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Original Issue

The Hero Trap

Dwight Gooden's suspension is further evidence of the folly of worshiping sports stars

For too long the bad headlines generated by New York Met pitcher Dwight Gooden didn't stain his Teflon-coated uniform. A conviction for battery on a Tampa police officer in 1986, an acknowledgment of cocaine use that sidelined him in '87, an allegation of rape in '91 that resulted in no charges being brought and a pitching career that has not lived up to its promise all failed to offset the immense likability that Gooden first demonstrated as a 19-year-old celebrity. He remained—in one of the most overused and fraudulent designations of our time—a "sports hero."

Then we learned last week that Gooden had renewed his friendship with cocaine, a lapse for which the office of the baseball commissioner suspended him for 60 days without pay. Now can we finally dispel the myth of Gooden as a praiseworthy public figure? Given the current run of fallen sports idols, it is time to recognize, once and for all, the perversion in equating athletic skill with social value.

What credentials did Gooden have to be any kind of hero? Little more than an easygoing manner and, at one time, a terrific fastball. We are seduced too easily by our sports stars. Witness the crowd that turned out on the San Diego Freeway to root for the fugitive O.J. Simpson, whose telegenic image had, over the years, become confused with his quality as a person. "I can't believe he did it," his sympathizers said. It sounded as if half of America lived next door to Simpson.

People thought they knew Gooden that way too. "I don't know if we were seduced by Doc, as much as all of us were prone to want it to be the best it could be with him," says Met owner Fred Wilpon. "He smiles and he's pleasant."

Since completing a 28-day rehabilitation program after his cocaine use was first revealed in 1987, Gooden had tested clean as often as three times a week: He had two scheduled tests each week and frequently a random third test. But according to a source familiar with Gooden's aftercare program, the pitcher tested positive for cocaine on one occasion last December. However, the source says, that test result for some reason went no further than the inner circle of medical personnel hired by baseball to administer its drug program. Neither the commissioner's office nor the Major League Players Association was informed, as each should have been. Then, in mid-June, Gooden again tested positive for cocaine. This time the result was not ignored.

Before the recurrence of cocaine use became known, even the point man in Gooden's aftercare program appeared to make allowances for the pitcher. A source familiar with that program says that Allan Lans, the Mets' psychiatrist who oversaw Gooden's 1987 rehab, lobbied to have the aftercare regimen relaxed. Though Gooden was required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, he did so only when the club was on the road. He did not attend meetings in New York, the source says, because Lans thought Gooden was such a celebrity there that his appearance at meetings would be disruptive. Now, the source says, Gooden's "aftercare program will be tightened up. He will see more counselors. Lans's role will be phased back." Lans would not comment on Gooden's case.

In the days leading up to his June 28 suspension, Gooden was informed that he was under investigation for violating his aftercare program. He told friends the violation was a missed drug test. No big deal. They lapped up his denial. Gooden always had his starstruck sycophants, including some in the Met press corps.

Gooden is in the final year of his contract with New York, and it's now likely that next winter he will have to go shopping for a new team as a 30-year-old free agent with this rèsumè in hand: five of his last six seasons shortened by injuries, a combined record of 25-32 the past three years and three dirty drug tests.

In the same week that Gooden was suspended from baseball for drug use, his former Met teammate Darryl Strawberry returned to the game from a similar exile. On Saturday, in his first public comment since undergoing his own rehab for substance abuse in April, Strawberry, now in the employ of the San Francisco Giants, said he would resume playing this week, beginning with the Giants' Triple A team in Phoenix. Strawberry also went through alcohol rehab in January 1990 and was the subject of two complaints of domestic violence in the last four years. Once Gooden and Strawberry were the twin booster engines on the rocket ship that was the Mets of the 1980s. Now they are two-time losers asking for a third chance.

The roll call of fallen sports icons is long enough that one has to take a deep breath before beginning: Gooden, Simpson, Jennifer Capriati, John Daly, Tonya Harding, Diego Maradona and Mike Tyson, to name just a few. Obviously, it is perilous to heedlessly admire athletes for anything beyond their on-field skills. As Wilpon says, "Just because someone can hit or throw a baseball doesn't necessarily mean he is a hero."