it, or it can be a situation where they may be in doubt and in denial with their problems or somebody in their family or close to them could be.
But I just think it’s a situation where they don’t understand it and look at it as a weakness. But like you say, once – like for myself, in ’87, once I went to rehab and got out, and once I kept making those same mistakes, I’m accountable for that, because I know the things I need to do, I know the lifestyle changes that need to be made.
In a situation where at the beginning it was very tough when people, like, they’d point the finger, you’re hurting my team, or they’ve got the media writing all this negative stuff about you, saying you threw away your career, you threw away this, you could have been this type of player.
Unfortunately, just kept sick, because I was, like, a people-pleaser growing up, so they were hurting me, and then I would medicate myself with drugs and alcohol.
Until I got to a point where I said, “You know what? I can’t live for them. I’ve got to live for myself. I have a family which (unintelligible) me, but I’ve got to do this for myself first. If I’m willing to get clean and stay clean and change my surroundings, that would make everybody else around me better and make them healthier.”
So I just got to a point where I had to be honest with myself, and part of me doing the book was just coming clean, because I found out from so many times of beating myself down and going through so many struggles where keeping those secrets would keep me sick.
I felt like being a public figure, being comfortable for the first time, in 2011, in my own skin, and coming clean, not only for therapy for myself with the book, but hopefully to help others, and that’s part of what I like to do now.
Obviously playing baseball and listening to the fans, and they say how I brought joy to their homes and I touched them and they had joy coming to watch me pitch. But if I could do half of that in my recovery of helping others, I will feel my mission is accomplished.
Tavis: Yeah. Back to my brother and sister; one of the things that I spent a lot of time doing with them over the years is just trying to better understand why. I know it’s an addiction, but why they made those choices.
I’m still not sure, after all these years, that I quite get it, but have you spent much time, or is it not worth your time to figure out why you made those choices? I’m only asking why because it seems to me, like anything else in life, if you can understand the why, there might be a chance that you can stay clean the rest of your life.
Gooden: Yes, you have a shot.
Gooden: You’re right on with that. I do spend a lot of time with that, still learning about myself. Even at my age now, 48, there’s still a lot of stuff I’m learning about myself, because I was always told that you’re great, you’re this, you’re that, but now you’re dealing with a life issue with the disease of alcohol and drugs.
So I ask myself all the time, and (unintelligible) I talk to people that got more clean time than me, and they’re still trying to dissect this and figure out why these things would happen, when did it start.
For me, it started at a very young age, taking a sip of my dad’s beer and unfortunately liking it, because I have an addictive personality. Then when the drugs came along, the first time I tried cocaine I loved it. It gave me a false sense of security, where I thought wow, this is how I want to feel, this is how I should feel.
Not knowing that I was going to be addicted to it. Once you get addicted to it, accepting that and knowing that your medicine for that disease is, for me, anyway, is going to meetings, having a sponsor, letting people know how I feel, having a support group.
It’s almost like if you have cancer, your treatment is chemo. For an addict not active in his addiction, his treatment is going to meetings, changing the people, places, and things, and changing the whole lifestyle.
My problem, what kept me struggling, was I wanted to keep the lifestyle and try to do it without alcohol and drugs, which it leads right back to that. I just had to get to a point where I had to accept who I am, and like you mentioned, this is a disease.
I’m not responsible for the disease that I have, but I’m accountable for my recovery, and that’s the way I have to look at it.
Tavis: You’ve talked about this, so I don’t want to ask you anything out of school. You’ve been clean for how long now?
Gooden: March made two years.
Tavis: Two years.
Tavis: March made two years.
Gooden: March (unintelligible).
Tavis: It’s been two years now.
Gooden: That’s right.
Tavis: Here’s why I ask that. I’ve been doing this show now for 10 seasons, this is our 10th season on PBS, and as part of this 10-year celebration I’ve been asked a lot of questions about the 10 years and the ups and the downs and what I liked the most, and just different interviews, who did you enjoy – I’ve been asked a lot of questions about this 10-year journey.
I was in a conversation the other day, and I don’t know how I’d avoided this in all these interviews I’ve done about the 10-year anniversary, but somebody asked me a question that made me think about the moment that most hurt me in 10 years of doing this show.
The moment that hurt me the most was having El DeBarge, the great singer – I love El DeBarge, love the family DeBarge, had the records, I love DeBarge. El’s got such a great voice.
El came on this very show, sat in that very chair when he was clean and sober, finally got around to putting a new record out. The record was climbing the charts, he was being booked on all the major music award shows, El DeBarge is back, he’s killing it, and he’s clean.
El came on that show, sat in that very chair and told me that he was clean, and we talked about his life and what he wanted to do, and Dwight, I kid you not, it wasn’t even a year later and El had crashed and burned again.
Gooden: Went back down.
Tavis: He went back down again, man, because it is a disease, and it made me, it just made me – when I heard about that and got a phone call from his people, I just cried. I just cried, because I was so hoping that he was going to pull through that.
