Things couldn’t get any worse for Doc Gooden – and then along came Daily News baseball columnist John Harper.
The Mets’ troubled superstar, trying to make a comeback after his 1995 cocaine suspension, admits he thought his career was over when he couldn’t strike out Harper during a batting practice session 20 years ago.
“When the suspension is lifted, Gary (Sheffield), my nephew, he was playing with the Marlins, so he says ‘I can get you a tryout with the Marlins,” Gooden said during a “CenterStage” interview scheduled to air Wednesday at 11 p.m. on YES.
“I said, ‘OK,’ and then the White Sox came to watch me throw. I think the Braves came to watch me, but that was pretty much it. The reporter Harper, he jumped in to take batting practice off me, and I figured OK, this will make me look good, but I couldn’t strike him out. And the scouts are here, I’m like, ‘I can’t strike this guy out.’ I’m like, “I’m done. That’s it.'”
Harper, a standout at the University of Bridgeport, remembers it differently. He doesn’t remember seeing any scouts at the session – and he says Gooden had his number in his next two at bats.
Harper says Yankee consultant Ray Negron, who was overseeing Gooden’s rehab, invited him to join the seven or eight college players who regularly hit against the 1985 Cy Young winner as he prepared for his return to Major League Baseball.
“The first time up I hit it back up the middle,” Harper says. “The second time up he struck me out with a curveball. The third time up I popped up.”
Harper had just played on a fast-pitch softball team that had won a national championship, so he was comfortable with velocity. But breaking balls were a different story.
“I was a pretty good player,” Harper says. “I wasn’t a major leaguer, that’s for sure.”
Harper may have made Gooden look bad that day, but the flame-throwing pitcher still had some gas left in his tank. He went 11-7 in 1996 for the Yankees as they went on to win their first World Series since 1978.
Gooden threw a no-hitter that season – the day he was supposed to fly to Florida to visit his father, who underwent a heart operation the next day. Gooden says he felt guilty that he opted to play that day, but he says it was part of a divine plan.
“I’m not really a Bible thumper, but I do believe in God and that was definitely him that night, and you throw a no-hitter that day and you’re being carried off the field and all I can think about is the year before, being suspended from baseball,” Gooden said.
“He (Gooden’s dad) never made it home (from the hospital), but the thing was, the last game he saw me pitch (on TV) was that no-hitter, and that’s something that (will) always stick with me,” Gooden added.
“Got there (the hospital) the next day, like I said, he’s on life support and I put the ball down, I’m talking to him. I don’t know if he ever heard me but occasionally, you know, he’ll move his eyes a little bit. That probably was the best moment from a personal standpoint in my career, to be able to share that moment right there.”
Gooden speaks candidly about his drug demons in the interview with Michael Kay: “First time I tried cocaine was after the ’86 season,” he said. “You just got your first kiss ever or something like that. But you only felt that for, like, 15-20 minutes, and then you’re chasing that feeling again.”
Perhaps the worst moment in his life, Gooden says, was watching the Mets’ 1986 World Series parade on TV while he was using cocaine with strangers. He even thought about injuring himself so he would have an excuse for missing the festivities.
“Now, as crazy as this may sound, but I have to be honest, you’re thinking about doing something to hurt yourself to, say, use that as an excuse. It was just probably…I will say, that probably was the worst time I ever went through in my life, missing that parade.”
He says battling his addiction continues to be a daily battle.
“A lot of times, even going to Tampa, I don’t trust myself, so before I take the flight (to Florida) now, I have to call my sponsor down there, to let him know I’m coming in, and these are things I have to do. It doesn’t matter how much time you have…the most important thing is today, and just to be prepared (for) all things.”