Gooden makes choice: prison

It has been a long fall for the baseball star, from the cover of Time magazine 20 years ago to incarceration.

Published April 5, 2006

TAMPA - Twenty years ago this week, Dwight Gooden landed on the cover of Time magazine. The April 7, 1986, headline read: "Doctor K, Baseball's Hottest Pitcher."

The story included a quote, haunting in retrospect, from legendary pitcher Sandy Koufax:

"I'd trade anyone's past for Gooden's future."

By Wednesday, that once-promising future had crumbled into the sad spectacle of the present.

Gooden had admitted to violating probation by buying cocaine in St. Petersburg and getting high. Another in a long line of strikes against him.

"I had a relapse," Gooden told Circuit Judge Daniel Perry just before 9 a.m. on Wednesday.

The judge gave the former major league pitcher a long look through his wire-rimmed glasses.

"Well, Mr. Gooden, I'm going to give you a choice," Perry said. "You can get me out of your life today. I'll give you a year and a day" - in state prison - "and this thing will be over, and you can go about your merry way."

Then, the alternative.

Gooden could remain a free man, completing his community service and taking three drug tests each week while continuing rehabilitation. But if he violated probation again, "I'm going to put you in prison for as long as I possibly can," Perry promised. That could mean five years or more.

Gooden, 41, listened quietly.

"It's up to you what you want to do," Perry said. "My advice to you: Take the year and a day, get this behind you, and I'm out of your life."

The fallen star talked with his attorneys for a few minutes, then took the judge's advice. He would accept a stint in prison.

He will receive credit for 93 days of time already served in custody. With good behavior, he could be released after serving 85 percent of his sentence. Home by Thanksgiving. No more probation. A clean slate.

That's exactly what he needs, said his attorney, Peter Hobson.

"Dwight Gooden needed to stay clean, and he admitted that today," Hobson said. "This is not a case of a pampered athlete. He took it like a man. He didn't whimper; he didn't cry; he didn't beg.

"He's helping himself."

Even prosecutors, who had sought prison time, said they mainly wanted to see Gooden rehabilitated. Although he has spent time in jail, Gooden has never been in prison before.

"We just want him to get the help he needs in prison and to go on with his life," said prosecutor Pam Bondi, who requested that Gooden be sent to a prison with a drug treatment program.

In some ways Wednesday, little had changed in the 20 years since that Time magazine cover. There was Gooden, in uniform. There were the reporters, scribbling notes. There were the cameras, each one focused on him.

Only now, the setting was a cramped Hillsborough courtroom. The reporters weren't writing for the sports section. Gooden's uniform did not say Yankees or Mets or Indians or Astros or Devil Rays. It was bright orange and said "Hillsborough County Jail."

Back in that April issue of Time, Koufax saw only glory and promise ahead. Gooden was 21, already a winner of a Cy Young Award and Rookie of the Year honors. He had a $1.32-million salary, a 96-mph fastball and a seemingly certain path to the Hall of Fame.

Koufax could not have known - who could have? - what lay ahead for Gooden. The coming years saw drugs and alcohol and injuries cripple the Tampa native and former Hillsborough High School star.

They saw him pass through too many jail cells. He was arrested on charges of domestic battery, DUI, fleeing and eluding police, resisting an officer without violence and violation of probation.

They saw him squander his riches, wreck his marriage, fail to pay child support, lose his last-chance job with the New York Yankees and, in one of his darkest moments, put a 9mm pistol to his head and contemplate suicide.

The long, sorrowful journey of Dwight Gooden continued on Wednesday, this time sending a man who once towered as an icon of his sport to a place where his name will mean less than his inmate number.

After his hearing, Gooden glanced across the courtroom toward a small gathering of family members and nodded toward them, as if to say everything would be okay. Two bailiffs escorted him, handcuffed, out the back door.

His mother, Ella Mae Gooden, who has been by her son's side since way back when the future looked bright, wiped the tears from her eyes and rose to leave.