Despite the involvement of two directors making their “30 for 30” debut, “Doc & Darryl” is a sports story told in the ESPN documentary series’ house style. Reliving the ascent, precipitous decline and muted return of Darryl Strawberry and Dwight “Doc” Gooden, directors Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio adhere to the familiar format, letting the intertwined stories of the two men’s tragedy-laden lives speak for themselves.
Strawberry and Gooden were two electrifying rookie talents; the former an outfielder with a special blend of speed and power and the latter a gifted right-handed pitcher and strikeout machine. Apatow and Bonfiglio show how, after entering pro baseball within a season of each other, they quickly became staples of sports page headlines and New York nightlife alike. Despite the growing spectre of substance abuse, the two became cornerstones of the 1986 New York Mets’ improbable championship run (capped off by a World Series victory prominently featured in the Alex Gibney “30 for 30” entry “Catching Hell”).
Though the pair get help from the usual parade of baseball writers — and an assist from Jon Stewart — some of the frankest moments of “Doc & Darryl” come from Strawberry and Gooden’s diner-booth tête-à-tête. (Reuniting former teammates is a framing device that made “Survive and Advance,” the film about Jim Valvano and the 1983 NC State men’s basketball squad, one of the strongest and sharpest “30 for 30” installments.) Most of their talk centers not on their on-field glory, but the consequences of their increased dependence on alcohol, cocaine and other drugs. Regret hangs over their conversation, a sense of loss that deepens when Strawberry and Gooden give their individual testimonials.
The film wisely avoids limiting the connective tissue between Strawberry and Gooden to their race, teams and the rehabilitation center where they eventually both sought treatment. Troubled relationships with their fathers’ alcoholism are put forward as possible seeds for later-life issues. (Strawberry details the resultant physical abuse, while Gooden describes the overbearing training regimen that took away a normal childhood.) The biggest connection that Apatow and Bonfiglio draw between the two is that neither was helped by the public’s tendency to disregard public figures after their prime, once it’s all too convenient to do so.
Yet, “Doc & Darryl” doesn’t make its subjects out to be martyrs, mainly because neither Strawberry nor Gooden shy away from acknowledging their past transgressions. One possible murky exception is the film’s addressing of the sexual assault allegations brought against Gooden and two of his teammates in 1992. Though the film devotes passing time to the circumstances surrounding the alleged attack, the newspaper headlines that Apatow and Bonfiglio use to highlight the public response subtly exemplify sports media’s sorry history in framing similar charges, particularly when stars are at the center.
Despite late-career triumphs for both men (Gooden on the mound for a 1996 no-hitter and Strawberry as a valuable piece of the 1998 New York Yankees championship team), the film spares neither men from details of their eventual incarceration for drug-related offenses after their time on the field was over. Strawberry and Gooden both approach the autobiographical portions of their stories with the candor of men who’ve faced discipline in the public eye and find more value in candor than pawning blame on others.
Still, the stadium-style backlighting of Strawberry and Gooden’s individual interviews reflects that, for many, these two remain stars. Their standout performances that make them worthy of fundraising dinners (late-film footage shows Gooden at a recent “Dinner with Doc” event) will always outshine their off-field transgressions for swaths of ardent fans. What “Doc & Darryl” shows is that the battles these men deem most crucial to their life paths are with their respective histories of addiction, ones they’re each still fighting.
When we see Strawberry enjoying the fruits of a restructured life around faith and family, he says, “I don’t want my life to be a tragedy. I want it to be a celebration.” The best parts of “Doc & Darryl” show how these lives are still being written.
“Doc & Darryl” premieres tonight, Thursday, July 14, on ESPN.