Monday, March 6, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: Dwight Gooden

There have been many highly touted prospects who never lived up to the lofty expectations after they were called up to the majors.  Former No. 1 overall pick David Clyde went from being a Texas high school superstar (18-0, 0.18 ERA, 328 Ks in 148 IP) to the Texas Rangers almost overnight in 1973.  He pitched his final game in the majors before his 25th birthday.  Similarly, Joe Charboneau's first season with the Cleveland Indians in 1980 saw him win the American League Rookie of the Year Award and be the subject of a novelty song ("Go Joe Charboneau").  He played just 70 more games in the big leagues after his inaugural campaign, setting the record for fewest career games by a former Rookie of the Year.

Charboneau played his final game in the majors in June 1982, the same month that the Mets drafted a 17-year-old high school pitching phenom from Tampa, Florida with the fifth overall pick.  Before he was out of his teens, the prospect would win his own Rookie of the Year Award.  Then at age 20, he was the unanimous winner of the Cy Young Award.  A year later, he helped the Mets win a World Series trophy.  Three years, three individual and team awards.  But what should have been the beginning of a Hall of Fame career ended up leading to his downfall as a major league pitcher.  A small taste of success on the field led to a much larger taste in illegal activities off it.  And before long, his performance on the field for the Mets became the least of his worries.

Oh, what might have been for the good doctor.  (Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)

Dwight Eugene Gooden was the third pitcher selected in the 1982 June Amateur Draft after Jimmy Jones (Padres) and Bryan Oelkers (Twins).  But whereas Jones and Oelkers failed to have much of an impact on the teams that drafted them, Gooden made the Mets better as soon as he put on a major league uniform for the first time in 1984.

At Hillsborough High School in Tampa, Gooden struck out 130 batters in just 74 innings during his senior year.  As he adjusted to minor league baseball, Gooden struck out fewer batters.  Doc - as he was so named by a family friend when he was in Little League - made 11 starts in his first professional season and fanned 84 batters in 78⅔ innings.  Promoted to Single-A Lynchburg in 1983, Gooden became unhittable, striking out 300 batters in 191 innings.  When the Mets' Triple-A team qualified for the International League playoffs, Gooden made the jump from Lynchburg to Tidewater at the request of Tides' manager Davey Johnson.

"I kept asking for him that year," Johnson said.  "I knew his command.  The Mets had taken Walt Terrell and Tom Gorman away from me that year, they took Ron Darling, and I kept yelling, 'Give me Gooden.'  After he pitched a 1-0 shutout that won the championship for Lynchburg, they finally let me have him in the playoffs."

Facing hitters who were one step away from the majors didn't faze the 18-year-old Gooden, as he struck out 19 more batters and recorded a complete-game victory over the Denver Bears.  Tidewater ended up winning the Little World Series, earning Johnson a promotion to the Mets to manage the big league club.  Although Gooden was still in his teens, Johnson wanted him on the Opening Day roster in 1984, which made general manager Frank Cashen uneasy because of what had happened to another top prospect just three years earlier.

"Davey told us he'd protect the kid, but Frank Cashen was leery," Mets vice president of operations Lou Gorman said.  "Frank remembered how Tim Leary had hurt his arm and he didn't want to take a chance on an 18-year-old hurting his arm after a long season."

In 1981, Leary - another former first round pick - was promoted from Double-A to the big leagues, making his debut with the Mets on April 12 at cold Wrigley Field in Chicago.  His first appearance lasted two innings, as an elbow injury forced him out of the game.  By the time Gooden was pitching for Tidewater in September 1983, Leary had not yet returned to the majors and would only start nine more games for the Mets before he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers in 1985.

With a feeling of trepidation, Cashen agreed to have Gooden on the Mets' Opening Day roster as a 19-year-old in 1984.  There were no weather concerns for Doc in his first start, as the game was played indoors at the Houston Astrodome.  Gooden was sharp in his debut, holding the Astros to one run and three hits in five innings to earn his first major league victory.  He was not as fortunate in his second appearance, which, in an interesting bit of irony, was also played at a chilly Wrigley Field.

