TAMPA - Dwight Gooden, Tampa's own, was signing books last week at Oxford Exchange, a downtown bookstore and restaurant. Gooden turns 49 next November. This is his third autobiography. The first, "Rookie," came after his sensational 1984 debut with the New York Mets. "Heat," published in 1999, recounted his rise and fall and rise. Now comes "Doc: A Memoir." It's different from the first two. "This is the first one that's honest," Gooden said. What's more honest than Gooden beginning this book, written with Ellis Henican, by saying the first two people he phoned after the Mets won the 1986 World Series were his father ... and his drug dealer. Or how he missed the victory parade because he was shrouded in a cocaine haze.
To hear Gooden tell it, there's no prison sound like hearing someone sexually assaulted a few cells away. Or how nothing could be lower than that time in the Orient Road jail, when a guard stopped by and told Gooden, "Your son says hello." Dwight Jr. was in the same jail for dealing. "There have been a lot of rock bottoms," Gooden said. "Doc" is an unsparing, painful read at times. The man opened a main vein. There are times you want to yell, "No, don't do it" as another Doc train wreck unfolds. Gooden's unflinching confessional seems part of his recovery. "I've been clean since 2011," he said. It's his longest sober stretch in 30 years. "For the first time in my life, I was honest with myself about my addictions," Gooden said. "Before, I was always still lying to myself. I get asked, 'Why now? Why is this any different?' I finally feel comfortable in my skin. Before, there was a bit of denial. The only way this is going to work is being honest with myself." People held their books out and Gooden listened to them: I'm your biggest fan; I've followed the Mets all my life; I'll never forget your Cy Young in 1985; I was watching the night of your no-hitter with the Yankees. Gooden smiled. They wished him luck. "That means more to me than when they pulled for me as a player," Gooden said. "It's been 13 years since I played baseball. They're just caring about me as a person." There were people who care about Doc Gooden all around him as he signed books. There was family, including his first wife, four of his seven children and two of his grandchildren - grandchildren. "Check this out: I have a grandson older than two of my kids," Gooden said with a laugh. "That's Jerry Springer stuff." He flashed that smile. That's never left him, despite all his rocks and bottoms, or when he reeled off the rehab clinics he has bunked in as if he was flipping through a restaurant guide: Health Care Connection, Smithers, Betty Ford, Hazelden and, lastly, Pasadena Recovery Center. At Pasadena, Gooden was aided by Drew Pinksy, he of the VH1 reality show "Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew." Gooden was part of a 2011 cast that included Amy Fisher, Lindsay Lohan's father and a former "Baywatch" actor. Sounds like rock bottom to me. Only it worked, Gooden said. He was finally ready to get clean and come clean. There are some people who simply gave up on Doc along the way, figuring he'd be dead before he was 40. But for a lot of others, they're hooked when it comes to Doc. As Gooden signed books, a man sitting next to him seemed like an old friend. The man went by Big John, and he was the sheriff's deputy who handcuffed and fingerprinted Dwight Gooden in the courtroom on the way to prison in 2006. They began talking that day. After Doc got out, they ran into each other at a New York airport and shared a row on a plane to Tampa. Only Dwight Gooden could make a best bud out of the guy who led him off to jail. "There's just something about Doc," Big John said. Gooden lives in New Jersey with his oldest daughter. He does memorabilia shows, makes corporate appearances and does events and charitable work for the Mets and Yankees. He wants to move back to Tampa Bay, where his mother and five of his children live, but can't. "My heart is always here, no doubt," Gooden said. "I don't think I'm quite ready. There are too many temptations. Part of recovery is changing the people and places. I'd love to be here, but not yet. I'm not quite there yet. Sometimes, getting off the plane, I can almost smell the drugs driving through some neighborhoods. ... This is a daily battle. If I take a day off, I'm in trouble." Gooden thinks his book can do some good. He wants to reach people, especially kids. He's inspired, in part, by a phone conversation with his Mets battery mate, Hall of Famer Gary Carter, before Carter died of cancer in 2012. "Gary said, 'I'm sick now, but I'm going to fight this thing, because even if I don't make it, I want people to know to never give up.' Then he told me he wanted me to do the same thing, fight my disease. He said, 'I want you to get right so you can help others.' " Dwight Gooden helps coach his 8-year-old son Dylan's baseball team. A month ago, he was in a Yankees-Dodgers old-timers' game. Gooden threw an inning, retiring Ron Cey, Steve Garvey and Davey Lopes. "One, two, three," he said, beaming. Gooden didn't strike out anyone. "My fastball has an arch in it," he said. Oh, well. That's life. Doc Gooden is back living it.