On October 28, 1986, an estimated 2.2 million people jammed downtown Manhattan for the New York Mets’ World Series victory parade. One person was notably absent from the celebration: Mets pitcher Dwight “Doc” Gooden. Though team reps claimed that their prodigiously talented young hurler had “overslept,” the hotshot player was actually watching the parade at home while coming down from a night of heavy partying at the home of his cocaine dealer.
Darryl Strawberry, the Mets’ All Star right fielder, had been tasked by the team with picking up Gooden on the way to the parade, but wound up going ahead without him when Doc didn’t answer the door. As the Mets’ two young black superstars, they were widely assumed to be best friends; the duo were also supposed to be two future Hall of Famers whose combined talents would form the cornerstone of many subsequent World Champion Mets squads.
“I went to so many legendary games when they first came to the majors,” remembers longtime Mets fan Judd Apatow, who co-directed the sports doc Doc & Darryl (with Michael Bonfiglio). “Those games where Dwight Gooden would throw 16 or 18 strikeouts or where Darryl Strawberry would crush a few home runs were like rock concerts. It was like seeing Springsteen in ’78. The Mets had been so bad for so long. They were our saviors.”
The reality, of course, was far less rosy. As the latest installment in ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series — which premieres July 14th — recounts, both men were already firmly locked in the downward spirals of drug and alcohol addiction by the end of the 1986 season. Though they weren’t particularly close as people, their respective lives would play out in ugly parallel for two decades; instead of championships and Hall of Fame plaques, Gooden and Strawberry racked up numerous suspensions, rehab stints and criminal charges between them. Both men even did time in prison during the 2000s for drug-related probation violations.
Doc & Darryl doesn’t sugarcoat any of the players’ many missteps, but it does paint a picture of Gooden and Strawberry that’s considerably more complex and empathetic than the “two bums who squandered their talents” narrative that’s often been pushed by the mainstream media. “We wanted to truly understand them,” says Apatow. “The media had created caricatures. We attempted to reveal who they really are.”
The documentary features commentary by such notable figures as former Mets player/current Mets broadcaster Keith Hernandez, former Mets manager Davey Johnson, sportswriter Tom Verducci, addiction counselor Bob Forrest, Mets co-owner Bill Maher, and Apatow’s fellow Mets fan Jon Stewart, but the most compelling stuff in the film comes from the subjects themselves.
“It was surprisingly easy to get Doc and Darryl to open up,” says Bonfiglio. “I think they were just at a point in their lives where they were willing to talk about stuff. We told them from the very beginning, ‘We want to talk about everything,’ and they were down. I think having the opportunity to have their own say was appealing.”
Gooden and Strawberry are interviewed separately in the documentary, as well as together at a diner in Queens. They both speak frankly in their solo segments about repeating the patterns of their alcoholic fathers, and the enormous wreckage to their lives and those of others that resulted. Gooden, already a heavy drinker by his late teens, says the enormous pressures of his phenomenal 1985 season — when he went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA and league-leading 268 strikeouts, becoming (at age 20) the youngest player to ever win a Cy Young Award — sent him even deeper into the bottle. “I thought alcohol would calm me down a bit,” he says, but things got even worse that off-season, when he was introduced to cocaine. “I never had a true hobby,” he reflects in the film. “A lot of guys go fishing, they play golf; my hobby was drinking, getting high and hanging around with people I shouldn’t.”
Strawberry, who’d been smoking weed and drinking since high school, remained in denial about his alcoholism throughout his entire playing career. “I didn’t think I had a problem,” he says in the film. “I thought my wife was crazy. I thought everyone else was crazy. I just liked to drink!” Cocaine and crack also figured into the equation, along with an addiction to “greenies,” the amphetamine pills that players commonly used in order to combat the rigors of the long baseball season. “We had a team full of junkies,” Strawberry says of the mid-Eighties Mets. “It just wasn’t me and Doc.”
“Those games where Gooden would throw 16 or 18 strikeouts or where Strawberry would crush home runs were like rock concerts. It was like seeing Springsteen in ’78.”
