“I was in his house in Greenwich, Connecticut. Nancy Seaver gave me lunch. This was one of the strangest experiences of my life, and since I did not share it with anyone other than a few people I had never seen before and never saw again, there are even times when I do not feel that it actually happened.”
—Dana Brand, “Meeting a Met,” Mets Fan
Here was me. And here was Dwight Gooden. We were this close Tuesday night. Closer than Dillon Gee was to the strike zone, though that’s not saying much.
My proximity — or Docximity, perhaps — was chance. He was standing at the border of the Mets museum and the main team store. I was wandering in that direction mostly for the hell of it. There’s a knot of people. One has his back to me. His form is too familiar to be missed or mistaken…not that it couldn’t be, apparently.
“That’s Darryl Strawberry,” one man tells his wife. “It’s Darryl Strawberry.” I can see where somebody would make that mistake. One wore 16. One wore 18. That made them hard to tell apart.
But otherwise Dwight Gooden, even deep into retirement from playing baseball, resembles Darryl Strawberry not at all. But did Dwight Gooden look anything like Doc? Could anyone ever look like Doc? There was only one Doc, and he was Doc, really, for a very short time.
I saw Doc at the border of the museum and the store, but only by peering through the slightly chunky man in the red designer t-shirt who shared Dwight Gooden’s face and staring a good 26 years into his and my past. Yet I didn’t want to do that for too long. It’s not polite to stare.
It’s also not polite to plop oneself into the middle of a knot of people. The Doc’ening, if you will, wasn’t stringently organized (imagine that — but at least the Mets aren’t erasing his autograph from walls these days). There was a wavy line on the museum side of Doc. Maybe there was one on the store side. Doc stood patiently and graciously for pictures and autographs. I didn’t hear what everybody said to him, though I did catch a “thank you” that was clearly for more than a snapshot.
My instinct was to get nearer, my Doc, to thee. Then I quashed that instinct in favor of a second instinct, one intent on drifting away from the pack that surrounded him. I wanted to wander into the store, though not to shop and not to browse. I wanted a different angle on Doc. I also wanted distance.
That’s Doc Gooden. Doc Gooden is Doc Gooden. I don’t care that he’s older, chunkier, not pitching, not striking out 16, not going 24-4, not on his way to the big Hall of Fame. He’s Doc Gooden.
And I’m me. He’s Doc.
Do you understand what I’m saying? This wasn’t any random former Met, no matter how random this almost-encounter. This was Doc Gooden. I idolized Doc Gooden in a way I only otherwise idolized Tom Seaver. I idolized Seaver when I was kid, when you’re supposed to idolize your idol. I idolized Gooden as my contemporary. I’m two years older than Doc Gooden and I looked up to him. Later, as the idolatry wore off, he let me down, he let us down, he let himself down…but he was still Doc and all to me.
As I absorbed the presence of Doc so darn close to me, I considered the imaginary conversation-openers I’d use on him. I wouldn’t tell him how much I loved him in 1985, because that would be so pathetic. My best friend Chuck used to kid me in those days that if I was anywhere near Doc, I’d yell or perhaps hold up a sign: “WE LOVE YOU DOC!” No, I was not going to bring that scenario to fruition.
I wouldn’t mention all the letting down he did. When did he do that? 1987? 1994? Would I want to be reminded in 2011 of stupid things I did in the 1980s and 1990s? I thought about mentioning Gary Carter, but what purpose would that serve? Like he doesn’t know Gary Carter has cancer? “Hey Doc, your old teammate’s ill. Sad, huh?” No, don’t bring Doc down.
How about our Tampa connection? Doc is from there. I went to school there. I only thought of that because I was wearing my USF t-shirt. Doc didn’t go to USF, but he was said to have occasionally shot hoops outside my off-campus dorm. “Hey Doc, we have something in common!” Yes, some ancient geography. And would Doc want to hear “Tampa”? Isn’t Tampa where he kept getting into trouble? Would I unwittingly trigger some demon in Doc’s soul because I was pretending he and I were down somewhere off Fletcher Avenue?