I say all that to ask what makes you so confident that you can stay this way the rest of your life?
Gooden: That’s a great question, because I could be in the same position that El DeBarge was in, if I let my guard down. This disease doesn’t take a day off, and I’ve been struggling with this for over 20 years, so I definitely can’t take a day off.
What I mean by that, if I continue to do the things I’m doing now tomorrow, I’ll be okay. I’m confident in saying I’ll continue to do those things. I can’t promise I’m going to stay clean, but I can promise that I’m going to stay with my sponsor, I’m going to stay away from the danger zones, recognizing my triggers, being honest with my true feelings.
You get to a point where you get sick and tired of living like that, and one of the things that gets me trouble – I don’t know what happened to El DeBarge, but I used to some clean time, then I’d get comfortable and figure, okay, I got it now, I could do this on my own.
I always get the same results. This is a disease you can’t do on your own, and I’ve been (unintelligible) enough to say that. So now it’s about acceptance. This is part of my life. Everything starts with my recovery, and God first, and then everything takes place.
If I take a day off my recovery, it’s just a matter of time. That’s just the way it goes. It’s just a matter of time before I go back down that road. So I have to start my day off every day, number one, thanking God, conversating with him, and then with recovery, and then everything else comes after that.
Tavis: For all the success you’ve had, and it is amazing – it reminds me of our conversation about El DeBarge. For all the drama that El DeBarge had with drugs, has had with drugs, he’s prolific when it comes to the hits that he’s had as a songwriter and as a performer.
Same is true of Doc Gooden. Three world championships, Cy Young award, rookie of the year, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.; no-hitters. You’ve been prolific even why you were struggling, which speaks to how gifted you were that you can do all that, even though you were addicted during some of that time.
I raise that to ask how you, with all the success you had, how you not beat yourself up for the additional success that you could have had had you not had this addiction, had you stayed clean. Do you beat yourself up about that?
Gooden: Yes, I think about that. I actually beat myself up with that a lot, and it’s weird, because like after the ’86 season, the expectations from the media, they became my expectations.
I’ll give you an example. If I pitched a shutout and I won the game 1-0, but if I only had three strikeouts, the first question would be, “What happened, you only had three strikeouts.” So next game I’m going out trying to get 10 strikeouts, a complete game, a shutout to please others.
I lost the fun. It’s a job, but you’re supposed to have fun. A lot of times, even when I retired, I used to think man, if I wasn’t getting high, if I wasn’t partying, I could have had 300 wins, I could have been in the Hall of Fame, I could have done this.
It kept me sick. I kept going back out and medicating myself and not dealing with it until I finally got to a place where I said, “Hold on a second. When I was a kid, my only dream was to play major league baseball, stay healthy so I can play a long time.”
I never thought about any awards for pitching, never thought about the World Series, definitely didn’t think about the Hall of Fame. Also I said nobody could have said they could predict me to be those things that I wanted to be when I was 10 years old.
So I said, “Who am I to beat myself up over this stuff?” I won, like you mentioned, every award a pitcher could possibly win. I was blessed enough to get three World Series rings, I pitched a no-hitter, got in the Mets Hall of Fame.
People would have loved to have had that career. So I said I can’t use what I didn’t do as an excuse to go out there and destroy myself again. I’ve got to be proud of the things I did do, and be happy with that and celebrate those things, and that’s what I do today.
Tavis: How do baseball fans treat you these days, when they see you in airports or see you in hotel lobbies or on the street somewhere?
Gooden: Probably I wouldn’t say as good as it was like in the early ’80s, when I was on the top, but better than I expected. I say that because the struggles I’ve had, a lot of them could have turned their back and I would have understood.
But now that I’ve come out with this book and I’ve talked to schools and I share my story, I think they respect me more as a person, and that’s all I can ask for, because that’s a little bit more important than a baseball player.
Tavis: Yeah. For you, aside from the awards and the honors, what was the most fun for you? What represented the fun for you? We know the struggles that you had, and we know the awards obviously make you feel good, but just give me some sense of what you did enjoy about the years you had a chance to play?
Gooden: The most enjoyable thing was my first year, number one, being able to pitch and have my parents there watching me, which my dad, that was like his dream. Then it became my dream. Being there, the face of my nephew, Gary Sheffield.
Gooden: Having all my family there watching the games. The relationships you develop with the teammates, the competing. In ’85, that probably was, for the single season, personally, that probably was my most enjoyable season, where at Shea Stadium, when I pitched at home, having a sell-out crowd, having fans on their feet once I got two strikes.
It almost felt like (unintelligible) in a concert and everybody’s there to see you. When we scored a couple runs early, I was actually – not that I was rooting against my team to make outs, but I didn’t care if they scored any more runs, because I felt like that was my night.
I want to be out on the mound, and you just want to go out and just totally dominate. That, making All-Star games, meeting so many of my idols when I was a kid doing that, and just – and obviously playing with the Yankees as well.
Even though when you’re with the Mets you’re supposed to hate the Yankees, but being (unintelligible) Yankees and sharing that history they had there, and working under Mr. Steinbrenner, were some of my fondest moments.
