A Q&A with John Harper of the New York Daily News on Doc and Darryl, how baseball writing has changed and stepping into the box against Dwight Gooden

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

Today, we have something a little different: an extra Q&A with John Harper, a longtime baseball writer for the New York Daily News. John has recently been driving the coverage about Dwight Gooden’s health, and we talk to him about writing those stories. 

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The questions are in bold. The answers are not.

1. How did you break into journalism and land at the job you hold now?

John: I grew up playing sports, was told by an English teacher in high school that I wrote well, so I decided to major in Journalism while playing baseball in college. I wrote some for the school newspaper but was still thinking I’d eventually end up teaching and coaching at some point. However, I took an internship at the Morristown Daily Record in New Jersey, during the summer I graduated from college, and I enjoyed it enough that I stayed there, got hired full-time, and have been in the business ever since.

I was hired by the New York Post to cover the Mets in 1988, was on the beat five years, then took an offer to cover the Yankees for the Daily News in 1993. A year later I was moved into my current position as baseball columnist.

2. You’ve recently been driving the Dwight Gooden-Darryl Strawberry stories about Gooden’s alleged cocaine problems and the worries surrounding his health. How did this story first come to you?

John: I was on vacation at the Jersey shore when Gooden missed his scheduled appearance with Strawberry that started everything. My office asked if I could try to get in touch with Gooden. He responded to a text I sent him, saying he was ok, and when I mentioned that Strawberry had publicly expressed concern for his life, he texted back “unreal,’’ as if to say the concern was unnecessary.

I sent the text-quotes to my office to be used in a news story, and when Strawberry saw them or heard about them, he called me to say he was frustrated with Gooden refusing to acknowledge his need for help, and told me he wanted to go public in calling out his ex-teammate’s drug use.

In addition to what he told me, Strawberry put me in touch with three people close to Gooden who gave me more information about Doc’s drug-use and erratic behavior.

3. It seems like the people in the stories have been motivated to talk to you out of fear for Gooden’s life. How do you go about writing and reporting the stories when the subjects have a clear agenda in talking to you?

John: I had some latitude because I was writing a column, but obviously this was a serious situation with potential consequences. Most important to me was believing the people I was talking to were credible sources who weren’t looking to take Gooden down for some personal gain or some type of revenge. I’ve known Strawberry for 30-some years and I believed his intentions were good. He emphasized to me how he and others had been working unsuccessfully in private to get Gooden to seek help, and I believed that he felt going public was a necessary last resort. In addition, I had three phone conversations with Gooden’s ex-girlfriend, who played a major role in the story, and though it was something of a judgment call, I found her concern for Gooden genuine as well. No less important, I confirmed a similar concern about Gooden’s behavior from another person close to him who had no connection to Strawberry regarding this story.

4. When writing the stories, how much do you worry about the effects it will have on Gooden? That publicly humiliating him could drive him further into his problems?

John: I was definitely conflicted about writing the story for that reason. I’ve known Gooden a long time, have always found him to be a good guy, and genuinely hope for the best for him. I was convinced he needed help, based partly on a long, sit-down interview I did with him in May in which he detailed what a difficult fight it is for him every day not to do drugs, and partly on the concern I’ve been hearing from friends of his for months. I did worry about how he would react to Strawberry calling him a junkie so publicly, knowing it would be front-page story, but I was convinced by Darryl and Ron Dock, Gooden’s former drug counselor, that he was truly in danger if he didn’t get help, and this might force him to acknowledge his problem.

5. You obviously know the people involved here, having covered Gooden and Strawberry as players. It seems like you have a level of emotional investment here, too. As a person concerned for Gooden, how do you walk that line between reporter and advocate?

John: In many ways this goes back to the previous answer: I do have personal feelings about both Gooden and Strawberry, but I also have a responsibility to the Daily News if there is a worthwhile story to be written, and I’m always determined to maintain a level of integrity with anything I write. It’s a balance that I think a lot of journalists walk on a daily basis, and it gets complicated at times, especially since cultivating sources for information can create bias in different ways. In the end, I guess the rule of thumb for me is that I have to believe in the column I’m writing, above and beyond any personal relationships I may have.

6. You are a rare breed among baseball writers: You actually played the game at a high level, excelling as a ballplayer at the University of Bridgeport. How has your playing experience helped in your long career as a reporter and columnist? What kind of advantage does it give your over your competitors? Do you ever try to talk to players about this and try to commiserate, or do you think that’s a fruitless effort because the gap is too large?

