The basic approach to an "Is this true?" query about a particular event is to find someone who witnessed or participated in the incident and can therefore provide a first-hand account of the facts.
This approach is not always straightforward, however, because human beings, and their memories, are fallible. People forget, they misremember details, they exaggerate, and sometimes they even tell outright lies. Having two witnesses to an event is even better, of course, but that situation can create additional difficulties if their accounts of same incident differ substantially. One might be able to sift through their stories and piece together a reasonably accurate account from parts of each, but the process is usually problematic. And what about a situation in which two people, both supposedly participants in the same event, not only can't agree on whether the incident took place at all, but the one who first maintained that it did also claims, incredibly, that he never talked about it!
That last scenario applies to a pair of baseball players who were teammates on the
Drinking allowed me to commune with Darryl [Strawberry] and Kevin Mitchell, who was a funny, but very wild and sometimes very dangerous guy. I liked Mitch, but I knew better than to ever fuck with him. I'd heard stories about his background in
San Diego,some of which included rumors that he'd hurt some people in gang-related violence. I don't know about that, but I got to witness, firsthand, Mitch's temper.
I dropped by his house along with Meade Chassky, a card show-and-events entrepreneur with whom I became good friends over the years. Meade and I had had lunch at my house, and we decided to pay Mitch an unannounced visit. That was a mistake.
When we got there, I realized Kevin was both drunk and angry, a dangerous combination. He was holding a twelve-inch knife in his hands, having an argument with his live-in girlfriend. Kevin was right in the girl's face, screaming at the top of his lungs.
"I told you not to fuck with me, but you don't want to fuckin' listen to me, do you?" Mitch said.
I saw this and started to turn around, but then Mitch wheeled on me and Meade. Now that we'd walked in, we were fair game..
"Sit the fuck down, the two of you. You're not going anywhere."
He was serious. I could tell. I wouldn't have wanted Mitch mad at me without a knife. With it, all he had to do was say jump, and I'd say, How high?
Somehow, Mitch got it in his head that Meade and I were being followed by the cops and they were outside, staking him out. So he told us to barricade the doors. We looked at him like he was crazy, which, at that moment, he was.
"You think I'm kidding? Do what I tell you," Mitch shouted.
Poor Meade; he was so scared, I swear he peed in his pants. I can't say I blamed him, either, because I was worried about how crazy Mitch might get. His temper was one thing; but that knife in his hand was another. I had no choice but to barricade the front door. We put a couch in front of it, then stacked two chairs on top of the couch. After that, Mitch ordered us to pull the blinds down on all the windows, then he ripped the phone out of the wall.
Finally, I tried to plead with him.
"Mitch, listen to me. It's okay, there's nobody out there," I said gently.
"You calling me a liar, motherfucker?" he shouted. He met my eyes with a glaze so fierce, I had to look away.
His girlfriend tried reasoning with Mitch, too.
"Kevin, stop acting so crazy, these people are your friends," she said. With that, Mitch turned to her and raised his anger to yet another level. Still holding the knife in his right hand, he grabbed his girlfriend's little cat, who had the misfortune to be walking near his feet at that very moment.
In one awful sweep of his hand, Mitch pulled the cat's head back, exposing its throat.
"You think I'm kidding when I say don't ever fuck with me?" he shouted. Before the girl could answer, Mitch took the knife to the cat, and cut its head off.
I was horrified by the sight: Mitch was still holding the cat's head in one hand, while the body dropped to the floor, blood pouring out from where the head once was, limbs still twitching.
The girl was practically out of control, screaming so loud I'm shocked the cops didn't actually show up. Meade tried to run for the door, but Mitch wasn't about to become reasonable yet.
"Sit the fuck down, Meade. You and Doc, sit down on that couch and don't move," he said.
Considering he had a severed cat's head and a knife in his hands, he didn't get an argument from either one of us.
We sat down. So did the girlfriend. And Mitch sat across from us, shooting darts at us with his eyes. Sort of like a modern-day Mexican standoff. We remained like this for almost two hours, no one saying a word, until Mitch finally started to nod off.
He'd start to close his eyes, then open them quickly, almost like he was testing us. Finally, for some reason, the dark cloud over him moved on. Mitch half smiled and said, "You guys can go."
We left, in about a half second, of course. The next day at the ballpark, I approached Mitch and asked, "You feeling okay?"
Looking straight ahead, he said, "Yesterday never happened." And we never mentioned it again.
This narrative would seem to be everything necessary to confirm this tale as true: a detailed, first-person account related by someone who was a direct participant in the event (and found it significant enough to include in his autobiography). However, as author Jeff Pearlman documented while conducting player interviews for his book about the 1986
Sometime in the early months of 2002, I flew out to San Francisco to meet with Kevin Mitchell, who was about to begin his first season as manager of the Sonoma County Crushers of the independent Western Baseball League. For two and a half hours Mitchell was everything one could hope for in an interview subject: Gregarious. Funny. Loud. Poignant. Chock full of stories.
Near the end of our sit-down, I asked Mitchell to expound on an anecdote that appeared in Dwight Gooden's 1999 autobiography, Heat. Before I even mentioned what the anecdote was, Mitchell's mood went from sunny summer day to winter storm. "Lemme tell you one thing," he said somewhat menacingly. "I didn't do that shit."
That shit was cutting the head off a cat with a twelve-inch kitchen knife. According to Heat, in 1986 Gooden and a friend were visiting Mitchell's Long Island home, and in the middle of a dispute with his girlfriend, the Mets outfielder picked up a small kitten and slashed it across the throat. The body fell to the ground. "I was horrified by the sight," Gooden writes. "Blood pouring out from where the head once was, limbs still twitching."
