Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Good Clean Fun

Dwight Gooden, Imperfect Tense

Although a certain sanity returned to their rhetoric as the second coming approached, sports journalists have been loath to give Dwight Gooden the choice of using cocaine. He could only "abuse" it, and then, by kind permission of Commissioner Uebermensch, "rehabilitate" himself. If you were Dick Young you sent him to a concentration camp with James Ramseur and Darrel Cabey. If you were Allen Barra you suggested he come off his presumed dependency by skipping the season. If you were Dave Anderson you accused him of permanently imperiling his genius like Rod Scurry and Manny Sarmiento before him. If you were Jack Newfield, you equated his quite private "mistake" with those of Ted Kennedy, who as I recall was implicated in the death of a young female subordinate, and Anthony Alvarado, who merely induced subordinates to forward him large sums of money.

It would be willful to get too het up about this outpouring of palaver. David Crosby's favorite high does indeed bite the big one: coveted by overpaid assholes who long to be fuller of themselves than they already are, coke has destroyed many less deserving souls even if it isn't the root of all evil. Nevertheless, the only reason I don't believe Dwight Gooden's biggest mistake was getting caught is the signals he gave that he wanted to get caught. It was Gooden, we're told, who put drug testing in his contract agreement, supposedly to scotch gossip about his "lifestyle," but really, it would seem, to guard against temptation. How often he was tempted no sports journalist knows. There's proof he used cocaine once in 1987, strong indication he used it more than once in 1986. Any more spectacular numbers are inference, speculation, hearsay, or bullshit.

Please let me emphasize that I have no inside dope to the contrary, and that some of the guesswork surrounding Gooden's 1986 "lifestyle" seems at least reasonable. I can even imagine the Mets covering up their own insistence on testing by pretending it was Gooden's idea. But the press has been unnaturally eager to assume him guilty until proven innocent. Not even the opinion of an anonymous source at Smithers, who told the Times it was unlikely drugs affected Gooden's performance in 1986, has quelled the notion that he was a full-time cokie while going a shameful 17-6 with a 2.84 ERA. Part of this is the neopuritan tide, part of it probably racial. But basically it reflects the yearning for an explanation of Gooden's departure from grace--from his career season of 1985, when he went 24-4 and 1.53 with uncanny modesty and unshakable poise. Nobody claimed the sky was falling when Ron Guidry followed the same pattern, dropping from 25-3 and 1.74 in 1978 to 18-8 and 2.78 in 1979, because Guidry had already proven himself mortal; he knocked around for two years before entering the Yankee rotation at age 26 with numbers similar to those a 19-year-old Gooden posted in his rookie season of 1984. Jesus, 19 years old. The kid had the mark of a demigod, of the greatest pitcher ever to walk the earth, and nobody could bear to have it taken away from them.

Though much has been made of his sharp curve, the Dwight Gooden who rejoined us Friday night looked like 1986 to me. The numbers will go down great in the record book: a run in six and two-thirds innings and as many wins as they let you have in one game. But he was definitely mortal. The power wasn't there, and when he didn't fall behind the hitters they fouled off his strikeout pitch, so that he threw five or more times to 16 of the 27 Pirates he faced. He had his ass saved by the pumped-up defense of Mookie Wilson and Darryl Strawberry. He picked off R. J. Reynolds in the fourth, the fruit of much labor in the off-season instructional league, but he also cost himself that run trying to foil a sacrifice in the third. Long term and short term, for the man and the team, this show of imperfection was just as well: if Gooden doesn't build up expectations gradually he's doomed to fall short of them. He doesn't need Wally Backman, batting under .250 with nobody pressuring him to equal last year's .320, who after all he's seen can still expect Gooden "to win whenever he pitches." Better Davey Johnson and Mel Stottlemyre and even loudmouth Howard Johnson hoping for six or seven innings. His 1986 stats are a little misleading, because in April he actually improved on 1985 before slipping into a less consistent groove. But he was a damn good pitcher last year, and the Mets could use a few of those.

Surprisingly, the fans seemed to get this. After the initial ovation, clearly an expression of faith rather than blanket approval, and the cathartic leadoff strikeout of Barry Bonds, their mood was watchful: there was little of the strike-two applause with which they demand Ks from their heroes. It's lucky for Gooden that in this ill-fated season the Mets now look like underdogs, that his return is a necessary but not sufficient precondition of their catching the Cardinals (and the Cubs, and the Expos). It gives him a little room to heed the wonderful placard the Times ran: "DWIGHT IS GOOD-'EN'/HUMAN/HANG IN THERE BABY/ONE DAY--ONE PITCH AT A TIME/LET'S GO METS!"

With the writers after the Mets for holding their property incommunicado, Gooden gave a fairly lengthy postgame press conference. And never having seen him interviewed for more than a minute or two, I was struck by how unequal he was to the task. No wonder reporters accuse him of mouthing truisms, and no wonder his corporate overseers want to keep it that way. His close-cropped head dripping sweat under the lights, he was only functionally articulate, never approaching a penetrating or witty remark. And to me it seemed clear that the truisms he mouthed when he wasn't describing the game were therapy truisms he'd picked up--or developed, I hope--at Smithers. He must have talked about "being yourself and having fun" half a dozen times.

Only once did he almost lose control--when Dick Young, capillaries aflame as usual, asked him whether he agreed with the Mets' policy of no drug questions. Gooden blanked for a moment, then forced out a "Yes" tense with throttled hostility. But though the press conference did stick to baseball, Gooden also talked about his reactions to baseball, thus providing an inkling of what his life off-field might have been like last season. Truisms evolve because human experience falls into patterns, and Gooden's pattern is standard overachiever: the compulsion to top yourself regardless. Supposedly, he's "matured" now. "You don't have to please anyone but yourself," he told us; you've just got to "do your work," "do the things you're capable of," "be yourself and have fun." The sharpest sentence he uttered all night dealt with 1985: "I'll never put up the same numbers again." The sharpest question anyone asked was why 1986 hadn't been "fun," and while Gooden ducked other specifics by bringing up his lousy Series, he left the impression that he'd spent most of the year brooding about his imperfections. How he found relief was left unsaid.

If cocaine was his escape of choice, that choice was a mistake--dangerous pleasures should never be indulged out of weakness. But it wasn't the mistake of one more overpaid asshole. The money is a side effect of Gooden's compulsion to excellence, and none of his indignantly cited antisocial behavior has that look of pigheaded arrogance rock critics know so well--for an appointed demigod, especially such a young one, he's done a decent job of holding his ego in check. I just hope Gooden realizes that even though being yourself and having fun sounds easy, in fact there's nothing harder--being yourself and having fun is virtually the secular definition of grace. And I wish I could forget that so far in 1987 he has an ERA of 1.35 and a winning percentage of 1.000.

Village Voice, June 16, 1987