Oh, and what if Doc and I hit it off? Would I be letting our newfound simpatico get in the way of Doc’s well-being? How long before Doc would be asking me, “Hey, Greg, there’s something I need, and it wouldn’t look good if I went out and got it — maybe you can stop by this address and get it for me?” I can’t believe Doc is using me as a drug mule! I can’t believe I just assume Doc still requires drugs. I hate myself for thinking that.
I’m standing there and I don’t want anything from Doc. I just want to be near him. It seemed impossible to imagine when I was idolizing him. When he and I still had Tampa a little bit in common, a friend told me he’d wrangled a gig as a photographer’s assistant for Doc’s wedding, too bad I wasn’t going to be in town that weekend. I was so envious. Then the wedding got called off. I never heard about the photographer thing again.
I didn’t need an autograph from Doc. I have an autograph from Doc. He didn’t give it to me directly. A friend I worked with when Doc was in Spring Training with the Mets for the last time had detoured into St. Lucie on his way from or to Miami Beach. There was Doc, signing autographs, posing for pictures. This was the year after 1993, when the Mets got PR religion and made sure their players signed and posed. My friend stumbled into that 1994 knot of goodwill. Got a couple of pictures of Doc signing for his fans. Thrust a piece of Howard Johnson stationery at him and asked him to make it out to Greg, with one “g”.
“I know how to spell ‘Greg,’” Doc Gooden actually said of my name when I was nowhere near him.
My friend framed the whole thing for me: the pictures, the autograph, the Howard Johnson stationery (so it makes me think HoJo signed it, too). Took care of my Doc autograph needs forever. So I wasn’t lining up for that.
And a picture? Me and Doc? That hadn’t ever occurred to me. It occurred to Sharon, though. Sharon was who I was going to see at Tuesday’s game a little later but we ran into each other just to the right of the Doc knot. Sharon happened to be dressed almost perfectly for the occasion, wearing her No. 16 jersey. Weirdly, GOODEN was spelled PAGAN, but not everybody’s as good with names as Doc. Anyway, Sharon’s quite the crackerjack photographer (and great friend) so she attempted to break me out of my inertia.
“You want me to take your picture with Doc?”
I wasn’t sure. I was back in “what am I doing next to the greatest pitcher I ever saw, no offense, Tom, but nobody was ever as great as Doc in 1985, not even you in 1971” mode. Doc was Doc then. Doc was why we were disappointed later. Doc was why I just stood there Tuesday night and sorted out all the things I wouldn’t say to him for when we were never going to speak because I was just standing there, just being shocked that I was experiencing Docximity.
Then again, I thought of what Brennan said to Dale in Step Brothers when Dale asked, “Why do you have Randy Jackson’s autograph on a martial arts weapon?”
“’Cause I bumped into him and all I had on me was this samurai sword. And you’re not gonna not get Randy Jackson’s autograph, right?”
So, OK, I guess I can make myself part of the knot and pose with Doc and…
Too late. The Citi Field security guy (just one) assigned to Doc was leading him away, out of the knot, back into the museum and toward the door to the Rotunda. I think they might have slowed down by Doc’s plaque. I’d like to think they did. I’m sure Doc has seen it, but I’d like to think if you’re a Mets Hall of Famer, you stop and stare at your plaque every time you’re near it.
This was my last chance to act toward Doc. No signature. No photograph. No dialogue. But I knew what I wanted to do.
I was going to applaud. Just straight out applaud. Applaud for back in the day, the good part of the day. Applaud for 24-4, 1.53, 268 K’s, the whole bit. For Doc being Doc and nobody else being Doc.
But I didn’t. One, I was too self-conscious. Two, I was kind of waiting for somebody else to start applauding (if not the “that’s Darryl Strawberry” guy) and was a little surprised and insulted that nobody did. Three, I feared I would be an enabler to whatever foible awaited Doc in an existence sadly filled with them. I’ve written who knows how many thousands of words on how Dwight Gooden let a career go all to hell and then kept sending his life in the same direction. Yet I still wanted to applaud Doc because he was that great a pitcher for my favorite baseball team a very time long ago. “I can do anything I want,” I worried he’d think. “People applaud me just for being me or just for having been me. They’ll always overlook my missteps no matter what I do. I’m Doc Gooden.”
He didn’t say it, but he didn’t have to. He knew me all too well.