Scott Cavanagh
Freelance Writing, Editing and Photography

Lone K a Special One for Gooden

Reprinted from Columbus Wired
July 11, 2000

 

They hang K's in Major League Baseball stadiums.

This testimony to home fans' support of their starting pitcher is an established tradition these days, but back in 1984 it was a new invention, one practiced in one stadium to celebrate the exploits of a 19-year-old kid with a magical right arm.

That all must have seemed like a lifetime ago to 35-year-old Dwight Gooden last Saturday, as he lugged a 2-3 record and an ERA over six to the mound for his first start in Shea Stadium since 1994, this time wearing the uniform of the cross-town rival Yankees.

As a native New Yorker and a lifelong Mets fan, I greeted the unexpected news that Gooden would be the starter for the first half of a very unique subway series doubleheader with a combination of boyish glee and adult trepidation. How would the home crowd react to the return of the prodigal son, after nearly a decade of bitter personal and professional setbacks? I knew how I would have reacted. I know what Dwight Gooden meant to my team.

In the 22 years prior to Gooden's arrival in Queens, the Mets had made the playoffs only twice. Since the miracle of 1969, only a fluky ending to the 1973 season that allowed an 83-79 team to sneak into the postseason separated them from fifteen years of total futility. The late 70's and early 80's were particularly ugly. During that period, the team never won as many as 70 games or finished higher than fifth place. By 1983 the Mets were no longer lovable losers. They were just losers.

That all began to change in 1983. The arrival of Gooden's partner in triumph and tragedy Darryl Strawberry, and the acquisition of former MVP Keith Hernandez gave the team a sense of respectability, but didn't produce wins. Despite Rookie-of-the-Year honors for Strawberry and another .300 season from Hernandez, the Mets finished the year 68-94. Same old story - laughingstocks.

They stopped laughing in '84 and began hanging K's. Two hundred and seventy-six of them to be exact- more strikeouts than any rookie pitcher in the history of the game. By September the Mets were involved in - of all things - a pennant race with the Cubs. The team would falter down the stretch, but Gooden would not. In one three-game stretch in September he struck out 43 batters - another record.

He was even better in 1985, going 24-4 with a microscopic 1.76 ERA and 268 more K's. More importantly, he was the cornerstone of a young and talented Mets team eager to put a decade of embarrassing finishes behind it. On a team of rising stars, Gooden was "the" star - the most important player in Mets history since Tom Seaver.

Dwight Gooden and Tom Seaver. Comparing the two may seem like a stretch today, but it was a natural fit a decade ago. By the end of the 1991 season, Gooden, now known as "Doctor K" was well on his way to Cooperstown, with a 132-53 record and an ERA of 2.91. He had also led the Mets to two division titles in three years, including the world championship in 1986. During his first eight seasons, Seaver went 146-87, while the team won two divisions and one title.

Gooden's departure from the Mets was also similar to Seaver's. By 1992, ridiculous personnel moves (Lenny Dykstra AND Roger McDowell for whiff-king Juan Samuel comes to mind) and the firing of manager Davey Johnson had reduced a young and talent-rich organization to a 72-90 also-ran, 24 games behind division winner Pittsburgh. By '93 they were back in the basement.

When Seaver won only 14 games in 1976, the Met front office began entertaining trade offers. Forget the fact that the team was already terrible, and dealing from a position of weakness would get them little in return. By mid-season '77 "The Franchise" was residing in Cincinnati, where he pitched the only no-hitter of his career in 1978. The Mets however, were entering the Dark Ages.

Even the staunchest Gooden supporter, could understand the team's sentiment when the pitcher tested positive for cocaine early in the 1994 season. After all, they were paying him a great deal of money to perform at a certain level and their expectations were not being met.

Upon Gooden's release in the fall of '94, the New York brass continually pointed to Gooden's sub-.500 record in 1992-93 and their inability to count on their star pitcher. But what about Gooden's ability to count on the Mets?

Doc was only a few months out of high school when he was summoned to the biggest, baddest city in the world to make the team respectable in 1984. He did his part. Did the team pay attention to what was happening to him, or Strawberry for that matter? Did they monitor whom these kids were hanging out with or what ridiculous favors were being offered them? Not as far as I could tell. When Gooden had his first brush with the league drug policy in early 1987, the Mets had him back on the mound by June. After all, there was a pennant race going on.

Gooden was out of baseball for nearly two years in 1996, when Yankee owner George Steinbrenner decided to take a chance on a man whose life was certainly not over at age 30. In May of that year he pitched the only no-hitter of his career against the Mariners.

In the four years since that game, Gooden has ridden a professional roller coaster with more twists and flips than that of any player this side of Strawberry. His first tour of duty with the Yankees produced a 20-12 record, but it was not enough to keep him consistently in the team's rotation or plans.

In 23 starts for Cleveland in 1998, he went 8-6 with a 3.76 ERA for a team desperately in need of pitching. Despite this, the Tribe never elevated him beyond the fifth starter position and dropped him from the rotation early in the '99 season, while stiffs like Charlie Nagy trotted their plus-five ERA's out there every fifth day.

The low point had to be the 1998 Division Series, where Gooden was tossed from his only start of the playoffs after 1/3 of an inning for questioning balls and strikes - without ever saying a word! Last season, a painful hernia caused him to pitch in discomfort all year, finally derailing his season less than a month before the playoffs.

That brings us back to last Saturday. Gooden was going to give it one last try this season. They gave him one start in Houston. One start. That's all the Doctor was worth, on a team with the worst record in baseball. A stint in his hometown of Tampa didn't last much longer. Then George came calling again.

No one, even Gooden himself, could have expected this scenario. The most closely scrutinized regular-season doubleheader in history and Dwight Gooden back in Shea, where only Seaver won more games.

The ovation Gooden received on the way to the mound in the bottom of the first was not the thunderous "thank-you" I had hoped for. Many in the crowd stood, but some didn't. There was even a spattering of boos. Boos for Dwight Gooden in Shea Stadium! Suddenly, for a little over two-hours, my inner baseball psyche became twisted. I was a Yankee fan. Thank God my grandfather was not alive to see this.

Gooden was not dominating on Saturday, certainly not by his Met standards, but he was effective. In five innings, he surrendered one run on six hits and left with 2-1 lead. When the smoke cleared that afternoon, The Doctor was a winner again.

Later that evening Roger Clemens drilled Mike Piazza with a fastball to the head that knocked the Mets superstar to the ground, and realigned the baseball planets in my head. The guys in the pinstripes were the enemy. The guys in the stupid, trendy black hats were still my boys.

But for one afternoon, all was right in Shea, even if the home team lost, and they only hung one K.

Scott Cavanagh is News Director and Managing Editor of Columbus Wired.

 Column copyright 2000 Midland Avenue Communications. Reprints without permission are a violation of Federal Law.