Two people who’ve had some influence in my life celebrate birthdays today. Well, maybe celebrate isn’t the best word. The once-great Dwight Gooden turns forty-five today. And a friend and former grad school classmate at Carnegie Mellon turns the big four-oh today. Two different stories, two different messages taken from two people born on the same day in November.
Gooden’s story is fairly well known, one of supreme promise and potential, but killed by the Mets leadership and by his own problems with cocaine and alcohol. It’s a sad story, only tempered by the fact that for a brief moment, Gooden was the best pitcher in major-league baseball. Period.
It’s a story all too common, of too much too soon with too many expectations from too many people. Gooden turned the perennially mediocre New York Mets into a yearly playoff contender. In ’85, Gooden’s streak of sixteen straight victories kept my Mets in a playoff run with the more talented St. Louis Cardinals. I should know. My ears were hooked to the radio, and when they weren’t, my eyes to the TV as he won game after game after game. All on the way to a 24-4 record, 1.53 ERA, with something like eight shutouts and sixteen complete games. Oh yeah, he also struck out 268 batters in 276 innings pitched. No one, except save Bob Gibson, had a year that was so dominant and so intimidating. And all at the age of twenty years old.
But between Davey Johnson and Mel Stottlemyre, the drugs and the alcohol, Gooden’s overworked arm and inebriated mind began to fail him well before he could enter his prime years. Gooden had won well over 100 games in his first six seasons, but would never have the chance to build on that amazing record. At forty-five, Gooden is an example of what could’ve been but wasn’t, a cautionary tale of needing balance and meaning in one’s life outside of the thing that makes one a prodigy. No balance or meaning — Dwight Gooden. Balance. meaning and support — Tiger Woods.
My friend from my Carnegie Mellon days was a different case. A professor now at a school in the Chicagoland area, he had learned from the excesses of others long before our paths ever crossed. There were few people I spent more time to during my last two years of grad school. Our conversations were all over the place, from sports to music, from studies to social issues. That was how I found out that he shared the same birthday as Gooden. He was really one of maybe three White students at Carnegie Mellon that I could have a conversation with without having my guard up for something bigoted or self-serving. Or even as part of some nerdy scheme to one-up me in a class or with a professor.
That changed on October 3 of ’95. The day of the O.J. Simpson verdict was already a bizarre one for me. I honestly didn’t understand why there was such a mix of emotions between the elated Blacks in DC and angry Whites in L.A. I figured that despite the verdict, I could just walk to Carnegie Mellon — the land of lily-White conservatism — and not expect the subject to come up.
Well it did, and with the one person I didn’t expect it to. My friend went on for ten minutes about jury nullification and racial bias and Simpson’s abuse of his ex-wife, as if I had anything to do with the verdict or the outpouring of emotions that day. I found the whole thing, including this conversation, pretty much like a soap opera. I assumed that the only reason that he talked to me this way was because I was Black, and somehow ecstatic over the “Not Guilty” verdict. I only pointed out how badly the trial was handled, making things worse. I ended the conversation thinking that if this was what my friend could be like when he was emotional, then I didn’t want to talk with him anymore.
And in my last years in Pittsburgh, our conversations grew fewer and farther apart. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy talking with him. I realized that even as friends, there were certain lines that couldn’t be crossed. We never invited each other over to watch a game or hang out. We certainly never read each other’s research or other writings. And we never had another conversation about what happened in the History grad student bullpen that cloudy day in October ’95. If I learned anything from him and that incident, it was that we were friends, but not on any deep level, and that race and other issues remained barriers to a meaningful friendship, especially for him. Still, I hope that despite their problems and inner turmoil, that today was a good birthday for the two of them.