Doc& Darryl: Judd Apatow checks in with the Mets heroes who fell to earth

In his first documentary, Judd Apatow takes as his subject the baseball players who became monarches of New York, before drugs and alcohol got the better of them

Take two major male stars, surround them with wild and colorful bros, throw in some obstacles and plenty of crazy high jinks and, voil , you have a Judd Apatow movie. However, the latest Apatow effort, co-directed with Michael Bonfiglio, takes all those ingredients and subverts every expectation: Doc& Darrylis an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary debuting on Thursday. It is a sobering look at the parallel tracks toward self-destruction and the different roads toward redemption taken a number of two of baseballs biggest names of the 1980 s, New York Mets team-mates Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry.

In 1983, Strawberry won the National League rookie of the year awarding with a beautiful home-run swinging; Gooden captured the same award in 1984 and a Cy Young award the next year with a flaming fastball and mind-bending curve. The woeful Meets were suddenly transformed into challengers and in 1986 they were the kings of New York and the sports world with their epic 108 -win season and memorable World Series victory.

We were young and had raw talent and loved playing baseball, Strawberry says, looking back fondly at the peaks of those years. We took an organization that was at the bottom and we became two of the biggest young starrings. We stood tall in New York. No one can ever take out what we achieved regardless of our downfall.

The cinema does not soft-pedal the worst of the downfall and Strawberry says he loves it for its unflinching gaze. I loves as it was produced. I wanted it to be honest and clear about how good we were and how our lives were derailed, he says.

Indeed, the dynasty that seemed inevitable never transpired, in large proportion because Gooden and Strawberry soon began losing the bigger game, the one against their inner demons. Both struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, cycling in and out of rehab programs and Major League Baseball suspensions that doomed what had seemed like hall-of-fame careers. Worse, their woes continued well after those careers aimed, with both men landing in prison at different points and apparently headed for tragic endings.

The two former team-mates discuss their past at the diner used in Goodfellas. Photograph: ESPN

When ESPN started its 30 for 30series in 2009, a film about those 86 Gathers was high on the list. We thought about that forever, but we wanted to figure out how to tell the story in the right way, says Connor Schell, executive producer for ESPN Films. Judd was the galvanizing force.

Before becoming a comedy legend, Apatow, 48, was a Queens-born, Long Island-raised baseball fan who lived and breathed those 1980 s Mets. I got to interview Mookie Wilson when I was in the seventh grade, he said at a recent screening of the documentary before confessing: I cant say it was a very strong interview.

So for his first foray into documentaries, Apatow told ESPN hed love to explore the human dimensions behind the Gooden and Strawberry saga. I was interested in what their real narrative is and I liked the idea of the two of them sitting down together to talk, he says. I wanted to show them as three-dimensional human being fighting a disease. The movie is about what theyve gone through and how they are doing now and about their relationship with each other.

The movie also explodes some common misconceptions about the narrative. This documentary establishes the context it asks where are the beginnings, Schell says. They are not as obvious as people think in the shorthand version in their head because we speak so much in headlines.

That was certainly true for Bonfiglio.( Apatow and Bonfiglio are now making a documentary about alt-country band the Avett Brothers .) The co-director was not a sports fan so he recollects Gooden and Strawberry as a culture punchline during their struggles. The negatives stuck more so I recollect David Letterman constantly joking about them.

Gooden, right, and Strawberry posing at Citi Field in New York. Photograph: Seth Wenig/ AP

Like most of us, Bonfiglio also bought the conventional wisdom that the two young stars were perverted by New York in the crazy 1980 s because they were kids who had been hurled a bunch of fund with no guidance.

The interviews with Gooden and Strawberry exposed a darker truth.( Bonfiglio did all the interviews, Apatow says, because he was better at it. I merely dont suppose Id be able to do it, to say: What about the time you beat your spouse ?)

Bonfiglio says New York exacerbated the situation by putting them under a magnifying glass and with a lifestyle where you can still go out after a night game but explains that if they had played in someplace like Cincinnati I utterly think they would have fallen into addiction. An important phase of the movie is that their cravings have their roots in childhood as is so often the case. I think they would have had addiction problems even if they didnt play baseball.

