The 1986 New York Mets were such a notorious bunch that an entire book about the team’s antics was written. It’s called The Bad Guys Won. But amid the braggadocio of the group of carousers and brawlers were two players who had battled demons before becoming World Series champions and would continue to struggle with addiction long after the spotlight dimmed.
Set to debut on Thursday, the new ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Doc & Darryl goes deep on Dwight “Doc” Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, the two best players on the Mets championship team — and also its most troubled. Gooden, who missed the Mets ticker-tape parade in 1986 because he was high on cocaine, checked into rehab as the 1987 season began and would later receive a yearlong suspension for substance abuse issues in 1995; Strawberry, who used drugs and abused alcohol during his tenure with the Mets, would later be suspended three times by Major League Baseball for substance abuse issues. Both men also ran into legal trouble for domestic violence, with Gooden being accused of rape while on the Mets in 1991 (no charges were filed). Conventional wisdom suggests both men were seduced by New York City in the 1980s, but as the film reveals, that wasn’t what happened.
“I didn’t know much about their childhood and the type of physical and emotional abuse they went through,” Judd Apatow, who co-directed the film, his first documentary, told EW. “When Darryl Strawberry talked about getting hit by his father with an electrical cord — how dangerous his household was — I felt horrible that a little kid had to go through that, and you could see how that would affect you for your entire life. It was also interesting to learn both of them were drinking and doing drugs all the way back to high school. It wasn’t something that happened as a result of being in New York or dealing with the pressures and temptations of the city. It started way before, and then it just got worse and worse.”
Apatow grew up on Long Island and rooted for the Mets. Some of his best memories of the team involved Strawberry and Gooden, who reached the majors respectively in 1983 and 1984. “I went to all of their first games for those years, so they played a big part in my childhood,” he said. “I was interested in what their relationship was, both to their careers and to each other. We always tie them together, but I had never seen them speak to each other before about their journey. It felt like that would be an interesting approach to take.”
Built around the pair’s sit-down at a diner in Queens (the same one featured in Goodfellas, when Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta meet toward the end of the film), Doc & Darryl explores the relationship between the two players, who despite being linked because of on-field successes and off-field trouble where never truly best friends.
“It’s an interesting area: How close are you to your teammates, and when you get traded away, do those bonds remain? And for two guys who had similar struggles, did they ever reach out to each other? Did they ever try to support each other or open up to each other about what they were going through?” Apatow said. “The idea we had was to let them speak to each other about it and see what that would illuminate.”
Added Michael Bonfiglio, the film’s co-director, “Overall, their dynamic with one another was that they’re not super close but they’re always going to be bonded by the experience they had playing together on that team. It’s like guys in a foxhole together or people on a film crew. You bond in a very intense way when you’re spending so much time together and the stakes are high and you’re going through crazy experiences. They share that and they will always share that brotherhood. But as you see in their interaction, these are two guys who probably, if it weren’t for that, would never know each other. They would not hang out. They’re such different people.”
There is such a divide between Gooden and Strawberry, in fact, that some conversations shown in the film had never happened before — despite decades of interaction. “I was stunned by a couple of things,” Bonfiglio said. “Like when Darryl asked Doc for the first time what happened to him the morning of the World Series parade. He never asked him that before — they never had that conversation!”
Another shocker: When Gooden confronted Strawberry about the long-standing rumor the outfielder had told Mets management before the 1987 season that Gooden was using drugs. “For 30 years, Doc carried that around, believing this guy had ratted him out,” Bonfiglio said. “He never said anything. They finally did have that conversation at our urging on camera.” (Whether Strawberry’s denial of selling out Gooden is convincing is left for the audience and Gooden to decide.)
Apatow and Bonfiglio first met during an episode of the IFC series Iconoclasts featuring Apatow and Lena Dunham and directed by Bonfiglio. While Apatow is a Mets fan, Bonfiglio is “actually not much of a sports fan” at all. “I kind of came to it without bias,” Bonfiglio said. But despite their differences, the duo both wanted to tell the story of Gooden and Strawberry without turning it into another sports hagiography.
“We were interested in getting beyond the tabloid headlines and the back-page excitement of the highs of their careers and just understand what it was like to go through all that stuff and try and humanize them,” Bonfiglio said. “To not focus on the incredible highs but just what it’s like to go through such horrible things so many times.”
The result is a portrait of addiction that doesn’t shy away from the tragedy and frustration of watching someone fall off the wagon again and again.
“I think it’s very easy to look at athletes as superhuman, but they’re just human,” said Apatow. “They have the same weaknesses and temptations as anybody else. They can be brought down by the disease of addiction just like anybody else. I have great compassion for everything they’ve gone through, and I have great compassion for the people in their lives who have suffered as a result of their addiction. I wish them the best, and hope they can live happy, healthy, sober lives, but clearly it takes a lot of work once the addiction takes hold of you.”
The daily battles Gooden and Strawberry face aren’t resolved in the film, which closes with the two teammates leaving the diner and going their separate ways.
“Maybe this will lead to them being there for each other in the future. Who knows?” Bonfiglio said. “I don’t know if that’s a necessary thing in their lives, but maybe they’ll be able to talk to each other when they’re going through hard times.
Doc & Darryl premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.