—director Judd Apatow
But the camaraderie that the team displayed on the field — and in the Big Apple nightspots they’d so often hit after the game — didn’t translate to any sort of help or support when it came to personal issues. In the film, Keith Hernandez notes how upset he was when he first observed Gooden in the throes of what appeared to be cocaine tremors, but also says he didn’t say anything about it because of his own high-profile troubles. (Hernandez had been implicated in the “Pittsburgh drug trials” of 1985, in which he admitted to having used cocaine for three years.) Gooden, for his part, remained convinced for decades that the Mets discovered he was using coke because Strawberry had narc-ed him out to the front office — a subject the two men finally clear the air about during Doc & Darryl‘s occasionally awkward diner conversations.
“From the very beginning, we were saying, ‘We have to get these guys to sit down and talk together,'” Bonfiglio explains. “We were really curious what it would be like: ‘Do they keep in touch? Have they ever really talked about the serious stuff?’ I got the sense that they love and care about each other, almost like family members, but they’re not very close. A lot of things in that conversation in the diner, they had never talked about before. Darryl had never asked Doc, ‘Hey, what happened to you the morning of the World Series parade?’ And Doc had never confronted Darryl with, ‘Hey, did you sell me out to management about my cocaine use back in ’87?’ — he’d written about it in his book, but he’d never asked Darryl about it. It didn’t happen until we sat them down for the film.”
“What I think is interesting about this documentary is how they describe their lives,” says Apatow. “It isn’t just the truth, it is also the way they have chosen to define their history. Sometimes it feels really raw and painfully honest — and at other times you can tell there is much more to a story, but they are just not going to tell anyone. There is so much pride, and also so much shame and regret.”
The two men have trod rather divergent paths over the past decade. Strawberry finally got sober in 2006, and became an ordained minister; in 2011, he founded Strawberry Ministries with his wife Tracy (also a recovering addict), and the two of them run the Darryl Strawberry Recovery Center in Orlando, Florida. The Strawberry we see in Doc & Darryl looks happy, confident and deeply committed to both his sobriety and his mission to help others.
Gooden, on the other hand, appears to still be struggling. Arrested several times since 2002, he served nearly seven months in prison in 2006, and was put on five years’ probation in 2011 after being arrested and charged with DWI, child endangerment and leaving the scene of a traffic accident. While Gooden speaks sincerely in the movie of his continued attempts to stay on the wagon, it’s clear that he still hasn’t found himself in sobriety the way that his former team mate has. Rather than trying to wrap up the story with a neat, positive conclusion, Doc & Darryl makes it clear that there’s no easy way out of addiction.
“No one was trying to push a certain narrative, like, ‘Hey, it has to have a happy ending, or end on an uplifting note,'” says John Dahl of ESPN Films. “It is what it is, and the story needs to be told the way it is. And I thought that was really impressive on Judd and Mike’s part, that they readily embraced the messiness of the story.”
“Addiction is a lifelong struggle, and they continue to battle this disease,” says Apatow. “[Making] the film gave me great compassion for people with this affliction. It is so painful and destructive and it destroys lives, but these two men are very strong and have worked so hard over the decades to survive it. Their playing days gave all of us so much pleasure. I hope they find true happiness and peace. I hope the film is a cautionary tale about the dangers of addiction, and I also hope it reminds people that these athletes who we look at as Gods are just normal people with human frailties like the rest of us. They deserve our understanding.”
Apatow, who is currently working with Bonfiglio on a documentary about the Avett Brothers, says that the human aspects of Gooden and Strawberry’s stories were ultimately what inspired him to make the film. “I am a terrible athlete,” he says, “so my sympathy is always with the team that lost or the player that is in a slump. When the Mets won in 1986, I only thought about Bill Buckner. ‘How is he feeling? I hope he knows how awesome he is.’ That always prevents me from getting too excited when my team wins because I am always Bill Buckner. That’s the essence of what Freaks and Geeks is about — how do we survive the painful moments? I am interested in people’s humanity much more than their feats of greatness.”