With his recent bust, it seems that Darryl Strawberry decided the angel role didn’t compare to the good times he could find for $50 worth of sex and some blow. Like any number of athletes for whom sport comes naturally, it seemed inevitable that the temptation Straw berry felt to supplement his natural gifts with artificial ones would eventually short-circuit his career for good. And now—though the final judgment is far from clear—it appears that Straw has lived down to our expectations and betrayed that most human of emotions—hope. Hope that he had kicked his habit. Hope that he had learned from his mistakes. Hope that his heart-tugging TV appearances with his wife were not a farce. Once again, the optimism that imbues fanhood with meaning has been shortchanged by reality, leaving us more than disappointed, leaving us heartbroken.
Darryl is not the only one we have let into our hearts only to disenchant us before our eyes and ears. No, the former Met, Dodger, and current Yankee (albeit maybe not for long) is merely the latest sports hero to dazzle us on the field and disgruntle us after-hours.
Denny McLain—Major League Baseball—Pitcher. After posting 108 victories between 1965 and 1969, and garnering back-to-back Cy Youngs, McLain’s ego outgrew his ability. The Tigers righthander claimed he wanted to be a billionaire, an awfully steep mountain to climb on a $90,000 salary. So the Windy City native did what any Chicagoan with a sense of civic history would do—he gambled. When word of a magazine investigation reached commissioner Bowie Kuhn, he suspended McLain for the first half of the 1970 season. His antics would end up getting him booted for the remainder of the year. Further trouble and a combined 17-34 record finally drove McLain from the game in 1972 and back into skirting the law, which caught up to him for racketeering and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute to the tune of a suspended 12-year sentence. A few years later, McLain went to prison for looting the pension fund of a meat-packing company before being indicted with John Gotti Jr. in an alleged telephone calling card scam.
Len Bias—NBA—Shooting Guard. You knew he was going to be special when Larry Bird proclaimed he was so excited the Boston Celtics had selected the Maryland star with the second pick in the 1986 NBA draft that he would attend the team’s rookie summer camp. Bias did become a special case only two days after that draft when an overdose of cocaine stopped the 6-8 guard’s heart. The reigning NBA champions had lost their lifeline to the future, Maryland would lose its head coach and athletic director, and both organizations have been struggling ever since.
Pete Rose—Major League Baseball. An asshole on and off the field, none can deny the man’s talents: 4256 hits, 17 All-Star Games, a 1973 MVP, and six World Series appearances. The arrogance that made Charlie Hustle a virtual shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, ironically, has left him on the outside to this day. Convinced he could beat the ponies and the pigskin, Rose bet big and lost big, flushing away so many thousands that when a payoff mix-up occurred, a numbers runner told commissioner Bart Giamatti that Rose bet on baseball. The agreement reached between the Hit King and Giamatti banishing Rose from the game does not accuse Rose of betting on baseball. But the commissioner told the press he believed Rose bet on the national pastime—a charge Rose denies. Less than a year later, Rose pled guilty to concealing income from the IRS and was sentenced to five months.
Ben Johnson—Sprinter. The world’s fastest cheat incurred the wrath of an entire country after his world-record 100-meter run in the ’88 Seoul Olympics was wiped from the books two days later. Big Ben was disqualified after testing positive for anabolic steroids. He returned home to Canada without a gold medal and without the respect of his countrymen. After a two-year suspension Johnson was on track again until he decided to take the rest of his career off with another positive steroid test in 1993. The International Amateur Athletics Federation obliged in handing the Canadian a lifetime ban.
Diego Maradona—International Soccer—Argentina. Considered by some to be the second coming of Pelé, the Argentinian soccer star lived up to the promise he first showed as a 15-year-old professional when he captained his homeland to the 1986 World Cup championship, albeit with help from the “hand of God.” Afterward, Maradona let success go right up his nose. A year after losing to Germany in the 1990 World Cup final, Argentina’s favorite son tested positive for cocaine and was banned from the pitch for 15 months by FIFA. Maradona returned to World Cup play in 1994 only to fail another drug test and earn 15 more months of suspension. He passed the time quietly, dabbling in coaching and occasionally making an appearance to fire an air rifle at a group of reporters. A few years into his latest comeback, Maradona didn’t seem to lose a step—he failed a drug test in 1997 for cocaine.
