There is a group of notorious professional athletes whose accomplishments on the field were tarnished by what happened off the field. As my tribute to Aaron Hernandez, formerly of the Patriots, I devised this list. On July 26, I revealed numbers 9 and 10 on that all-time list, followed then on August 2 with numbers 7 and 8. So here is Part Three 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 five and six, as well as the third of five who qualify for Dishonorable Mention:
#10 PLAXICO BURRESS (see July 26, 2013 post)
# 9 MARION JONES (See July 26, 2013 post)
# 8- ROSCOE TANNER (See August 2, 2013 post)
# 7- DWIGHT “DOC” GOODEN (See August 2, 2013 post)
#6 DARRYL STRAWBERRY
You cannot have a list of this nature that includes Dwight Gooden but excludes Daryl Strawberry. Their careers and their life events track so closely that one would think they were co-conspirators rather than just teammates.
In 1980, the New York Mets drafted Strawberry as the first overall pick in the Major League Draft. He rose quickly through the minor leagues and joined the Mets in 1983, where he hit 26 home runs while playing his home games in the not-so-homerun friendly Shea Stadium. He won Rookie of the Year honors, one year after current Diamondback first base coach Steve Sax and one year before Dwight Gooden each received the same honors. In 1984, he replicated his 26 home run total of his rookie season, and was named to his first of eight consecutive all-star games. He was then a central figure in the Mets amazing 1986 season and World Championship.
His accomplishments on the field continued to impress, batting .263 in his eight seasons with the Mets from 1983 through 1990, but more impressively hitting 252 home runs, knocking in 733 runs and stealing 191 bases (quite significant for a power hitter). In 1988, Strawberry finished a close second to former Dodger and current D-Back manager, Kirk Gibson, in the NL MVP balloting. He followed his stint with the Mets with one decent season for the Dodgers in 1991, where he hit .265, belted 28 home runs and had 99 runs batted in.
Strawberry then became part of pop-culture on February 20, 1992, when he appeared in an episode of the Simpsons titled “Homer At The Bat.” Mr. Burns brought in a number of “ringers” to play in the softball championship game, including Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Ken Griffey, Jr, Don Mattingly and Strawberry to help guarantee the victory and win a million dollar bet. With two outs in the ninth inning and the bases loaded, Mr. Burns decided to do a righty for lefty switch, and called upon right-handed hitting Homer Simpson to pinch hit for left-handed hitting Strawberry. Simpson was hit in the head with the first pitch and, despite being rendered unconscious, was the hero of the game.
From there, Strawberry’s career sputtered, hitting just 55 home runs over the next eight seasons. Five of those seasons were with the New York Yankees. His only sign of baseball life was in 1998, when as a Yankee, he hit 24 of those 55 home runs in just 295 plate appearances. Unfortunately, he was also diagnosed with colon cancer that same year, which undoubtedly had a toll on his resurgence. After the 1999 season, his 17 year baseball career came to an end.
Following his career, Strawberry frequently replaced his Yankee pinstripes for the stripes of an inmate. In 1999, he was arrested for solicitation of prostitution and possession of cocaine. He pled no contest and was sentenced to 21 months of probation. On September 11, 2000, precisely one year before the infamous “9-11,” Strawberry violated his probation by driving a vehicle while under the influence of pain killers. His probation sentence was modified to include two years of house arrest. One month later, he violated the house arrest when he left rehab to use drugs with a female friend. This resulted in a sentence of 43 days in jail. In 2002, he again violated probation and was sentenced to serve 22 months in prison, of which he eventually served eleven months and was released in April of 2003. In 2005, he admitted to filing a false police report regarding the purported theft of his SUV, but was not sentenced to any jail time since it was not a serious offense.
It is noteworthy that Strawberry has some links to Phoenix. His son, D.J., was drafted by the Suns in 2007 following a successful tenure as a shooting guard for the Maryland Terrapins Basketball Team. DJ played in only 33 games for the Suns in the 2007-08 season, averaging 2.2 points per game. He has since played in the D-League of the NBA and for a number of European teams, most recently in Croatia.
I can’t help but conclude with the comparisons of Gooden’s and Strawberry’s careers. Both excelled early in their careers. Yet well before the end of the first half of those brilliant starts, they both began to fail miserably. Both began their careers with the Mets and ended with the Yankees. Both were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated during their careers. Both performed well below regular season numbers in their many post-season appearances, with Strawberry managing just one home run in 52 world series at bats along with a batting average just north of the Mendoza line (.200 for those of you not familiar with the term). Both were tied to illegal drug use allegations throughout their careers. Gooden missed the start of the 1987 season due to cocaine issues and entering rehab while Strawberry was suspended at the start of the 1995 season for positive cocaine tests. And both went on to encounter legal problem after legal problem following their baseball careers, but yet they both remain beloved in New York by the Mets’ faithful.