John: I do think that having played baseball at a fairly high level helps give me some perspective on how the game is played, how players think and how they deal with the ups and downs of a long season. That perspective allows me to write from a unique viewpoint at times, but I’ve never thought it gave me an advantage over competitors in establishing relationships with players or getting information. I’ve never presumed to talk to major-leaguers as if I was on their level and I don’t think my playing experience would mean much to them anyway. On the other hand, it has allowed me to write a few first-person stories that were a lot of fun: trying out at shortstop for the Blue Jays’ replacement-player team during the players’ strike of 1994-95, and putting on the gear to catch Tom Glavine in 2003 and Johan Santana in 2010.

7. OK, so you stepped in the box against Gooden in 1996, when he was throwing for scouts and trying to make it back into baseball following his cocaine suspension. What was that like? This was still Doc Gooden. And what about facing a major league pitcher, even a marginal one at that time, could you describe to a person who only watches baseball?

John: I went to St. Petersburg in the summer of 1995, when Gooden was suspended, to do a story on his rehab and his attempt to play again. Ray Negron, a long-time Yankee consultant who was overseeing Gooden’s rehab, knew that I had played in college, and asked me before I came down if I wanted to hit against him. So I brought my spikes and rotated in with a group of a college hitters to whom Gooden was throwing. I was 39 years old by then but still playing fast-pitch softball, so I was seeing good velocity from 46 feet. Gooden later told me he was throwing with game-day velocity, probably in the low 90s, and in my first turn against him I lined a first-pitch fastball right past him into center field. Doc gave me one of those double-take looks, like he couldn’t believe it, since he didn’t know anything about me playing in college or anything. I just kind of shrugged at him and we both laughed. I got back in rotation and when I came up again, Doc threw a couple of fastballs on the outside corner, then struck me out swinging on a curve ball, a reminder of why I didn’t play past college. This time we exchanged smiles. I got one more crack at him, and popped up another first-pitch fastball. It was a great experience, and for someone who has never been in the box against a major-leaguer, all I can say is that 90-plus mph looks a lot faster up close than it does on TV.

8. What are three stories you read lately that you loved?

John: In the NY Times: Harvey Araton’s look back at Aaron Krickstein and his famous match with Jimmy Connors. In the NY Daily News: Anthony McCarron’s feature on the rise of Gary Sanchez. On SI.com: Tom Verducci’s story on the Cubs’ success in shifting less on defense in a season when shifts have become more commonplace than ever.

9. What, if anything, would you change about the way sports and baseball are covered and reported on?

John: If anything, I’d like to go back to the days when stories were driven more by the players and what they had to say than statistical-based information. As players have become more and more guarded over the years, coached by people in the organization from the moment they sign to watch their every word, it has become harder to develop relationships with them and draw out their personalities. Obviously players need to be more cautious because of social media and cell-phone photography, but I’ll always believe that a great part of what made the ‘80s Mets so appealing to the public was their colorful personalities and their willingness to be open with the press. Now I find myself writing more from an outside-the-clubhouse perspective, focusing more on personnel decisions, potential trades, etc. There’s more demand for that because of fantasy sports, I believe, but I also think baseball suffers because of the lack of personality that players reveal publicly.

10. You have been covering baseball since when Jared and I were just toddlers. During that time, you have seen the rise of the Internet, your paper, the New York Daily News, trying to move to a digital-first product, the tightening of staff and budgets and an overall massive shift in the industry. How would you compare working in the industry today with what it was like earlier in your career? Why should an aspiring journalist believe there’s hope for them

John: This answer ties into the previous question: the game is covered differently these days, with less emphasis on what the players are thinking and saying. In addition, the need for immediate information in the digital age has made for less in-depth reporting and writing, taking some of the fun out of the job of covering baseball. But writing about baseball has been a great way for me to make a living, and with sports seemingly more popular than ever, I think there will always be a demand for good reporting and writing. The problem, of course, is the shrinking job market in an industry where newspapers haven’t figured out how to make their websites profitable, and the ripple effect it has on jobs, as well as salaries for writers in the future. Because of such financial concerns, I can’t say I’d recommend going into the industry as a young journalist, at least on the writing side. However, if I were young and passionate about writing sports, I probably wouldn’t let that keep me from getting into the business and taking my shot. As I’ve always said, only half-kiddingly, to people who have asked my advice: if it doesn’t work out you can always get a real job.


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