One day after the three-year anniversary of Leary's ill-fated debut, Gooden was knocked out of the game in the fourth inning after allowing six runs and ten base runners.  Much to the relief of Cashen, Gooden felt fine physically after the game.  In fact, Doc took the lessons he learned from the defeat and used it to carve out a wildly successful career against the Cubs, winning 28 of his next 31 decisions versus Chicago.

Rick Sutcliffe beat Doc for the 1984 Cy Young, but Doc beat Chicago the rest of his career.  (Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images)

Through his first eight starts, Gooden was just 3-3 with a 4.15 ERA.  But in late May, after a 14-strikeout performance against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Shea Stadium, Gooden became the pitcher Johnson saw in the minors.  In his final 23 starts, Doc went 14-6 with a 2.22 ERA, holding opposing hitters to a .197 batting average and .539 OPS.  Gooden struck out 217 batters in those 23 starts en route to setting a new single-season strikeout record for rookies.  Included in his stellar second half were back-to-back 16-strikeout games against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies in mid-September when the Mets were trying to stay in their first pennant race in nearly a decade.

Unfortunately, the Mets lost Gooden's second 16-K game, and with it, lost any hope of catching the first-place Cubs in the division.  Despite having to settle for a second-place finish, the Mets had ended a seven-year stretch of losing baseball at Shea, one that began when the last pitching virtuoso, Tom Seaver, was traded away from the team.  New York finished the 1984 campaign with a 90-72 record, just the second time in franchise history that the team reached the 90-win plateau.  It would not be the last time the Mets won that many games during Gooden's tenure in New York.

The 1985 campaign began with the National League's Rookie of the Year trying to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.  It ended with Gooden completing what is arguably the greatest season by a Mets starting pitcher in franchise history.  With off-season acquisition Gary Carter behind the plate, Gooden flourished in his second year with the team, winning the Triple Crown of pitching, as he led the league in wins (24), ERA (1.53) and strikeouts (268).  Doc also paced all National League pitchers in innings pitched (276⅔) and complete games (16), often pitching like a seasoned veteran despite being only 20 years old.  After failing to be the unanimous winner in the Rookie of the Year vote the previous season (future teammate Juan Samuel got one first place vote), Gooden received every first place vote for the Cy Young Award in 1985, becoming the first Met since Tom Seaver in 1975 to take home the coveted pitching prize.

For the second straight year, the Mets were runners-up in the division, this time finishing second to the St. Louis Cardinals.  The Mets were determined to not let it happen three years in a row, with Johnson going so far as saying that the team wouldn't just win; they would dominate.  Gooden also looked to improve upon his 1985 campaign.  But how does one improve a product that's already nearly perfect?

One thing that got better in 1986 was Gooden's bank account, as he received a hefty raise before his third season from $450,000 to $1,320,000.  That money did not include what he was earning from all the endorsement deals that were coming his way.  A 21-year-old whose face was plastered everywhere - including a larger-than-life mural on 42nd Street - became instantly recognizable to everyone; even non-baseball fans knew who Gooden was.  That recognition and success in turn led to all kinds of temptations.  And as strong as Gooden was on the mound, he was weak off it, especially when the high of doing lines became greater than the rush of pitching between them.

In the mid-'80s, Doc Gooden was larger than life.  (Matt Weber Street Photography)

In 1986, Gooden picked up where he left off the previous year, winning his first five decisions and posting a stellar 1.04 ERA through his first six starts.  But Doc was merely human after his strong first month of the season, as he pitched to a 3.32 ERA and 1.207 WHIP in his final 27 starts.  Gooden also needed to strike out the last batter he faced in his final regular season start just to reach 200 strikeouts, a number he had reached by the end of August in each of his first two seasons.  But with the Mets fulfilling their manager's prophecy by dominating the division, Gooden's so-so season never became an issue.  That is, until the postseason started.