Tavis: Yeah. I’m raising this because you mention one player who was an awfully good player in his own right, your nephew, Gary Sheffield – great baseball player who also played, of course, for the Yankees.
There are a couple of other players in the book that you mention, and I’ll just mention their names and you say whatever you want to say about it. I don’t want to color what you have to say, based on what you wrote. Lenny Dykstra. There’s a story in the book that’s somewhat funny to me. (Laughter)
Tavis: It’s sad what’s happened to Lenny, and Lenny, we know, is incarcerated right now. It’s just sad. But tell the story about the day Lenny came to “rescue” you.
Gooden: Yeah. What happened was two weeks prior to me going to “Celebrity Rehab,” I saw Lenny in New York City and we had dinner together and we was talking.
A story was in the back of “The New York Post.” It had a picture of myself and a couple of other people that went to “Celebrity Rehab,” saying (unintelligible). At that time I hadn’t spoken to anybody for “Celebrity Rehab,” so I was talking to Lenny about it.
He goes, “You don’t need to go to that place. They’re going to brainwash you there. You’re fine.” I said, “Yeah, yeah.” I said, “I’m not going there. I didn’t talk to nobody.”
So about a week later I was contacted by “Celebrity Rehab,” and at that point I was struggling with my addiction. So I thought going there, I’m not sure, because it’s – the camera’s following you around and you’re trying to get better and work on your addiction.
I talked to my older kids and I talked to my mom about it. I said, “It’s going to share some dark moments that bring up some bad memories,” and my mom said, “If you feel it’s going to help you and help others, I’m all for it.”
So I decided to go to the show, and I guess Lenny found out through a mutual friend that I was there. So when he got back to L.A., him a couple of his friends, they came on-site, and I remember one of the counselors coming back there and saying, “It’s Lenny Dykstra here to see you, but if he don’t leave the premises, we’re going to have to have him arrested.”
I said, “Let me just talk to him for a minute, see what’s going on.” So I saw Lenny, he’s like, “Get your bag, you’re getting out of here.” (Laughter) “You’re not supposed to be in here.”
I thought he was joking. I said, “No, Lenny, I’m fine.” He goes, “No, get your suitcases, you’re leaving. You’re not staying here.”
Tavis: So Lenny Dykstra came to break you out –
Gooden: He came to break me out.
Tavis: – of “Celebrity Rehab.”
Gooden: What was funny, (laughter) they can called Dr. Drew there, and Dr. Drew asked me, “Do you think you could talk Lenny into being on the cast for the next segment?” But I said – that’s why, like you mentioned, he’s incarcerated now, but Lenny has some mental issues.
I wish there was more getting mental help than incarcerated. But when he came there it was a bad situation at that time, but he was just trying to be a friend. I knew Lenny; we go way back to the minor leagues and everything like that.
Tavis: Our system of incarceration is that, to your point, they miss the fact that some of these people have mental issues.
Tavis: It’s more important to get them that help than it is to lock them up, but that’s another show for another time.
Another person right quick is Darryl Strawberry, and I raise Darryl only because fair or unfair, there’s so many comparisons made between you and Darryl. What do you make of those comparisons?
Gooden: I think a lot of comparisons are right there. You had two guys, two young Black players come up at an early age, a lot of success. Then we had a lot of the same problems off the field as well.
Our relationship has been like brothers, it’s a love-hate relationship. I talked to Darryl, we played an old-timers game, and we’ll go a week we love each other, we’ll go a week we have difficulties.
I think part of that, like we talked about, is letting other people dictate our relationship with that hearsay stuff, and we’ve known each other long enough to know we’re both better than that, and we should discuss things amongst ourselves when there’s a problem, opposed to starting rumors or answering to rumors.
So I have a lot of respect for him. I always wish him the best for good health and in what he’s doing. Our relationship is, like I say, it’s hot and cold, but deep down, we both know we love each other.
Tavis: Your dad’s gone. Your mom is still here?
Gooden: Mom’s still here.
Tavis: How is Mom feeling about her baby these days?
Gooden: Oh, she’s loving it. My mom, she’s 81, and what keeps my mom going is her grandkids, her great-grands, and me staying healthy. I made a deal to myself, even though sobriety is one day at a time, but I made a promise to myself as long as my mom’s here, she’ll never see me doing drugs and alcohol again.
Tavis: That’s a powerful commitment, and a lot of us are pulling and praying for you to hold on to that.
Gooden: Thank you, and I appreciate it.
Tavis: I’m honored to have you on this program.
Gooden: Thanks for having me. It’s always a pleasure.
Tavis: When Dwight walked on the show, walked on the set, he said to me, “Thanks for having me on the show,” and I said, “No, it’s the least I can do for all the joy you brought me watching you pitch.” Having him on this program is the least I can do.
The book is called “Doc: A Memoir,” by the one, the only Dwight Gooden – one of the best ever to hit the mound. Dwight, all the best to you, sir.
Gooden: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
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