From the New York Post By Mark Fischer
The usually chatty Wally Backman has no words. He just buries his face into his right hand.
“I don’t even know what to say,” the former Met and now, manager of the Independent League, Long Island Ducks told The Post on Thursday at the team’s Central Islip stadium when asked his reaction to former Amazin’ teammate Dwight Gooden’s arrest Monday for driving under the influence after going the wrong way on a one-way street in Newark, NJ.
Gooden’s latest arrest in a decades-long struggle with drugs and alcohol came just a month after the 54-year-old former New York City pitching icon was pulled over for driving erratically in Holmdel, NJ. Officers said they found two baggies containing what they suspected was cocaine.
“I want to say it’s a shame,” Backman said. “Obviously he hasn’t gotten the help that he needs, or the help that he’s gotten hasn’t done what everybody has hoped it would do. I’m not around him like some people are.
“Either there comes a time in your life, I’m not going to say it. It’s almost like you — I don’t know if grow up is the right word. It becomes a sense that things have got to change.”
Watching his team take batting practice under a blazing sun in a small-town ballpark that will later draw about 5,000 fans on a picture-perfect summer night, Backman fires up a Marlboro Red cigarette. It will soon join the others at the bottom of a plastic water bottle. The bulky 60-year-old still looks like he can play second base, though his famous black mustache has filled out to a white goatee that matches his free-flowing hair of the same color.
Backman, too, has had his own behavioral issues. In 2001, Backman was arrested after a domestic dispute with his second wife and for a DUI. When his past was revealed by the media years later, he lost his only major league managerial job four days after being hired by the Diamondbacks in 2004.
Nearly two decades earlier, Backman, Gooden and the rest of the defending 1986 World Series champion Mets were in Florida on a bus from St. Petersburg to Bradenton when Mets’ officials came onto the team bus.
“They told us he had flunked the (drug) test. Well, I think before that ever happened that we knew. He was not hanging out with the right people,” said Backman
But still, he said, “We were devastated.”
Gooden, then 22 and already one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball, was supposed to start that day but instead ended up in the Smithers Alcoholism and Drug Treatment Center in uptown Manhattan, which treated several Mets including fellow star Darryl Strawberry and former catcher Mackey Sasser in the 1980s and 90s.
Gooden was suspended the entire 1995 season for another failed drug test stemming from cocaine use, and though he returned in 1996 and
showed flashes of stardom later on with the Yankees, his career once thought destined for Cooperstown never got back on track.
“I know when he played, he was surrounded by some bad people,” Backman said. “That’s kind of where everything started. In Tampa, where he
was raised… Obviously they’re not friends but they try to be friends. You want to be around a guy like that, but for the right reasons not the wrong reasons and they were all hanging out for the wrong reason. Doc was just a kid. A very young kid who came to fame fast.
“I read something that his kids were kind of devastated,” he said. “That should be enough incentive to get the help. It’s a poison, I guess. It affects him, and I don’t know. I don’t get it.
“It’s tough. He’s a (expletive) icon in New York. People still love him no matter what he does. I know Doc a long time, we’ve done appearances together. We did fantasy camp together.”
These days, Backman sometimes speaks with Gooden on the phone and says he’ll confront the former ace pitcher about his behavior. He promised the conversation “will stay in the clubhouse. He just needs to get help.