In the National League Championship Series, Gooden pitched well against the Astros, allowing just two runs in 17 innings.  But he only struck out nine batters in his two starts and failed to earn a win in either game.  When Gooden took the mound against the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, he was hit quite hard.  Boston's hitters operated on Doc twice in the series, scoring ten runs (eight earned) and collecting 17 hits in his nine innings of work against the American League champions.  Although the Red Sox defeated Gooden twice in the series, the Mets would go on to win the Fall Classic in seven games.

The Mets lost five postseason games in 1986.  Three of the losses were charged to Gooden.  It was alarming to see the Mets' ace not come through for the team in the postseason.  It was even more alarming not to see him at the Mets' victory parade up the Canyon of Heroes.

As the team celebrated with its fans, Gooden was watching the parade from his bed after spending the previous night drinking heavily and doing drugs.  In his autobiography, "Doc: A Memoir", Gooden recounted his post-Game Seven activities.

"I was drinking shots of vodka," Gooden wrote.  "I was snorting lines of cocaine.  And more lines of cocaine - and more lines of cocaine.  I didn't leave the drug party until after the sun came up.  As my teammates toasted our triumph, I was nursing a head-splitting coke-and-booze hangover, too spent, too paranoid, and too mad at myself to drag my sorry butt to my own victory parade."

Drugs had taken over Gooden's life in 1986.  When he wasn't pitching or preparing to pitch, he was nose deep in cocaine.  And when there was no baseball to play, there was more time to do drugs.  For the better part of a year, Gooden had been able to keep his off-the-field exploits a secret from the fans and the press.  By the end of spring training, however, his addiction had become public knowledge.

In March 1987, a urine sample submitted by Gooden tested positive for cocaine.  Faced with the option of a one-year suspension without pay or going to a drug rehabilitation center while continuing to be paid, Gooden chose the latter, checking himself into the Smithers Alcoholism and Treatment Center in Manhattan, where he would remain for a month.  Once Gooden completed his rehab, he made five starts in the minors before returning to the Mets on June 5.

Gooden had no idea what to expect from the Shea Stadium crowd that night.  In his absence, the defending champion Mets had become a mediocre team, entering the Friday night matchup against the Pittsburgh Pirates in fourth place with a 25-25 record.  Sportswriter Dick Young, whose articles had contributed to the departure of Tom Seaver a decade earlier, encouraged Mets fans to "stand up and boo" Gooden when he took the mound.

"If I could choreograph things tonight," Young wrote, "I would do it this way: Enter Dwight Gooden ... 50,000 people boo loudly.  That's to let him know how society feels about the wrong he has done, about the damage he has committed to the millions of kids who worshipped him."

Throw a Lord Charles like this and you'll never get booed.  (Focus On Sport/Getty Images)

Instead of booing, Gooden received a rousing ovation from the sellout crowd.  The extra support from the fans helped Doc pitch into the seventh inning, and when he was removed from the game with two outs, he exited to more thunderous applause.  The Mets won the game, 5-1, and more importantly, they had their ace back.  Although the Mets failed to return to the playoffs in 1987, they did improve from a .500 team without Gooden to a team that went 67-45 with Doc on the active roster.  And despite missing nearly a third of the season, Gooden still won 15 games for the Mets, which helped him place fifth in the Cy Young Award vote - his third top five finish in his first four seasons.

Unlike the 1987 season, Gooden was with the team from the start of the '88 campaign.  His drug demons supposedly behind him, Gooden finished the year with an 18-9 record and ten complete games.  It was the last time Gooden - or any other Mets pitcher - reached double digits in complete games.  For the first time in his career, Gooden pitched to contact instead of going for the strikeout, as he struck out just 175 batters in 248⅓ innings and averaged a career-low 2.1 walks per nine innings.  But as well as Gooden's pitch-to-contact mantra worked during the regular season in 1988, it came back to haunt him and the Mets in the postseason.

