The last time Dwight Gooden was seen without handcuffs was at Legends Field in Tampa on March 3, as the Yankees were about to begin their exhibition season. Doc showed up in civilian clothes, an outsider ever since being dismissed by the Bombers last summer, but about to return to the flock -- or so he said.
"Don't tell anyone yet, but April 1 is the day," Gooden said happily. That's when George Steinbrenner was planning to rehire him for what would have been the one millionth time. Gooden had been through too many arrests and relapses to count, but for some crazy reason the Boss was always waiting to rescue him.
Then, a few days later, Doc vanished again, swallowed up by the same cocaine beast that had already ruined his baseball career, his marriage, his finances. Now it has claimed another part of Doc's life -- his freedom. He was sentenced to prison for a year and a day on Wednesday, which represented the bottom of a downward spiral that has lasted parts of three decades.
It's interesting to note that Gooden actually chose prison over the reinstatement of his probation; his addiction runs so deep, the only guarantee of sobriety comes from behind bars. Even though this looked like the darkest of Gooden's life, a friend of the ex-star said, "It's the best thing that could have happened. Jail is the only thing that's going to save Doc."
Certainly, rehab had failed. From the first time he underwent treatment in 1987, the countdown to the next relapse would begin the moment Gooden hit the streets. His engine always ran too hot; he seemed jittery all the time, like he overloaded on something. Even that day at the ballpark, when Gooden swore he was ready to start a new life in Steinbrenner's fiefdom, he was noticeably hyper.
Could Gooden have been high in the very building that belonged to Steinbrenner, his advocate? It wouldn't have been the worst risk Doc had ever taken. Incredibly, he showed up to a scheduled meeting with his probation officer "high as a kite" according to one friend. Gooden must have known that officer, a trained professional, would've recognized the signs of drug use. Yet, Gooden walked through the door, twitchy and sniffly, a doomed man, practically asking to be arrested.
"He took a shot, but he knew in his heart it was over," said the friend. The probation officer sensed Gooden had used cocaine again, but nevertheless put him through the testing process.
"If you pass, you can walk right out of here," is what the officer said, according to Gooden's friend. It was just a formality, of course. Doc was promptly arrested, prompting the question: What's next for a man who's surrendered everything?
Darryl Strawberry, who was jailed in 2002 for violating his own probation, recalled the bizarre simplicity of life behind bars. There were no temptations in his face, no decisions to make, no goals except surviving the next 24 hours. By the time he was released, Strawberry said his drug addiction was gone, but so was his ego.
Now it's Gooden's turn to pay for his mistakes, and this time Steinbrenner won't be there to help. Not even Gary Sheffield, Doc's nephew, seems willing to talk about the family's embarrassment anymore. Doc has relapsed too many times, told too many lies. Now he'll be alone in a prison cell, looking only to navigate a path to tomorrow.
The irony is that Gooden's teammates from the 1986 Mets championship team will have a reunion this August at Shea Stadium. Finally, the wild-side Mets will be welcomed back to the flock -- while Doc will be in prison.
Finally, everyone will be forgiven for the partying that cost the franchise so dearly. To this day, the Mets believed they should have enjoyed a four- to five-year golden era, instead of years of drinking, drugging and near-misses. The World Series comeback against the Red Sox still makes everyone smile, but that era was more accurately captured by the Sports Illustrated cover story in 1995 entitled, "Dead End Kids."
The subjects? Doc and Darryl.
It's no coincidence that neither star has been inducted into the Mets' Hall of Fame, even though the winds of war seem to have softened to a gentle breeze now. Strawberry works as a guest instructor in spring training for the Mets, and ownership was warming toward Gooden, too. Everyone stopped being mad at Doc for turning into a Yankee; lately, they have only felt sorry for him.
But now Gooden is in prison, where the Mets' amnesty won't matter. Everyone will remember the good old days at the reunion, politely glossing over the fact that their brilliant young ace isn't there. The reality will be too obvious for words: Doc is neither brilliant nor young anymore.
While the Mets will raise a toast to Game 6 of the '86 World Series and Mookie Wilson's ground ball that went through Bill Buckner's legs, Gooden will be wearing an orange jumpsuit, trying to survive the next 24 hours.
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.