The Tragedy of ‘Doc & Darryl,’ Two Baseball Stars Brought Down by Addiction
ESPN’s latest sterling ‘30 for 30’ documentary is a sorrowful portrait of the rise and fall of two would-be Mets titans, the once-great ‘Doc’ Gooden and Darryl Strawberry.
As a young baseball-loving kid growing up just outside New York City during the ’80s, there was no athlete I loved more than Darryl Strawberry, the lanky, larger-than-life superstar of the New York Mets. My walls were lined with posters of the 6-foot-6 power-hitting right-fielder, whose leg-kicking, upper-cutting lefty swing sent baseballs into orbit—as when one of his moon-shots literally hit the roof of Olympic Stadium, or when another rocketed so forcefully into Shea Stadium’s scoreboard that it knocked out some of the lights. As Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci says, Straw had a swing like “maple syrup,” smooth and seemingly effortless in its awe-inspiring power. That he could run the bases with speed and had a cannon for an arm only furthered the idea—at least to adolescent me, as I hung on his every at-bat while listening to WFAN radio broadcasts—that he really was a new-age Ted Williams, a baseball god among men.
Which is why his eventual fall from grace due to substance abuse—a plummet that also befell his equally talented teammate, pitching ace Dwight “Doc” Gooden—felt so downright crushing. It was stark, sobering proof that even the most amazingly gifted individuals were all too capable of sabotaging themselves with drugs and alcohol. Their self-destructive paths are perhaps one of modern sports’ most heartbreaking, and thus it’s no surprise that ESPN’s sterling new 30 for 30 documentary on their lives, Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio’s Doc & Darryl, functions as both a cautionary tale about the folly of thinking oneself indestructible and a eulogy for the genuine greatness they squandered.
Apatow and Bonfiglio structure their film as a traditional chronological narrative recounted through archival highlight montages and talking-head interviews. However, it’s the 2015 footage of Doc and Straw conversing at a Queens, New York, diner that resonates most powerfully, and poignantly. Doc’s cheery smile is now framed by gaunt lines, while Straw’s bald head and strapping frame are a bit pudgier than in his halcyon days. They’re both past their physical primes, but what truly materializes is a vision of would-be titans brought low by similar failures—of foresight, of moderation, and of will to truly fight (until recently) their addictions. Doc & Darryl wants to show us that they’re now healed, that they’ve survived their demons and have entered into a new, healthier phase of their lives. Yet no matter their joyous shared laughter over fond memories, they resemble something akin to ghosts trapped between worlds—eager to transcend their injurious pasts even as they cling to their glory days, and anxiously unsure of what the future holds.
As so many sagas go, Straw and Doc’s stories both begin with strained father-son relationships. For Doc, it was an emotionless dad who drove his Tampa Bay-born son to dedicate himself to pitching; there was baseball, and nothing else. The struggle to please his father was the primary impetus for Doc turning to booze by the age of 16. Even after being drafted by the Mets and making an out-of-this-world splash in the big leagues as a teenager—culminating with a 1984 Rookie of the Year award and a 1985 Cy Young Award, the latter for one of baseball’s all-time best pitching seasons—Doc rarely looked like a man who was enjoying himself on the mound. As Verducci says during Doc & Darryl, good luck trying to find a picture of “Dr. K” smiling during the ’85 season—the burden of being so phenomenal (and of living up to his father’s demanding dream) was onerous.
Before long, cocaine and alcohol would become the noose around Doc’s neck—forcing him to miss the parade for the Mets’ 1986 World Championship (a title earned through team-wide consumption of amphetamines), and then sending him into a tailspin of drug suspensions, relapses, rape allegations, and other sordid misdeeds. Things were hardly any rosier for the California-bred Straw, who after consuming copious illicit substances and carousing like a playboy with the Mets during the ’80s, would depart for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1990 (“The biggest mistake I ever made”). Shortly after that misguided change of scenery, he’d be introduced to crack cocaine and crystal meth, which would finalize his transformation into the very type of drunk-and-high wife abuser that his father had been (and that he’d vowed never to become).
Straw and Doc would find some measure of minor professional redemption thanks to George Steinbrenner and the Yankees, with whom Straw enjoyed significant success while helping them win three late ’90s titles, and for whom Doc threw his only no-hitter—a triumph that serves as Doc & Darryl’s most moving moment, as Doc reveals that it was the last game his father ever saw him pitch before passing away. But ultimately, their return to the New York playing field would be a short-lived grace period, torn asunder by endless, depressingly repetitive headlines of arrests, treatment center stays, cancer diagnoses (for Straw), and further ignominious turns of events.
The wistful way that SI’s Verducci, Newsday’s Marty Noble, Mets radio announcer Howie Rose, and others (including two of their drug counselors) discuss Straw and Doc in Apatow and Bonfiglio’s film is to hear the sorrow of an entire generation of New York fans. Rooting for these two seemingly surefire Hall of Famers (an honor they’d never earn), we not only saw a potential Mets dynasty implode under the weight of inebriated mistakes, but were then forced to watch as our sports heroes—men who seemed capable of achieving athletic heights no one had dreamed possible—devolved into almost unthinkable, deadly disrepair.
At the end of Doc & Darryl, which finds Doc still struggling to remain clean while Straw seems rejuvenated by his new calling as a preacher and treatment-center operator alongside his wife, Tracy, lifelong Mets fan John Stewart wonders if maybe his heartache over the two stars isn’t actually his to feel; rather, it’s only theirs. Which is, in a certain sense, true. But to watch ESPN’s latest sterling 30 for 30 is to stare into the face of former champions doing their best to stay on the straight and narrow under the weight of immense wasted opportunities—as ballplayers, as husbands, as fathers, as friends—and to feel an inescapable measure of grief over so much greatness thrown to the wind.
Similar to so many Mets fans from that era, I’ll never forget watching Doc mow down 16 Cubs batters with power and grace, or Straw hit a concussive home run off Busch Stadium’s clock. But I wish there had been far more of those great memories, because there should have been. And like Apatow and Bonfiglio’s mournful Doc & Darryl, I hope they find a way to shoulder their afflictions and regrets, and happily and healthily move forward.