The 1980s saw the creation of a new type of athlete: the corporation and media-created folk hero. Itâ€™s an oxymoron in a sense; how can it be possible for someone to be a folk hero while being plastered on advertisements by Sports Illustrated and Nike? Dwight Gooden was on a Sports Illustrated cover at 19 years old and companies in New York raced to give out the K cards that fans at Shea Stadium waved after every Gooden strikeout. Gooden wasnâ€™t the only one; Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan were two other excellent examples.
Yet he was, and for several years he was the apple of the eye of the Big Apple. His talent was extraordinary and his first two years in the majors seemed to defy belief. He was so young and so good you couldn’t help but be captivated by him. Even in year three, where he struggled by Gooden standards, he won a World Series. But his downfall was tragic as he fell into addiction and his Mets became notorious underachievers, turning Hall of Fame talent into that one World Series and a whole lot of what-ifs.Â
Gooden was a phenomenon, a prodigy of the likes we have not seen in baseball since Bob Feller, a prodigy who today would be compared to LeBron James. He was drafted fifth by the Mets in the 1982 player draft and spent exactly one season in the minors. 300 strikeouts in just 191 innings convinced general manager Frank Cashen and manager Davey Johnson that â€˜Docâ€™ was ready for the bigs. He threw a high riding fastball that was amongst the best in the league from the day he entered the majors as well as a knee-buckling hard curve that was the best in the league, all delivered with a high leg kick. Jim Kaplanâ€™s Sports Illustrated article was gushing in its praise for the rookie.
“His fastball rises like Sandy Koufax’s,” says Expo first baseman Pete Rose, the only man alive who has faced both. Others have likened Gooden to a young Bob Gibson or Seaver or J.R. Richard. “You know how the curve is called an Uncle Charlie?” says [Mets starter Ed] Lynch. “Dwight’s is so good we call it a Lord Charles.”
And was he ever ready. As a 19 year old, he made the All-Star team, turning in a memorable performance at Candlestick Park, striking out Lance Parrish, Chet Lemon and Alvin Davis in the 5th inning. He ended the season with 17 wins, 9 losses, an ERA of 2.60 and an extraordinary 276 strikeouts in just 218 innings. He finished 2nd in voting for the Cy Young Award. In an era where the strikeout rate was over 20% lower than it is today, Goodenâ€™s strikeouts would have led both leagues in strikeouts in 2009. In one exceptional stretch in September 1984, Gooden pitched 34 innings with an ERA of 0.53, striking out 52 batters while walking 5. He had successive 16 strikeout games versus the Pirates and Expos. The boy was something special.
“He’s the best young pitcher I’ve ever seen,” says Cubs manager Jim Frey, “and I’ve seen Palmer and Gibson and the rest. He’s already a great pitcher.”
In 1985, expectations were that Gooden would once again be a contender for the Cy Young Award. He was still a very young pitcher with extraordinary talent, and surely he would build on his superb rookie season with another strong year for the Mets.
He wasnâ€™t just good. He was a phenomenon. The youngest man ever to win 20 games, he went 24-4 with a 1.53 earned run average, the 2nd lowest ERA of the Live Ball Era (baseball post-1920). Only Bob Gibsonâ€™s 1.12 in 1968 was lower, and that was under conditions nearly as hostile to offense as pre-1920 baseball. He struck out 268 batters in 276 innings. He won the Cy Young Award unanimously. He didnâ€™t give up an earned run for the month of September. His starts became an event, as described by Craig Neff in Sports Illustrated:
“Shea Stadium was a sea of cardboard K’s: black ones, red ones, green ones, orange ones, some held aloft, others hung from upper-deck railings. There were cloth K’s, too, and K’s drawn on blank sheets of paper. Shea didn’t have enough nooks and crannies for all the K’s that greeted the appearance of Dwight (Dr. K) Gooden on a gala night last week. “We’ve got a wild bunch tonight,” said Mets video technician Joey Fitzgerald, looking out at Gooden from a runway behind home plate, radar gun in hand…
Driessen only winced as a 94-mph fastball shot past him for a called strike two. The crowd of 31,758 roaredâ€”and kept roaring. Their K signs danced. Shea crowds swell by an average of about 5,000 when Gooden pitches, largely for the thrill of cheering his two-strike pitches. With Gooden on the verge of a K, the stadium rocks with noise. Now Gooden fired. Whooooosh! Driessen swung right through it. Shea rocked. “Ninety-four,” Fitzgerald said, reading the figure from the RA-GUN.
Such was the fans’ hunger for strikeouts that they actually booed Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez and left fielder George Foster for catching two-strike foul pops in the seventh and eighth inningsâ€¦
â€œWhatâ€™s he going to be like when heâ€™s 30?â€ asks former political hardballer Richard Nixon, now a Mets fan.”
