Dwight Gooden of the New York Mets was on the way to the Hall of Fame, and his path was paved with gold. At 22, he was making $1.5 million a year to throw a baseball and hundreds of thousands more to pitch products. He was called a hero, and he was supposed to be a role model for the nation’s youth. Then last month he took a urine test that revealed he had used cocaine. Now he is a patient instead of a pitcher, out of the game for at least a month and maybe much longer. The man with the 96 mph fastball had thrown the world a curve. And the world wanted to know why.
Gooden himself has offered no answers. New Yorkers were puzzled last fall when he failed to appear at a parade celebrating his team’s World Series victory. And in his hometown of Tampa, Fla., Billy Reed, Gooden’s old high school coach, was hurt and disappointed when Gooden twice was a noshow this year at ceremonies to retire his Hillsborough Terriers number. Though Gooden has occasionally come by to work out with the team, he has never done what Reed would expect of a local boy turned hero and millionaire. Gooden has been generous with his parents, buying them a comfortable new house in a middle-class neighborhood, but just about all that he’s brought back to the community, Reed maintains, are his Porsche and his Mercedes, the fruits of his affluence. “Dwight is basically a good kid,” says Reed, “but his values sometimes bother me.”
Gooden’s trouble, according to Reed, is that he wants to be just one of the guys back in his working-poor Belmont Heights neighborhood. “That’s his biggest problem,” Reed says. “He wants to stick with his buddies. Some of them are younger, and some of them aren’t doing anything, and to me they’re leeches. You need to break away from these guys. He’s 22 years old, but sometimes he thinks he’s 18. He’s still got a high school mind.”
What Reed calls a fault, Gooden’s childhood friends see as a virtue. Though Gooden has moved from the neighborhood with his parents, he still comes by to play softball or basketball or go cruising for burgers. “Every car he have he’ll bring it by to let us look at it, check out the stereo,” says a friend who works in a factory. “He let me have his Corvette for two days.”
It was that Corvette, carrying two of Gooden’s friends after an evening of basketball and beer, that was pulled over by police last December. What happened next is in dispute, but when Gooden drove back in his Mercedes to intercede, he was arrested and roughed up by the officers. A prosecutor says the cops are convinced that Gooden had been carrying drugs, but Gooden’s friends insist he never used them, a recent urine test to the contrary. “If he was doing cocaine, he would have let us know about it,” says one. “He would have asked us if we wanted to try it.” Gooden’s best friend, Troy Davis, says he was stunned to learn of Dwight’s drug involvement. “It shocked me, because I never seen him do cocaine, never,” he says. But even if he did use it, believes Davis, 23, a hotel bellman and sometime professional boxer, Gooden has been unfairly criticized. “Everybody else has tried [cocaine]—doctors and lawyers and reporters,” he says. “But Dwight is not supposed to try it because he’s Dwight Gooden. He’s supposed to be perfect.”
Being perfect, being Dwight Gooden superstar, is something that his old friend may find hard to do. “He just wants to be with the neighborhood guys and be a teenager,” says Davis. “He wants to be the star that he is, but he wants to be able to turn it off sometimes, turn off all the fame stuff for a little while. You can’t do that.” When he is lonely on the road, Gooden often phones Davis in Tampa. “He calls from Montreal, San Diego. He’ll say, ‘Hey, what’s going on back home, man? I don’t have nothing to do.’ Sometimes I can’t get him off the phone. He won’t come right out and tell me, ‘I miss home.’ ”
Gooden, in fact, has always had trouble telling anyone anything. Always shy, Gooden “used to run from girls” in high school, a friend recalls. “He couldn’t buy a date, and all of a sudden he’s got all these girls. When you’re a star, everybody wants to be where the light is.” Carlene Pearson, Gooden’s girlfriend for three years, “was really his first love, right out of high school,” a pal says. “I don’t think she wanted Dwight for who he was. I think she wanted him for what he was.” Gooden and Pearson broke up, at least temporarily, last fall, about the same time the press learned Gooden had fathered a son by his high school friend Debra Hamilton. Not long after, Pearson was arrested at New York’s La-Guardia airport, meeting Gooden with a gun in her purse. Gooden had major league girl trouble, and he had to live through it, as he has to live through everything now, in public.
When Gooden first became a star, as a 19-year-old rookie, he flew Troy Davis to New York. “As you drove around the city, all you saw was Dwight Gooden, Dwight Gooden, Dwight Gooden,” recalls Davis, his eyes widening at the memory. “Near Times Square they had the whole side of a building painted with his picture, and at the bus stops and in the subways, that’s all you saw was Dwight this, Dwight that. I mean, I felt important just being with him. I said, ‘God, Dwight, you got New York by the ass.’ He said, ‘You know what, you get tired of it, man. You can’t even spit on the ground without a reporter wanting to write it up.’ ”
“When we were little we talked about making it big,” Davis remembers. “Every kid dreams, you know. But when a dream comes true….” He shakes his head. “I’m happy for Dwight, but I kind of feel sorry for him, too.”