Shortly after the book was released, Mitchell received a call from a friend who informed him that Jim Rome was telling feline mutilation stories on his radio program. Mitchell phoned Rome at his office. "I asked him why he was making false allegations about me," Mitchell said. "Rome said, 'Hey, Mitch, I'm getting it straight from the horse's mouth, Dwight Gooden.'"
Mitchell was furious. "How could I cut off a cat's head with a kitchen knife? Hell, I love animals," he told me. "I'm not the one who went out there and sucked up some lines [of cocaine], like Dwight Gooden did. I'm a decent guy." For three years Mitchell waited patiently to face Gooden in person. He says he initially considered a lawsuit, then good old-fashioned violence. At the least, a tongue-lashing would suffice.
The moment finally arrived on the afternoon of November 8, 2002, when the two men were scheduled to attend a memorabilia-signing event in New Rochelle, New York. Gooden arrived first, then Mitchell. It didn't take long.
MITCHELL: "Why did you write that I cut off a cat's head?"
GOODEN: "It wasn't me."
MITCHELL: "It wasn't?"
MITCHELL: "Okay. We're cool."
Moments later I asked Mitchell about the encounter. "Doc said he wasn't responsible," he said. "I guess I believe him." But, I pointed out, it's right
there . . .in HIS autobiography.
Mitchell didn't flinch. All anger was gone. "I said my piece," he said. "It's over."
Remarkably, it was.
Clearly, someone was lying. But who? Did Dwight Gooden fabricate an account of something that never took place, or did Kevin Mitchell fib in claiming that what Gooden had written was fiction? Jeff Pearlman suggested the former:
Did Mitchell, in fact, slice a cat's head off? Or was it Gooden, embarrassed by years of substance abuse and underachievement, trying to deflect attention onto an innocent teammate? Truthfully, we'll probably never know. And after spending way too much time researching the team and its legacy, I genuinely wonder if the players themselves will ever know.2
It's possible that Dwight Gooden (who was twice suspended from baseball after testing positive for cocaine use) was seeking to deflect attention from his own substance abuse problems and made up a salacious story about a teammate to accomplish that goal, but that explanation doesn't seem likely. Gooden wrote candidly, at length, about his struggles with alcohol and drug addiction in his autobiography (indeed, the majority of Heat is a recounting of Gooden's drug problems; discussion of his baseball career is a distinctly secondary portion of the book). Moreover, many of Gooden's teammates on the Mets were enmeshed in scandals involving drug abuse, sex, and violence, but Gooden didn't offer up comparable tales about any of them in his book.
An obvious explanation that springs to mind is that, despite the paradoxical name, many celebrities (especially athletes) don't write their autobiographies. It has long been the practice in the sports field to pay star players to put their names to newspaper columns, books, and even autobiographies "ghostwritten" by professional scribes, often with little or no input from the players themselves. New York Times reporter Buster Olney described an instance when a bit of newspaper ghostwriting came back to haunt Mets pitcher David Cone, one of Gooden's teammates:
Cone had not always controlled the press, of course, His career was covered with media scars. While pitching for the Mets in the 1988 playoffs, Cone agreed to cooperate with the Daily News and provide his name and thoughts to a column ghostwritten by beat reporter Bob Klapisch, and under Cone's byline appeared taunting words for the Dodgers and a belittling of reliever Jay Howell: "Seeing Howell and his curveball reminded us of a high school pitcher." The Dodgers, inflamed by Cone's printed remarks, beat him in his next game and went on to win the series, and years later, Davey
Johnson — themanager of the Mets in that era — wouldsay his greatest regret of that season was "David Cone's literary career."3
Gooden's autobiography, Heat, was written "with" that very same Bob Klapisch, so how much of the finished work was Gooden's own words (rather than the product of his co-writer's efforts) is difficult to discern. Nonetheless, Klapsich is a
For years, in fact, Darryl went out of his way to deflect attention from his drug use. In 1987, when I tested positive for cocaine, reporters naturally went to him and asked, "Should we fear for you, too?"
Straw said he wasn't raised that way, that he'd never considered using drugs. Eventually, Darryl was more open about his problems. Likewise, he corrected an assertion in his book, published in 1992, that I pitched under the influence of drugs in the
Straw later explained that those were the words of his ghostwriter, and that if he was guilty of anything, it was being too lax about the book's editorial content. I had to accept his word on that, because he knew better.
(Of course, Gooden could have engaged in a technically correct but deliberately misleading dodge when he responded by saying he didn't "write" about the alleged beheading, since his co-author presumably was the one who actually put his words down on paper. We tried contacting Bob Klapisch to see if could provide any insight on the story, but we did not receive a response from him.)
Darryl Strawberry supposedly confirmed the beheading tale when asked about it in a 2014 HuffPost Live interview, saying: "That's a pretty good story. I think that's pretty accurate. Kevin Mitchell did do that. Kevin Mitchell, he's a different type of
Strawberry's "confirmation" was less than convincing, though: according to Dwight Gooden, Strawberry wasn't present when the alleged cat-beheading incident took place, so he couldn't have witnessed it himself. And his remarks about how the tale was "a pretty good story," that "I think [it's] pretty accurate," and "I guess [Mitchell] figured that the girlfriend was acting a little
With nothing more to go by, it's a toss-up for us to determine whether this is a true story or not. By Gooden's account there were a couple of witnesses to the alleged incident (Gooden's friend, Meade Chassky, and Mitchell's unnamed girlfriend), but we haven't found any evidence that either of them has ever discussed the matter publicly. Dwight Gooden might have told the truth, he might have made the whole story up, he might have related a greatly embellished version of something that did take place, or he might even have heard about the incident (true or otherwise) from a third party and retold it in the first person as if he had actually been there. All in all, it adds up to a "We don't know."