#5 DENNY McLAIN
Denny McLain was among the most successful in 1968, which came to be known as the “Year of the Pitcher,” but I will get back to that.
His professional career began in 1962 with the Chicago White Sox. Having attended famed Mt. Carmel High School in Chicago, it must be assumed that he was thrilled to be part of his home city organization. In his first game as part of the White Sox organization playing in the Appalachian League, McLain threw a no-hitter and struck out 16 batters. One year later, he was selected off of waivers by the Detroit Tigers and, ironically, made his first major league appearance in September of that year against the White Sox. At age 19, McLain held the White Sox to one run and hit his first and only career home run in that victory.
McLain’s career took off from there. In 1965, he set a major league record by striking out the first seven batters he faced in a relief appearance. He went on to a record of 16-6, with 192 strikeouts and a 2.61 ERA. In 1966, he finished the season with a record of 20-14, but the season highlight occurred during the 1966 All-Star game, in which McLain was named starting pitcher and retired all nine batters he faced. The 1967 season was not as stellar, considering his record of 17-16 and 3.79 ERA, but then came 1968.
1968 was named “Year of the Pitcher” for a reason. Many claim that it was the result of the increase in the size of the strike zone following the 1961 season and Roger Maris’ record setting numbers. So dominant was the pitching by 1968 that in 1969, Major League Baseball lowered pitcher’s mound from 15” to 10” to reduce the pitching advantage perceived to exist through 1968.
In any event, the 1968 season had numbers that were not seen before or since. Bob Gibson finished the season with a modern day ERA record low of 1.12. Luis Tiant of the Indians almost kept pace with an American League low 1.60 ERA and holding opposing hitters to a batting average of .168. Don Drysdale threw 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings for the Dodgers and Catfish Hunter pitched the first perfect game in the American League in 12 years.
And then there was Denny McLain. He accomplished the feat of winning 30 games in a season, which had not been seen in 34 years before and has not been seen in the 45 years since. He finished the season with a record of 31-6, starting in 41 games and completing an unbelievable 28 of them. He pitched 336 innings, a staggering number when compared to the current benchmark for most pitchers of below or above 200 innings. He struck out 280 hitters and finished with a 1.96 ERA.
McLain’s Tigers then faced Bob Gibson’s Cardinals in the 1968 World Series. Gibson decisively beat McLain in games one and four of the series, but McLain succeeded in a must-win game 6, setting up a dramatic Game 7, featuring Gibson against McLain teammate, Mickey Lolich. The Tigers won 4-1, after a pulse-raising first six scoreless innings. Lolich, and not McLain, went on to win World Series MVP honors and this became a foreshadowing of the demise of McLain to follow.
McLain was named the starting pitcher in the 1969 All Star Game. However, he arrived in Washington late and after the game had started. By the time he was ready to pitch, the National League had already scored eight runs. He went through the rest of the season continuing to have issues with management, but somehow still won 24 games and was named co-Cy Young Award winner with Baltimore’s Mike Cuellar. Within a few months after the tumultuous season, Sports Illustrated and Penthouse had written articles claiming that McLain had ties to bookmaking [illegal gambling] activities. This lead to a suspension for the first three months of the 1970 season and he was suspended again at the end of the season for carrying a gun onto the team flight. His suspensions and first experiences with arm troubles caused him to finish the season with a record of 3-5, and an ERA of 4.63.
After the season, McLain’s welcome had run out in Detroit and he was traded to the then Washington Senators, who at the time were managed by the legendary Ted Williams. From day one, McLain and Williams feuded, and McLain was nothing but trouble. He ended the season with a record of 10-22, soon to be traded again. In 1972, he had a cumulative record of 4-7 and an ERA of 6.37, pitching for Oakland and Atlanta. His career was then over, but not his problems.
McLain encountered repeated financial issues and allegations of organized crime connections continued to follow him. Finally, in 1985, he was convicted in Federal Court of charges involving racketeering, extortion and narcotics and was originally sentenced to 23 years in prison. After his conviction was reversed in 1987 by an appellate court, he worked out a deal with the federal authorities for a guilty plea, and a 12 year prison sentence that was converted to five years of probation. He was released from custody. In 1996, he was convicted of money laundering, theft, conspiracy and mail fraud and was sentenced to eight years in prison. He was released from custody in 2003.
