There is a group of notorious professional athletes whose accomplishments on the field were tarnished by what happened off the field. On July 26, I revealed numbers 9 and 10 on that all-time list. So here is Part Two of my five part series, which I am calling my “All Time State Penn (Penitentiary) Team.”
Continuing the countdown from number ten, here are numbers seven and eight, as well as the second of five who qualify for dishonorable mention:
# 8- ROSCOE TANNER
Roscoe Tanner’s name is likely not familiar to many causal sports fans and certainly not to younger generations. Nonetheless, in the tennis world of the 1970s, where superstars such as Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe reigned, Tanner was among the upper echelon. Tanner was one of the great left-handed tennis stars of all time. His overpowering serve was once clocked at 153 miles per hour. Imagine that, over 50% faster than the highest recorded fastball every thrown in baseball coming at you from less than 78 feet away.
His tennis prowess began at Stanford University, where he was named as an All-American during his three years in Palo Alto. He passed on his senior year and turned pro. His presence at Stanford is often linked to have been the start of the program’s NCAA tennis dominance that followed, including 17 national championships over the subsequent decades under legendary coach Dick Gould.
Tanner made the transition to the pros without a lapse in success. Over his career, he had 16 career singles titles, including one Major, that being the 1977 Australia Open. Tanner also reached the Wimbledon final in 1979, losing the final to prohibitive favorite Bjorn Borg in five sets. Indirectly, that 1979 Borg-Tanner match at Wimbledon was responsible for the tradition known as “Breakfast At Wimbledon.” Their match was shown live in the US, which we know begins annually at 6 am Arizona time for both the Men’s and Ladies’ Finals. As former great tennis telecaster Bud Collins was quoted as saying, “I don’t think there would have been another one [live telecast final] if [Tanner] hadn’t played such a great match.”
Tanner finished second in 25 tournaments, losing in the finals to such Hall of Famers as Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Tanner was also an accomplished doubles player. For the 1973 and 1974 seasons, who teamed with the great Arthur Ashe and together, they won 3 of Tanner’s 14 career doubles titles.
Tanner’s post-career life has been filled with one double-fault after another. His relationship with the criminal justice system began in 1997 when he was arrested for non-payment of child support. All of his problems to follow were financial-related. He has had jail or prison stints in Germany, New Jersey, Florida and California. In 2000, Tanner was charged with passing a bad check when he was reportedly buying a yacht. He later violated the terms of probation and was sentenced to two years in a Florida prison, but was released after one year for good behavior. Upon his release, he was jailed in California, again for non-payment of child support. He had another “funding mishap” in 2008 when he allegedly wrote checks for the purchase of two Toyota Highlanders from an account or accounts that lacked funds. Charges were later dismissed after the dealership received back the vehicles and Tanner paid restitution for their losses. Reports are that he may now be facing other criminal charges pending in Florida and may have pending arrest warrants in Georgia.
Interestingly, Tanner wrote an autobiography in 2005 titled Double Fault: My Rise And Fall, And My Road Back. There is no question that there was a rise and a fall but as for the “road back,” I think Roscoe is in serious need of a GPS device.
#7 DWIGHT “DOC” GOODEN
Dwight “Doc” Gooden was a central figure in the success of the New York Mets in the mid-1980s, including the 1986 World Series that served to affirm the long-suffering of the Boston Red Sox faithful.
Gooden joined the New York Mets in 1984, where at age 19, he dazzled baseball with a fastball that neared 100 mph and a vicious sweeping curveball. He finished his rookie season with a record of 17-9, with a 2.60 ERA. He struck out an astounding 276 batters in just 218 innings. He went on to win a near unanimous selection as Rookie of the Year and finished second to Cubs hurler Rick Sutcliffe in the Cy Young Award balloting.
Another highlight from this rookie season occurred during the 1984 All-Star game. After Fernando Valenzuela struck out the American League side in the fourth inning, Gooden followed by striking out the side in the 5th inning. The combined effort of Valenzuela and Gooden broke Carl Hubbell’s prior all-star record of five consecutive strikeouts.
The 1985 season was anything but the infamous “sophomore jinx” for Gooden He finished the season with a 24-4 record and a 1.53 ERA. He was named first by all twenty-four voters for the 1985 National League Cy Young Award. He accomplished the pitching version of the “triple crown,” leading the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA. Without a doubt, this was one of the most dominating seasons ever seen in baseball. For the 1985 All-Star game, Gooden was the youngest pitcher in MLB history ever the start the game.
Gooden’s 1986 season continued to show dominance, but not quite at the level of his first two seasons. He had a 17-6 record and an impressive 2.84 ERA for the World Champion New York Mets. Gooden dominated the NLCS against the Astros but was unimpressive during the World Series against the Red Sox. This was foretelling of his future post-season appearance woes, which over his career resulted in a record of no wins and four losses in the course of 9 career post-season starts.
