Fall of local son a shared concern

Published March 24, 2006

The first time he ran afoul of the law, people were shocked.

But, they figured, it was just a mistake.

When he messed up a second time, there was more disappointment, but most believed he would straighten himself out. He was, after all, a good guy, just one who had made a few bad choices.

But then it happened again.

And again.

And again.

Today, few are surprised when Dwight Gooden stumbles.

In fact, "They expect it," said Billy Reed, Gooden's coach years ago at Hillsborough.

When word spread last week that Gooden, a Tampa native and one-time major-league superstar, had again landed in trouble after telling his probation officer he used cocaine (a violation of his probation), current Hillsborough coach Pat Russo, who has known Gooden for years, turned to his wife and said, "Oh,no, not again." His reaction, no doubt, was shared by many, particularly here in Tampa, where Gooden's rise to prominence was an incredible source of community pride and his precipitous plummet has been a punch to the stomach.

"It's just sad," Russo said.

To hear about a star's undoing is one thing. But it's another when that star is one of your own. And that's why around here, Gooden's numerous troubles have been particularly tough to swallow.

"If you don't know them, it doesn't hit you," said Saladino Tournament volunteer Lou Garcia. "But this hits you."

In Tampa, almost everyone in baseball knows Gooden. And, despite everything, most seem to like him.

"Basically," Reed said, "he's a good guy."

Garcia once scouted Gooden for the Chicago Cubs and helped operate the first Saladino in 1981, the year Hillsborough won and Gooden was MVP. He still recalls the powerful right arm, the likable charm.

Russo, also a Tampa native, was among the scores of local kids who worshiped Gooden when he first hit the national stage and was the 1984 National League Rookie of the Year.

"He was the man," Russo said.

Reed has known Gooden since Gooden's Little League days. "I thought he'd be in the Hall of Fame by now," Reed said, shaking his head.

Instead, Gooden, 41, could be headed to jail.

"Maybe," Reed said, "jail time will help. He always had everything go his way. This might be the clincher for him. It's not too late."

Reed, who hasn't spoken to Gooden in a few years, can't figure out what went wrong. And he can't understand why Gooden hasn't, and seemingly can't, pull himself together.

Nobody can.

Gooden once had it all. Skills. Money. Fame.

Now look at him.

They used to revere the man in Tampa. Now, they pity him.

His fall still hurts those who know him, but the shock of it all has long since vanished. Hope persists. People pray this is the last of his troubles, that somehow there will be a happy ending. But sadly, many don't believe that's how the story will conclude.

Today, it's a probation violation. What will it be tomorrow?

They wonder. They worry.

"I'm really scared," Reed said.