It was not clear exactly how much Gooden, who won a Cy Young Award for the Mets in 1985, when he was 21, and became a World Series champion the next season, was paid to put on the red suit and pose for a few pictures with the dancers. A friend of Gooden’s, who did not want to be quoted publicly talking about him, said he believed the club paid the former pitcher $500.
Gooden was not the first celebrity Santa the club had employed; last year, Gooden’s former teammate Lenny Dykstra donned the beard and wig.
Like Gooden, Dykstra was a key part of the 1986 champion Mets. And like Gooden, his life took some profoundly bad detours in the years that followed. All of which served to form the uneasy background for Tuesday night’s event, which was attended by a smattering of reporters. Not that many customers were present, either. Not that Gooden seemed to be embarrassed or upset by the circumstances.
“Normally, guys pay to come here,” he said. “I’m getting paid to come here.”
For Gooden, home these days is a rented apartment in Piscataway, N.J., that he shares with his 28-year-old daughter, Ashley. He had just returned, he said, from an appearance signing autographs in Chicago — which appears to be his main source of income — and he said he had recently started a line of T-shirts, caps and sweatshirts emblazoned with a silhouette of his unmistakable, high-kick pitching motion and the words “Doc Gooden.” For now, the apparel is being sold on his website, Goodenbrand.com.
“My life is pretty good right now,” he said.
That has often not been the case. During a career that initially seemed destined for Cooperstown, he struggled with substance-abuse issues while he was an active player.
And those same issues have dogged him since his last year in the major leagues, in 2000. And it all seemed to culminate at a public forum in 2016, when Darryl Strawberry, Gooden’s former Mets teammate and someone with his own history of substance-abuse issues, said aloud that he was concerned about Gooden’s well-being.
“My fear is that — and I know addiction — and my fear is that people who don’t change, they die,” Strawberry said at the time. “They die this way. I just hope the light comes on soon before it’s too late.”
Stung, Gooden soon responded with a swipe at Strawberry: “Unfortunately, it’s no friendship,’’ he said. “Bad judgment on my part thinking it was.”
Since then, the two men have patched up the public feud, but according to the same friend of Gooden’s, they are hardly close.
Gooden, who earned over $36 million during his career, said he was now receiving pension money from the players’ union, which for a player with 10 years of major league service time — Gooden pitched for five teams over 16 seasons — amounts to $210,000 a year, if he waits until his 62nd birthday. Gooden, who turned 53 last month, is receiving a reduced amount by tapping in early.
“I’m taking it not so much for me but for my kids,” he said. “I mean I’m 53 now and you never know. If anything happens to me, my kids get it. And I wouldn’t have collected it, then the ex-wives would get it.”
At last year’s Mets fantasy camp in Florida, Gooden took to the mound to pitch.
“They asked me to do it, but there ain’t much there anymore,” he said. “But when you pitch, you get that competitive itch, and I was trying to hump it up there. Could only get to like 65 or 70 miles per hour. The curveball was still good, though.’’
Gooden looked gaunt on Tuesday night, as he has on numerous other occasions since he retired, all of which has led to uncomfortable speculation about his well-being. He said he had an explanation for his current appearance.
“That was from an infection I had deep in my jawbone from 30 years of chewing tobacco,” he said. “It was a real scare because I thought I had cancer. They had to rebuild my jawbone and I had to have 10 teeth taken out. People say, man, his face is all caved in, but take 10 teeth out of anyone’s mouth and his face is going to look caved in.’’
So it went on Tuesday, the Christmas season hardly begun. After his appearance as Santa, Gooden was ushered to a private room, where he was given something to eat before being driven back home. But first, there was one more photo shoot to be done — in street clothes.
At which point, the Vivid Cabaret had completed its publicity stunt, Gooden had his money and it was one day closer to Christmas. And one day further removed from his glory days so long ago.