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Hot Corner Book Club: Doc's new memoir

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Stephen Dunn

Three things I learned while reading Doc, Dwight Gooden's new memoir:

1. Gooden was a poor-functioning drug addict for many years,

2. Gooden grew up in a loving home but saw some awful, awful things; and

3. Gooden isn't his old teammate Darryl Strawberry's biggest fan.

About that last, here's just a bit from toward the end of the book:

I'm not sure what makes Darryl behave the way he does. We had very different upbringings, and that's probably a part of it. We just have different values, different ideas of what it means to be somebody's friend. But I think he's always been a little jealous...


Over the years, I never downed Darryl, even when he was downing me. And I had plenty of reasons to. Many of the things he accused me of, he was doing too.

When rumors were floating about a drug-using Mets player, he jumped in to say, "It's Doc."

When he couldn't mess around with women because he wife was there, he made sure my girlfriend found out what I was up to.

If you're hoping to read much about Gooden's other teammates, though, you'll largely be disappointed. There's a good line about Lenny Dykstra -- "If anything, he belongs in a psych ward, not a prison cell." -- and a few pages of interesting material about the Mets who helped him as a rookie, including Keith Hernandez and Rusty Staub. But the bottom line is that Doc isn't really a baseball book at all. There's more in this book about Gooden's stint on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew than about his five seasons in the American League. Doc is mostly about addiction and recovery, and there's little here you haven't read before, unless you've never read anything about addiction and recovery.

It does seem like a generally honest book, and Gooden seems like a likeable person. That's just not really enough to carry a whole book, unless you're particularly interested in Gooden's life off the field.

In 2010, Gooden was invited to join the Mets Hall of Fame, which seems to have genuinely thrilled and humbled him. Still, as Gooden writes,

This wasn't Cooperstown. This wasn't the Hall of Fame people once expected me to be part of. Ever since my rookie season in 1984, I'd been hearing talk about the Baseball Hall of Fame. How likely I was to get there. How long I'd have to wait. Then how I'd tragically blown my opportunity. Once in a while, some friend or fan or baseball numbers geek would pull me aside -- this still happens -- and talk Hall of Fame statistics with me. "You really should be in Cooperstown," these people would say. "Your numbers are better than a lot of the guys who are there." The running theory from my boosters seemed to be that I had created such gigantic expectations in my early playing days that my failure to meet them -- not my actual performance -- was being held against me. That might or might not be true. I don't know. I'll let other people argue about that.

Okay. I'll say that it's not true. Gooden doesn't have Hall of Fame numbers. Are they better than "a lot of the guys" in the Hall of Fame? Depends on your definition of a lot. He went 194-112 in his career, and his .634 winning percentage would rank 10th among Hall of Fame pitchers. But Gooden's 111 ERA+ is nothing special. And while Sandy Koufax won only 165 games, he was legitimately great in five or six seasons. By my lights, Gooden was truly brilliant in two seasons: his first two. You might argue three or four. But Gooden wasn't Koufax.

Did all the drugs and the drinking cost him that Hall of Fame career? Well, it's really hard to say. I believe that he would have worn down either way; after those first couple of seasons, his arm just wasn't the same. Maybe if he'd been living a cleaner life, he would have worked harder to rehabilitate from the various injuries. If he'd been living a cleaner life, he certainly wouldn't have spent a month in drug rehab in 1987, or been suspended for most of '94 and all of '95. Without all the drugs, he probably would have won at least 220 games rather than 194. Which might have gotten him more attention from the Hall of Fame voters.

But after Gooden turned 30, he was a league-average pitcher (at best) with a 1.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Like a lot of talented young pitchers, he just couldn't keep it together, physically speaking, for the years it usually takes to build a strong Hall of Fame résumé.

In 2011, Gooden appeared in Season 5 of Celebrity Rehab. In his book, he says he's been clean since then. For the most part, he's stayed out of the news. I'll say this for the book: After reading it, I'm pulling for the guy. Not to mention his seven kids, none of whom asked for an absentee drug-addicted father.