Interestingly, the man that is Denny McLain, who never got out of his own way, did not hesitate to weigh in on this week’s Biogenesis scandal. As a former Tiger, McLain was asked to address Detroit Tiger Jhonny Peralta’s agreed upon 50 game suspension that will keep Peralta sidelined during this season’s pennant race. McLain told the Detroit Free Press that Peralta “is more concerned with next year, starting clean, rather than helping the club this year. Everything’s about him. It’s not about the team. It’s not about the playoffs. It’s not about the World Series. It’s pure selfishness.” What an interesting perspective from a man whose off the field shortcomings did nothing but compromise the Detroit Tigers following his remarkable accomplishments in 1968.
Author Eli Zaret helped McLain write his autobiography entitled “I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect,” published in 2007. In the Forward to the book, Zaret wrote about McLain: “Denny was always running, always looking for something bigger and better, even when he seemed to already have everything. Nothing was ever enough. As I tried to look at his life and career, it seemed like his drug was the drug of ‘more.’”
In case you missed the first two installments 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.
#5 ISAIAH J.R. RIDER ( see July 26, 2013 post)
#4 LAWRENCE PHILLIPS (See August 2, 2013 post)
#3 TONYA HARDING
You might be asking “why, why, why?” [for those of you familiar with her story, see what I did here?] am I including a figure skater on a list of athletes, but the story of Tonya Harding is just too notorious to be ignored in a series of this nature.
Tonya Harding moved up the skating ladder during the mid to late 1980s. In 1991, she landed a “Triple Axel” during the US Championships (a rarity in women’s competition), earning perfect scores for technical merit. Her career began to stumble from there, and she had an unimpressive 4th place finish during the 1992 Winter Olympics. It appeared that things were turning around for Harding in 1994 leading upon to the Winter Olympics of Lillehammer, Norway. All indications were that she and Nancy Kerrigan would compete for the medal stand at the Olympics. The US Nationals in Detroit was the only thing that stood in their way. This lead to an incident of true infamy.
As was later determined, Harding’s husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt, hired Shane Stant to physically attack Nancy Kerrigan and eliminate her from the competition at the US Nationals. They believed this would clear the way for Harding’s gold. The incident took place on January 6, 1994 during a practice session immediately before the start of the US Championships. Stant repeatedly struck an unsuspecting Kerrigan in the legs with a metal baton, causing significant bruising and forcing her to withdraw from the competition. Harding went on to win the 1994 US Nationals but Kerrigan was named to join her on the Olympic team, despite not competing in the qualifying event.
Kerrigan recovered in time for Lillehammer but the incident and impact upon her was monumental. Rumors swirled about Harding’s knowledge or involvement (which had not yet been established as of the start of the Games), and there was a truly awkward moment when both were on the Lillehammer ice in warm-ups just prior to their individual programs. Neither acknowledged the presence of the other but the news and Olympic coverage did not miss a second of it. Other mishaps, including a broken lace on one of her skates, destroyed Harding’s hope for a medal. She finished eighth and her downhill spiral that started in 1992 became a crash. Kerrigan finished second to Ukrainian Oksana Baiul. As Kerrigan accepted her silver medal, many wondered about what could have been had the attack of January 6 not occurred.
In March, 1994, Harding pled guilty to conspiring to hinder prosecution regarding the Kerrigan assault. She avoided jail or prison time and was sentenced to three years of probation, 500 hours of community service and fines in excess of $150,000. She was forced to withdraw from the 1994 World Championships and after the investigation by USFSA, the regulating body for US Figure Skating, she was banned for life from any USFSA-sponsored event. She was also stripped of her 1994 US National Championship Title. Many have noted that Harding lost out on the hundreds of thousands of dollars she could have earned from turning pro and skating in any of the ice shows that tour the country annually. It took until 2008, when Harding’s autobiography, The Tonya Tapes, was published, for her to admit her prior knowledge of the Kerrigan attack. She claimed that she wanted to report the plans against Kerrigan to law enforcement but was allegedly threatened with death by her husband if she did so.
Harding went on to have a number of run-ins with the law, including incidents involving domestic violence, assault and alcohol related offenses. She had an infamous sex tape disseminated in which she was featured and also failed in an attempt to become a professional women’s boxer. The fact is that Harding was never able to get out of her own way and we will never know what she could have accomplished on the ice if not for the fact that her major character flaws always put her on thin ice.