Fall 1986: The city of New York is euphoric! Patrick Ewing has arrived at Madison Square Garden and the future looks bright for the Knickerbockers. The Giants have started on a run that will finish with their first Super Bowl title. But, the city belongs to the baseball team, not the one in pinstripes from the Bronx, the other team, the Mets.
The Mets have just defeated the Boston Red Sox in game 7 of the World Series, in part to Bill Buckner forgetting the fundamentals on a ground ball in game 6, but mostly because the team co-existed just enough to win the first title since 1969. Davey Johnson was the manager of this band of misfits that included Keith Hernandez, Lenny Dykstra, Gary Carter, Mookie Wilson, Ray Knight, Ron Darling, Wally Backman, Sid Fernandez and others. But there were two stars that stood just as tall as the World Trade Center, Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden.
Darryl Strawberry's Met story starts back in 1983 when he won the National League Rookie of the Year by hitting 26 home runs and driving in 74 runs. At 6'6, slim, with speed, power and a batting stance with a leg kick that was emulated by millions of little leaguers including myself, "Straw" became an All-Star in 1984 and a superstar soon after. For the next seven seasons, he would average 32 homeruns and 94 runs batted in, make the All-Star Game seven more times, join the exclusive 30-30 club, and win that World Series with the Mets in 1986. He also became the focus of the infamous "Dar-ryl" chant in Fenway Park, proof that he had arrived as a superstar!
But a funny thing happened on his way to dethroning Hank Aaron as home run king and becoming the greatest ballplayer ever, Darryl couldn't stay out of Darryl's way. He constantly fought with teammates, openly criticized his manager and was fighting drug and alcohol addictions along the way. In 1991, he signed with his hometown Los Angeles Dodgers, but cocaine had already taken the best of Darryl Strawberry. By 1994, after two injury-plagued and personal problem-laden seasons, the Dodgers released him. He headed to San Francisco where he became the part-time player he would become for the rest of his career.
Dwight Gooden, Doc Gooden or Dr. K as he was known during his prime, blazed a trail to stardom on the strength of 98 mph fastball and the "Lord Charles" curveball that left batters baffled in the batter's box. As a 19-year-old rookie, Doc won 17 games, struck out 276 batters, became the youngest player ever selected to play in the All-Star Game and gave the Mets consecutive NL Rookie of the Year recipients. As good as he was in '84, he was legendary the next season, winning 24 games, striking out 268 batters, pitching 16 complete games and having an ERA of 1.53. while winning the National League's Cy Young award. The "K-Korner" was born in the bleachers at Shea Stadium, where fans counted his strikeouts with pre-printed K's (the scorekeeper's method of marking a strikeout) and Dr. K seemed poised to be the best pitcher ever.
Cocaine is a helluva drug!
After the 1986 World Series win, Gooden was absent from the ticker tape parade, lost in a cocaine binge. He started the 1987 season in rehab after testing positive for cocaine at the end of spring training. He returned to his dominate ways, now relying on his curveball more, but had to endure shoulder problems (hence the innings count on today’s star pitchers) that will derail his velocity. But he was never able to get that monkey off of his back. In 1994, he was suspended for 60 days for a failed drug test, then the rest of the season after failing a test while on suspension. He was 29, the day after the suspension, his wife found him in their bedroom with a loaded gun at his head.
The toasts of the town, stars on the biggest stage in the world, these two phenomenal athletes succumbed to the pressure, the access, the excess, the stardom and burned out by the age of 30 or so we thought. Resurrection for both of these fallen stars would come in the most unlikely place, the Bronx, for that other New York team. George Steinbrenner in a move to either put fans in the
seats, squeeze the last bit of talent out of these stars or on a redemptive mission, signed both Gooden and Strawberry during the 1996 season and both showed glimpses of what could've been throughout the season. Doc threw a no-hitter against Seattle in May and finished the season 11-7, but was left off the postseason roster. On the other hand, Straw hit 11 homers as a part-time player, including three in a game against the White Sox that summer and was even a contributor in the playoffs as the Yankees went on to win their first World Series in 18 years.
Gooden would struggle for the next few seasons and ultimately retire to a front office gig with the Yankees in 2001, while Strawberry hit 24 home runs in 1998, but was diagnosed with colon cancer that year and announced his retirement after a brief comeback following his cancer treatment. Old demons die hard. Both men have had numerous run-ins with the law over the years, further tarnishing the magic they conjured during the mid-80's. Drugs, alcohol, the tax man, child support, jail time, cancer and the memories of what could have been have haunted them since walking away from the game that should've made them legends, but for me, I'll always have that fall of 1986 and will see them as the Kings among the Boys of Summer.