“Doc: A Memoir” by Dwight Gooden and Ellis Henican; New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($27)
When it comes to the medium that is the sports autobiography, our nation offers a long and storied history of nonsense.
With rare exception, the process goes thusly:
Step 1: Athlete signs contract to “write” an autobiography.
Step 2: Athlete is paired with an actual writer, who agrees to take, oh, 10 percent of the payout.
Step 3: Athlete allows writer two or three hourlong sit-down interviews. They are recorded, then transcribed, then cobbled into a functional narrative.
Step 4: Book — filled with glorious stories of this game and that pitch and those touchdowns — is released. Athlete makes a handful of contractually obligated appearances, poses for some pictures, lands three minutes on some mindless morning television show.
Step 5: Life goes on.
The latest addition to the genre is “Doc,” the memoir former New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden has “written” with Newsday’s Ellis Henican.
And it’s (gasp!) outstanding.
Let this be said again: Against all precedent, “Doc” is outstanding: a brutally honest, oft-painful retelling of the life of a one-time pitching phenom whose existence has been largely ruined by nearly three decades of on-again, off-again drug and alcohol abuse.
If you’re a baseball fan looking for warm stories about the Mets’ improbable 1986 World Series championship, this isn’t your book. Gooden covers requisite on-field turf (the 1985 Cy Young trophy, the Fall Classic, the no-hitter, etc.), but with the enthusiasm of a Danny Heep at-bat. It’s as if, after years of one lie after another after another, Gooden saw “Doc” as an opportunity to stop holding back and hiding behind excuses. In short, he seems to view this as therapy.
Hence, “Doc” is neither a fun nor breezy read. It does not paint Gooden in an especially positive light, and with each snort of cocaine the reader finds himself screaming, “What the hell is wrong with you?” Gooden admits to having been an awful husband and an even worse father. By the time one is five chapters deep, Gooden isn’t the four-time All-Star who won 194 career games. No, he’s the screw-up who refuses to get his life in order. You want things to work out for Gooden, but you also learn that here is a man unwilling to help himself.
The most painful segment in “Doc” comes in a chapter titled “Party Time,” during which Gooden is introduced to cocaine a month before spring training 1986. He finds himself inside a room with two half-naked women and a line of the drug. Writes Gooden: “Pretty soon, the three of us were all doing vodka shots, as I joined them on the bed. Then the coke came back out. They certainly seemed to be having fun with it. When they asked me again, I was in. … I dragged my finger along the credit card, picking up some coke dust, then put it on my tongue. My face got numb. It felt weird but also good.”
From this moment on, Gooden is less a baseball player, more a junkie. Whenever faced with a choice between sport or family and cocaine, he picks cocaine. “Where did all that money go?” he asks. “I guess I know the answer to that. I sniffed a lot up my nose.”
Odds are, “Doc” doesn’t sell especially well. Gooden, now 48 and off drugs for two years, hasn’t thrown a major-league pitch in 13 seasons, and his endless cycle of troubles makes him more Lindsay Lohan than Meryl Streep. And yet, one gets the feeling this isn’t about reaching a bestseller list.
This is about coming clean.