Gooden appeared in a Bruce Springsteen video, came out with an autobiography (!), and seemed to become a symbol of the new New York and its new Mets. The Mets, a doormat two years ago, won 98 games and just missed out on the National League East title. New York, regaining its swagger after the debt crisis of the 70s that bankrupted the city, fell in love with the Mets and Doctor K. An enormous photograph of Gooden with continually updated strikeout totals appeared at Pennsylvania Station. One midtown building had a Sports Illustrated photograph of Gooden captioned â€œHow does it feel to look down the barrel of a loaded gun?â€ Gooden even appeared on the cover of Time, a rare honor for an athlete. Sandy Koufax said heâ€™d trade his past for Goodenâ€™s future. Mickey Mantle said he wanted to be Dwight Gooden.
The hype was incredible, yet none of it seemed to faze Gooden. Articles continually referred to his strong, close-knit family background; pop Dan was his Little League coach and Gooden, who was almost shy in front of the media, called dad after every start. In an era where athletesâ€™ foibles dominated the front and back pages, people seemed sure Gooden would turn out fine. He lived quietly in Long Island, where it seemed his most exciting night out involved a couple slices of pizza at the local pizza parlor.
Little did we know; Goodenâ€™s 1986 was well below the level of his first two seasons, though he was still the best pitcher on a World Series-winning Mets team, going 18-9 in 250 innings with a 2.84 ERA and 200 strikeouts. Goodenâ€™s growing substance abuse issues began to manifest: he turned up to a start in Montreal just 15 minutes before game time, looking like hell. He missed the Metsâ€™ World Series parade due to what Mets officials called oversleeping (though in reality it was a cocaine binge). He was arrested for fighting with police in his native Tampa in December 1986. In spring training 1987, he tested positive for cocaine and spend two months in a rehabilitation facility (mandated by a contract clause he insisted be in his contract), not making a regular season start before June 1. Some called that clause a cry for help. Like his fellow Met superstar Darryl Strawberry, he was an alcoholic and according to Gooden, when he drank, he used cocaine. The Mets of that era were renowned for a hard-partying lifestyle, encouraged by Davey Johnsonâ€™s reticence to discipline his players (Johnson, who was a man about town during his playing career, said he felt like a hypocrite).
In addition to his substance problems, Gooden was also feeling the effects of overuse: he pitched an astounding 744 innings in his first three big league seasons and observers noted that his fastball just didnâ€™t have the same hop after 1986 while his curveball didnâ€™t have the same bite. While he continued to be a good pitcher for a couple more years â€“ while his ERAs were high, he often played in front of a terrible defense which inflated his ERAs, as Gooden always remained one of the best strikeout pitchers and one of the toughest to hit out of the ballpark â€“ injuries and further battles with addiction took the shine off his legend. Baseballâ€™s rock bottom seemed to come on Opening Day of the 1994 season when little-heralded outfielder Tuffy Rhodes hit three home runs off Gooden for the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Gooden had a 6.31 ERA when he tested positive for cocaine; during his suspension he tested positive again and missed the entire 1995 season.
Gooden had a brief comeback with the Yankees in 1996, pitching a no-hitter and rejoining Darryl Strawberry. Though he continued to bounce around the league until 2000, he never was anything more than a back of the rotation starter. Cut by the Yankees in spring training in 2001, he retired.
Doc continued to have legal problems throughout the decade, though he recently seems to be enjoying prolonged sobriety and with Darryl Strawberry, has rejoined the Mets organization as ambassadors. In 2008, he was elected to the New York Mets Hall of Fame. All of baseball is happy to see one of the most beloved pitchers of all-time and a New York icon get his life back together. Dwight Gooden was a superstar in the nascent age of the marketing and culture machine that is modern American sports, yet he managed to transcend commercialism and become a folk hero (and one who has even inspired folk art). Long may he remain with us.
This article, I hope, will be the first of many articles about baseball history I plan to write for this website. For more on the career of Dwight Gooden, the Sports Illustrated archive is an invaluable source. Craig Neffâ€™s cover article from September 2, 1985, E.M. Swiftâ€™s cover article from April 15, 1985 and Tom Verducciâ€™s exceptional article on Doc and Darryl Strawberry from February 27, 1995 were consulted heavily for this article.
To view Dwight Gooden in action, MLB.com has three Dwight Gooden games in its Baseballâ€™s Best archive: Game 1 of the 1986 NLCS, Game 4 of the 1988 NLCS and his no-hitter with the Yankees. Unfortunately none of them are truly prime Doc: Game 1 is probably the closest you can get (he pitches well, and loses 1-0). A yearâ€™s subscription to Baseballâ€™s Best is only $6.95 and MLB.TV subscribers can get it for free. Itâ€™s a fascinating resource for baseball history.
Dwightâ€™s autobiographies Rookie and Heat (published in 1999 and with a full account of his problems) are available used on amazon.co.uk for good prices. For an overview of the 1986 Mets, Jeff Pearlmanâ€™s The Bad Guys Won is a very good account. Personally, I am not a fan of Pearlmanâ€™s now completely noxious cynicism and clear dislike of sports (he once said he hates sports, which begs the question of why he continues to write about them), but this is his first book and covers his favorite baseball team, which allows him to write a lot better. The painting is taken from No Mas, a New York-based clothing company who specialize in sports and popular culture. They make great t-shirts and sell some great paintings. You can find them at www.nomas-nyc.com .