By Ursula Hennessey
Gooden and his Mets teammate Darryl Strawberry were my baseball heroes. I grew up on Staten Island, and my family rooted for the Mets. Every other family on our block leaned toward the Yankees. So, when the mid-80s rolled around, we finally got our due.
I was 15 when the Mets won the World Series in 1986. I was never a statistics person, or, for that matter, a serious student of baseball history, but I sure knew that Strawberry’s swing was the stuff of spun gold. I could see batters buckle at Gooden’s curveball. That was enough to make me a Mets fan, through-and-through.
In the late 1990s and into 2000, I worked as a sportswriter for the New York Post. Strawberry and Gooden both had stints with the Yankees while I was covering the team. By the time they arrived, I had gotten out of my system that ‘oh-my-gosh-I’m-interviewing-famous-people’ feeling. But it came back with a vengeance when I had to approach Straw and Doc for quotes.
When I first spotted Straw, my stomach lurched; I couldn’t hold my pen steady. Mind you, this wasn’t a “crush,” but rather that odd feeling of being confronted by your childhood in a public place, on the job.
It was a ready-or-not kind of moment. And I wasn’t ready.
He was sitting in front of his clubhouse locker, his huge limbs angled awkwardly on a too-small stool. He was smoking a cigarette(!). It looked like a stubby toothpick in his massive fingers. It’s in my head like a photograph: he was truly larger than life.
Strawberry was a lovely, thoughtful gentleman each time I spoke with him. (The same could not be said of some other athletes I would encounter during my reporting career, but that’s for another time.)
My only painful memory about Strawberry is related, not surprisingly, to his demons. We once had a long conversation at the Yankees’ training facility in Tampa during spring training (I don’t remember the year). We talked about his recovery. We talked about God’s grace. I shared with him that a close relative of mine had struggled with addiction and had been saved, like Straw claimed to have been, by Alcoholics Anonymous. We had a frank discussion, he and I, about addiction; he was no longer a “hero,” but a man with whom I had connected spiritually, albeit fleetingly. He spoke like a saved man – humble, at peace, grateful.
A few days later, it came out that he’d failed a drug test. It had been administered a day or so before our chat.
I didn’t connect in quite the same way with Dwight Gooden, though I remember him as a respectful professional. Really, the only clear memory I have of him is talking at his locker while two of his children played nearby, politely and curiously listening to reporters’ questions. He, too, talked of the evil of addiction and the vigilance he’d need to fend it off. He also spoke of God’s grace.
I hope he will find it in the coming days and weeks.