When Mookie Wilson hit a ground ball through Bill Buckner’s legs in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, it was a pivotal moment in the history of two franchises—but one whose meaning would change over time. For Boston Red Sox fans, the error represented a crushing moment of heartbreak; but it was also part of a long narrative of despair that eventually ended in relief when the team finally won a World Series. For New York Mets fans, the comeback in Game Six and the Series win in Game Seven would be one of the team’s most memorable moments, as celebrated in New York and in popular culture as the 1969 “Miracle Mets.” But there’s always been a tinge of regret to the story of ’86 too, because it’s part of its own larger narrative: the one about how the Mets failed to become a dynasty.
The latest episode of ESPN’s 30 For 30, “Doc & Darryl,” looks closely at the rise and fall of the two players most often held responsible for the Mets’ big letdown. Slender slugger Darryl Strawberry became an immediate sensation when he was called up to the team in 1983 at the age of 21, and strikeout ace Dwight Gooden was even better when he arrived in 1984 at the age of 19. Both men won Rookie Of The Year awards, which Gooden followed in 1985 with a Cy Young. As affable and charismatic as they were talented, the two stars looked poised to dominate the National League and be the faces of Major League Baseball well into the ’90s.
But before either could reach their late 20s—the years generally considered the peak for great ballplayers—both were dealing with serious personal problems, some of which spilled over into public view. They abused alcohol, amphetamines, and cocaine, and were involved in violent altercations off the field. They suffered suspensions, rehabs, and even jail terms. Through it all, both performed well enough to stay employed, and each had moments of brilliance and triumph—albeit mostly for other teams. (Both won World Series rings with the Yankees, and Strawberry had one good year with the Dodgers after he left the Mets.) At no point during their post-1986 playing careers did Gooden and Strawberry ever fully have control of their gifts—or their addictions.
“Doc & Darryl” was co-directed by Michael Bonfiglio (previously responsible for the fine 30 For 30 episode “You Don’t Know Bo”) and Judd Apatow. The latter’s involvement isn’t immediately obvious, aside from the heavy presence of his fellow comedian/Mets fan Jon Stewart in the interview segments. But fans of Apatow films like Funny People and This Is 40 may recognize a similar resistance to telling a story with a tidy conclusion.
It’s not that “Doc & Darryl” is completely unsentimental. The documentary is anchored by a joint interview with the two men, who meet in a New York diner to talk about old times and seem genuinely happy to see each other. And the Strawberry of today appears to be in a good place, having been married for nearly a decade to a woman with whom he’s been running a rehab center. But Apatow and Bonfiglio haven’t structured this film as any kind of simple redemption narrative. It’s clear that sobriety will always remain a struggle for both Strawberry and Gooden—and perhaps especially the latter, judging by the occasional insert shots of Doc looking fidgety.
This 30 For 30 avoids easy explanations or excuses. Both Strawberry and Gooden had issues in their childhood that may have contributed to their problems later in life, but “Doc & Darryl” never tries to justify their misbehavior. Instead, it’s more matter-of-fact, letting its subjects speak plainly and at length about exactly which drugs they used and when, and the prices they paid for their indulgence. Gooden talks about missing the parade for the ’86 championship because he was too high to keep track of the time. Strawberry recalls how he was happy to retire because that meant he didn’t have to take drug tests any more and could smoke crack whenever he wanted. These stories are harrowing, and matched by the memories of fans and sportswriters who felt betrayed by the two men’s frequent broken promises to reform.
And that’s where this episode really finds its heart, in the question of what superstar athletes owe the people who follow them closely. As with a lot of 30 For 30s, “Doc & Darryl” will appeal to longtime ball fans who enjoy looking back at the trappings from an earlier era—from the look of the trading cards to clips from the heyday of This Week In Baseball. But the film is also a trip back to a time when the Mets had been so bad for so long that New Yorkers didn’t much care that their young stars were popping “greenies” like candy to get ready for games. There was a sort of sick symbiosis going on, between the expectations of the crowd and the addictions of the players.
One of the pieces of cultural ephemera in this documentary is the front page of a tabloid where Gooden’s arrest sits side-by-side with the latest news about the O.J. Simpson trial. That may remind 30 For 30 devotees of the previous episode in the series, the masterful “O.J.: Made In America.” “Doc & Darryl” isn’t on that level. (Few made-for-TV docs are.) Still, Apatow and Bonfiglio are just as refreshingly clear-eyed as “Made In America”’s Ezra Edelman about how we relish the humanity of our sports heroes when they succeed, and curse it when they fail.
At one point, Jon Stewart talks about the crushing disappointment he felt when Strawberry and Gooden didn’t have Hall Of Fame careers with the Mets. Then, after a brief reflective pause, he admits that this is “probably not my heartache to have.” That moment of gracious understanding is another reminder that so many sports stories are affected by how we choose to frame them.