Magic Johnson—NBA—Point Guard. Magic’s fault lay not in doing his best “to accommodate as many women as I could.” But in helping “most through unprotected sex.” So admitted the five-time NBA champ after retiring from basketball because he had contracted HIV. Perhaps more disturbing than Magic’s downfall due to recklessness was the initial and vociferous reluctance of NBA players such as Karl Malone to play with Johnson when the future talk show host announced he was planning a comeback in 1992, which was subsequently aborted. By the time Magic did make a brief return in 1996, it was clear time had taken a toll on his skills while a new generation of NBA players had taken his patience.
Steve Howe—Major League Baseball—Pitcher. How do you follow up a National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1980? With three consecutive sub-2.50 ERA seasons, an All-Star Game appearance, a World Series ring, and, oh yeah, seven drug-related suspensions. The onetime born-again Christian still managed a career 3.03 ERA in 12 seasons played over 16 years. The end came unpredictably: Howe was released by the Yankees early in 1996 when he couldn’t get anybody out. He consoled himself two days later with an arrest for carrying a loaded gun at Kennedy Airport. Personal demons still follow the man; this spring, Howe, a volunteer coach for his daughter’s high school softball team, was suspended to allow school officials time to complete a background check.
Dwight Gooden—Major League Baseball—Pitcher. If only Doctor K hadn’t taken his name so literally. Maybe then the youngest Cy Young Award winner ever, the only pitcher this century to strike out 200 in each of his first three seasons, the man who lost only 19 of the first 100 games he started, would be working on a first draft of his Hall of Fame acceptance speech instead of getting hammered as a spot starter for the Cleveland Indians. Three years into a sparkling career, Gooden spent Opening Day in New York at Smithers Alcoholism and Treatment Center trying to dry out from too much booze and kick a cocaine habit. Less than a month out of rehab, Doc restarted his “vodka therapy” before failing another drug test in 1994. A 60-day suspension from baseball and a stop at the Betty Ford Center did little to curb Gooden’s cravings. Cocaine accompanied the good doctor to another drug test that fall, forcing him to sit out the 1995 season. Despite the no-hitter Gooden threw in 1996, arm troubles and age have left Doc’s career on life support.
John Daly—Golf. A year into the PGA Tour, Daly buzzed the golf world with a three-stroke victory in the 1991 PGA Championship, courtesy of a titanic power game. He’d been a friend of the bottle since the age of eight, and the relationship would soon destroy the self-monikered “Wild Thing.” The year of that first major, the fair-haired, drunk-as-a-skunk Daly attacked his wife, who had him charged with third-degree assault (the charges were later dropped). Rehab and three years on the wagon helped Daly take the 1995 British Open to become the first player since Tom Watson to win two majors before the age of 30. Daly’s childhood friend dropped by again a few years later, helping the spiraling golfer to trash a hotel room at the Players Championship in a drunken rage that left Daly in the hospital and led his third wife to file for divorce. Hand-in-hand with a gambling habit that put him in debt for more than $1 million, Daly’s drinking cost him endorsement deals with Wilson and Reebok. A stint at Betty Ford and a bailout by Callaway Golf has Daly back on the Tour.
Mike Tyson—Boxing. Where do we start with boxing’s prodigal son? After the rape conviction, spousal abuse, ring assault on Evander Holyfield’s ears, and highway battery of two motorists, it’s difficult to remember the excitement the 20-year-old heavyweight brought to his sport. Groomed by Floyd Patterson’s tutor, Cus D’Amato, Tyson breathed life into a moribund division when he became its youngest champion in 1986. With D’Amato’s death, the vultures (i.e., Donald Trump, Don King) picked away at Tyson until all that was left was the carcass of a shot fighter, one who has reigned longer behind bars or on suspension than in the ring as a champion.
Research assistance: Jennifer Allen, Jon Cooper
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 27, 1999