Apatow and Bonfiglio construct that phase early on. You insure what their childhoods were really like with the addictions and abuse in their houses, Apatow says.

Strawberry agrees. Most people dont realize the issues were already there, the scars were inside of me before I make the field. I was already broken, he tells the Guardian. I never had a childhood.

Suspended New York Yankees outfielder Darryl Strawberrys hands and feet are handcuffed after failing a drug exam while on probation in 2000. Photo: Chris O’Meara/ Associated Press

In the cinema, Strawberry tells a heartrending tale of his alcoholic father whipping him with an extension cord, stinging him as well with the unspoken message: Youll never amount to nothing. Youll never be nothing.( Alcoholism is a major part of Goodens family story, too .) He also discusses the intense racial abuse heaped on him in the south when he first started playing in the minors. I came close to quitting baseball, he says.

Each man agreed to answer questions on camera about every topic: in one-on-one interviews, Strawberry speaks ruefully about assaulting his wife while Gooden gives his side of an alleged rape lawsuit involving himself and two other Gathers with one woman from 1992.( The film-makers intercut that with the Florida “states attorney” side that will make sports fans feel retroactively guilty for is just so willing to believe in their heroes, or at least to look the other way .)

There are film clips of spectacular accomplishments and repeated troubles( as well as one of those Letterman jokes Bonfiglio recollected) and interviews with journalists, craving counselors, former Met manager Davey Johnson and first baseman Keith Hernandez, who was a squad leader and who had earlier combated his own narcotic problems. Apatows connects landed Jon Stewart as the wistful voice of the typical Met fan. I was blown away by his encyclopedic knowledge of the Mets organisation in addition to his intelligence and insight, Bonfiglio says.

All of this is framed by a meeting between Gooden and Strawberry at a Queens diner and not just any diner. I said to a producer that I wanted the vibe of the diner scene in Goodfellas, Bonfiglio says, referring to an uneasy conversation between Robert De Niros and Ray Liottas characters. She told me we could cinema at the actual diner. So we did.

Bonfiglio wasnt trying to recreate Goodfellas he just liked the visuals of that scene but theres a connect as two men are forced to confront their long history as they dance around the truth.

For the first hour, Strawberry and Gooden largely merely joked and reminisced, Bonfiglio says, until he stopped the cameras and pulled each aside, telling them to dig deeper. They were uncomfortable at first talking about their impressions, he says, but they responded to his metaphorical visit to the mound.

Throughout the movie Strawberry seems comfy with who he is and forthright about what he has done in the past; these days he devotes much of his time to two drug and alcohol rehab centres in Florida that bear his name and to preaching at churches. Darryl has induced his entire focus running his rehab centers, preaching about what it takes to win the battle. This is how he helps himself stay sober, Apatow says.

Strawberry says he no longer follows baseball but not because of bitterness or sadnes. It is the past, a memory, he tells me. I know I brought joy to the fans and I love how the passion is so deep but I am doing more good now than I did as a ballplayer. Now I am helping people.

By contrast, Goodens jittery hold on sobriety seems precarious at best. He notes that for him its not always day to day, sometimes its a minute-to-minute thing. The cinema even notes that soon after his interviews he missed a public appearance, a flashback to when he missed the 1986 tickertape procession after a night of drug abuse.

Doc is dealing with his addictions in a different way from Darryl, Apatow says. We sensed hes a bit shaky but merely he knows what has been going on.

The question of Doc is complex and the answer about his sobriety right now is I dont know, Bonfiglio says.

Apatow acknowledges he expected a happier objective. I thought it would be much more uplifting, find two people looking back at how they climbed out of all that, he says. But worrisome headlines for Gooden from 2010, 2013 and again last year made it all feel very fresh and present.

Bonfiglio says that just telling one of those tales might have been insufficient. They are different people. They traveled parallel roads with different outcomes. For a film about addiction that builds it more complex and more truthful.

Doc has taken a different road but my prayer is his life will be abundant like mine, says Strawberry, who took time out last week to be with Gooden after Goodens mother died. Sitting down with him for this film used to generate closer than ever.

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