For me, Christmas triggers not only memories fond and bittersweet, but also regrets, realizations, and discovered clarity about where I have been and how I got where I am. This was really what Charles Dickens was expressing in “A Christmas Carol,“ and why it resonates even with the kinds of people who would be tempted to put a zombie Nativity on their front lawn.
Last week, former New York Mets pitching ace Dwight Gooden, known in his prime as “Doctor K” (a “K” is a strikeout, and if you didn’t know that—wow) and eventually just “Doc,”penned a brave and inspiring piece for The Player’s Tribune, in which he addressed his younger self, warning the young, cocky kid with the world seemingly begging to be his playground and cheering section in 1984 about the traps and landmines lying in his path.
Gooden, for those of you who face life every day without the accumulated wisdom bestowed by the love of baseball, and who somehow live through cruel winter without the promise of Spring Training warming your nights, looked like he might become the greatest, coolest, most unhittable pitcher in baseball history when he arrived on the big league scene in ’84, winning 17 games with a deadly curve and a 98 mile per hour fastball at the tender age of 19. He became the youngest player ever to pitch in an All-Star Game that year (he struck out the side), and the next season, at 20, he won 24 games, lost only four, and led the National League with a miniscule 1.53 earned run average.
And he was never that good again. He began losing speed on his fastball the next year, and steadily declined thereafter. Eventually there were drug problems, alcoholism and other embarrassments, and Doc Gooden, instead of being the lock for the Hall of Fame that he seemed at 20, was washed-up at 35, and an unofficial member of the Pantheon of Disappointing and Fallen Sports Heroes.
Today, as the former pitcher nears 50, Gooden is a dedicated father and grandfather to his children and grandchildren. He is the president of Best of the Best Sports Management, where he works with his oldest son, Dwight Jr. and is also a spokesman for PinkTie.org , a Long Island-based charity dedicated to fighting breast cancer.
In his essay, titled, “Letter to my Younger Self,” Gooden is frank, uncompromising, wistful, self-critical, funny, and never indulges in self-pity. He ends it this way:
Drugs and alcohol are only a false sense of security. Neither thing will fill the void you feel. Unfortunately it might take you a few missed Christmas Days with your family to learn this.
You will want to try to fix your issues on your own. This is how you think a man handles his problems. It isn’t. Being a man is about reaching out for help when you need it. If your curveball isn’t working, you’ll know how to fix that. If the control on your pitches is off, you’ll know how to fix that. But you will face a lot of hardship because of your inability to realize that you can’t fix yourself.
Finally, please know this: I love you. It’s going to take you a long time and a lot of pain to realize this, but accepting it will go a long way towards healing. The journey will be trying, but it ends in a good place.
Keep getting those Ks,
You’re a hero after all, Doc.