Directed by Judd Apatow & Michael Bonfiglio
Baseball has always been a sport of phenom players. Heck, there is even a baseball film coming out later this year called The Phenom. Today we have players like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and even on a lesser stage Carlos Correa and Manny Machado. There is arguably nothing more exciting in baseball than the great young player. They spark hope in a franchise, showing the potential to make a team a contender for many years to come. However, as we have seen countless times in Major League Baseball, some phenom players fizzle out, or never reach their potential. Others, like Darryl Strawberry and Dwight “Doc” Gooden, the subjects of ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 series directed by noted comedy director Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio (You Don’t Know Bo), face personal hardships which prevent them from completing likely Hall of Fame careers. It is not every year that a franchise like the New York Mets can put together the right formula to win, and with Strawberry and Gooden, the Mets thought they had that formula, only to see their star players fade and their chances of winning get away from them.
Darryl Strawberry, of Los Angeles, was a tremendous athlete when he was drafted with the first pick in the 1980 MLB Draft by the New York Mets. Compared to legend Ted Williams for his tall, lean frame and ability to hit for average and especially power, Strawberry burst onto the scene in 1983, winning the NL Rookie of the Year. Dwight “Doc” Gooden, from Tampa, Florida, was also a first round draft pick in 1982, winning the NL Rookie of the Year award in 1984 on the back of his whip-like pitching delivery which mystified batters and led him to 276 strikeouts and 17 wins his rookie year. There was no question whether these two great players would lead the Mets to a championship, it was a matter of how many. Unfortunately, they only won one, in 1986. Soon after, the careers of Strawberry and Gooden would be derailed by drug and alcohol additions which caused them to miss significant time, often due to suspension.
As a baseball fan, I can remember Strawberry and Gooden at the tail end of their careers, and always hearing about how great they were in their youth. They were pretty great still in the latter parts of their careers too. But I never knew their whole story. There is a tendency in the world, particularly the world of sports and celebrity, to dismiss the problems of others as petty and something which should be easy to overcome if it means making millions of dollars and being in the public eye. Addiction in particular is often a disease that doesn’t get recognized as such. Resorting to drugs and alcohol can be seen as weak. It is devastating to watch Strawberry and Gooden “throw it all away” to addiction, but what this film succeeds at doing is framing their addiction in the right way, by recognizing it as a debilitating disease which is not always easy to overcome.
From a film perspective, Apatow and Bonfiglio are able to insert a wonderful combination of background, interviews, compassion and perspective. The best moments are when Strawberry and Gooden are opening up about their issues and telling specific stories about their haunted past. The story Dwight Gooden tells about the no-hitter he threw as a New York Yankee in particular stands out as perhaps the most remarkable and emotional story told in the entire film. However, there are elements here that don’t work as well. For the most part, the film consists of individual interviews back-dropped by archival footage, but there are a few scenes set in a diner where Strawberry and Gooden met and reminisce. These scenes feels so out of place, as though staged and very awkward exchanged between the two former teammates. Each time we returned to the diner, I was taken out a the film just a little bit.
Like most in the 30 for 30 series from ESPN, the film opens with a summary section to put context on the struggles of these stars, to remind us of their once greatness. Where the film really succeeds is when it moves on from these moments and focuses on their struggles with addiction. Seeing how the disease ravaged these two stars made me instantly think about football star Johnny Manziel (and perhaps it’s a stretch to call him a star). Manziel’s recent struggles with addiction have been scoffed at by the media and fans at large as just another player throwing his career away, but what Doc & Darryl shows us is that this is a disease and these people need our help and support to fight it. The story of Johnny Manziel is sad, and ultimately could end up tragic. The story of Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden is already tragic in many respects, especially as we see the emaciated and fidgety Gooden, so clearly still struggling with addiction, in contrast to the calm and collected Strawberry, who now runs his own recovery clinic. Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden show us that nothing is for sure.