Gooden continued his success with the Mets through the 1991 season, but thereafter, he went on a steady decline. Later, he spent three seasons with the Yankees, and while his record was 24-14, his ERA ballooned and his strike out rate per nine innings dropped from an average of 7.8 per nine innings while with the Mets to 5.8 per nine innings while with the Yankees. He had brief and truly forgettable stints with the Cleveland, Tampa Bay and Houston before landing back in New York, again with the Yankees. He finished his career with a record of 194–112, but almost half of those victories came before his 24th birthday.
The first signs of trouble for Gooden off the field may have occurred when he failed to show up for the 1986 NY Mets Championship parade. Just recently, Gooden admitted that he had partied [translated to be use of cocaine] so much after the World Series that he completely missed the parade. In his book titled “Doc: A Memoir,” Gooden is quoted as saying that while his teammates “toasted our triumph, I was nursing a head splitting coke-and-booze hangover, too spent, too paranoid, and too mad at myself to drag my sorry butt to my own victory parade.”
Gooden was arrested in December of that year for fighting with police. He then tested positive for cocaine during spring training in 1987, which resulted in his first attempt at rehab and a delay to the start of his season until June. For the remainder of his career, rumors and accusations of drug use were rampant.
Following the abrupt ending to his career when he was cut by the Yankees before the start of the 2001 season, Gooden’s run-ins with the law became more frequent. They included a number of driving offenses (suspended license, driving under the influence) and a domestic violence battery charge. While on probation in 2006, he violated the terms by being under the influence of cocaine and served seven months in prison. He vowed never to go back. Despite that, he was involved in a traffic accident in 2010 that appears to have involved use of drugs while his five year old child was in the vehicle. His son was not wearing a seat belt and suffered minor injuries. Gooden was later sentenced to five years of probation after pleading guilty to child endangerment.
In a 2010 interview with the New York Daily News, Gooden was quoted as saying that “Everything that’s happened, it’s nobody’s fault but my own. Between the ages of 19 and 41, there was a big cloud, a dark cloud. Some days the sun would come out, but a lot of days it would pour down rain.” For me, having had the chance to marvel at his natural talent, it is sad to hear that at a time when we as fans thought he was the brightest star on the horizon, he could see little else other than the darkness of space.
In case you missed the first installment of this series, the dishonorable mention list is reserved for those who committed the crimes of never living up to their athletic potential and then being convicted of actual criminal offenses.
#4 LAWRENCE PHILLIPS
If character were not an issue, Lawrence Phillips could have been among the all-time great running backs. He spent many of his years growing up in the foster care system. Football provided his with security and continuity, and appeared to be his ticket to a bright and successful future. He helped lead his high school team in California to back-to-back state championships, and this lead to a scholarship offer from the University of Nebraska.
As soon as he took to the field as a Cornhusker, the only thing that could stop Phillips from running appeared to be the end zone. In 1994, he rushed for more than 100 yards in 11 straight games, despite every defense keying against the run and him. He was among the Heisman favorites in 1995 but an early season arrest for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend quashed those hopes. He continued to play, and legendary coach Tom Osborne took a great deal of heat for not suspending Phillips. In the 1996 Fiesta Bowl played here in Tempe between the Cornhuskers and the Florida Gators, Phillips ran for 165 yards and two rushing touchdowns to go along with one receiving touchdown. Nebraska crushed Florida, 62-24 for the National Championship.
Entering the 1996 draft, most experts had dubbed Phillips to be the best player in the draft. The St Louis Rams selected him number 6 overall, and immediately traded away Jerome Bettis to the Steelers to make room for Phillips in the backfield. Still, there were questions as to his character and it took little time to answer those questions. In less than the first two seasons with the St Louis Rams, Phillips had spent a total of 23 days in jail for various offenses. He put up less than stellar numbers for the Rams and was cut by the team before the end of the 1997 season.
He had a short stint with the Miami Dolphins, but was released by the team after he plead no contest to an assault charge involving a woman in a nightclub. He followed this with a successful season playing in the NFL Europe in 1998 and then returned to the NFL with the 49ers in 1999. While his off the field mishaps were not immediately evident, his on the field lapses were most obvious during a single play that happened at Sun Devil Stadium when Steve Young’s 49ers came to town to play the Cardinals. Phillips missed a block as Aeneas Williams blitzed from the corner and the direct hit by Williams on Steve Young left the Hall of Famer Young unconscious on the field. Young never returned to football, retiring at the end of that season. Eventually, Phillips’ character flaws resurfaced, and he was suspended by the team in early November and cut by the team by the end of that month.
In 2006, Phillips was found guilty of seven counts of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to ten years in prison. This was followed by convictions in 2009 for offenses that included assault with great bodily harm, false imprisonment and auto theft. He was sentenced to 25 years which was on top of his other ten year sentence. Phillips will not be eligible for release until approximately 2032.