The Mets won 100 games in 1988 and cruised to their second division title in three years.  Their opponent in the NLCS was the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team New York had defeated ten times in 11 regular season matchups.  The Mets' fortunes against the Dodgers continued in the first three games of the series, as they took two of those three contests and had Gooden on the mound for Game Four.  Gooden struggled early, allowing two runs in the first inning before striking out Mike Scioscia to limit the damage.  Gooden's strikeout of Scioscia got him back on track, as Doc allowed just one hit over the next seven innings.  Meanwhile, Dodgers' starter John Tudor - who was the runner-up to Gooden for the Cy Young Award just three years earlier - was knocked around for four runs in five innings.

Through eight innings, the Mets held a 4-2 lead with Gooden throwing 118 pitches.  Still, Johnson kept Gooden in the game to face John Shelby, who had driven in the only two runs scored by the Dodgers.  Shelby fouled off Gooden's first pitch, then took a curveball for strike two.  Needing one pitch to retire the leadoff batter in the ninth, Gooden threw six more pitches before walking Shelby.  Doc was now up to 126 pitches, but there was still no one warming up in the Mets' bullpen.

And then, with one swing of the bat, Scioscia happened.

Mike Scioscia had gone deep just three times in 452 regular season at-bats in 1988.  He made it four on Gooden's first pitch to him, taking Doc over the right field wall for a game-tying, stadium-quieting home run.  It was like déjà vu all over again for Gooden and Scioscia, as the light-hitting Scioscia's first-ever homer at Shea Stadium back in 1984 had also been hit off Gooden, although that blast didn't come in a critical postseason game.  With the wind taken out of the Mets' sails, the Dodgers eked out an extra-inning win on a home run by Kirk Gibson.  Three games later, New York abandoned ship on their season, dropping the seventh and deciding game at Dodger Stadium.

Make that 2 wins, 60 losses after what transpired in Game Four.  (Screen shot courtesy of MLBClassics YouTube channel)

The heartbreaking loss in the 1988 NLCS was the beginning of the end for the Mets, as general manager Frank Cashen began to slowly dismantle the team that won him a championship.  By the end of the 1989 campaign, fan-favorites Wally Backman, Lenny Dykstra, Roger McDowell, Mookie Wilson and Lee Mazzilli were all gone.  Gooden's perfect health was also gone, as the 24-year-old veteran was placed on the disabled list because of an actual injury for the first time in his career in July.  Originally thought to be out three to four weeks with a slight tear of a muscle in his right shoulder, Gooden didn't return to the team until mid-September, making two relief appearances before being shut down for the final two weeks of the season.  Gooden finished the year with a 9-4 record; it was the first time he failed to win at least 15 games in a season.

New York bid adieu to the the 1980s with just one championship despite having one of the best pitching staffs in the league.  And less than two months into the first season of the 1990s, the team also said goodbye to its long-time manager, as Davey Johnson was removed from the position following a less-than-mediocre 20-22 start.  Gooden's early season performance matched the team's, as Doc started the year with a 3-5 record and 4.44 ERA in his first 12 starts.  But with the arrival of new manager Buddy Harrelson, the team started hitting.  And hitting.  And hitting some more.

Dave Magadan competed for the batting title.  Darryl Strawberry set the single-season franchise record for RBI.  Even Mackey Sasser hit over .300, becoming the first catcher in team history to reach that lofty level while playing in at least 100 games.  One of the main beneficiaries of the increased run production was Doc Gooden, who went 16-1 from mid-June to late September.  But just because he was winning almost every start didn't mean he was pitching like vintage Gooden.  Case in point, in back-to-back starts against the Dodgers and Giants in August, Gooden allowed a total of 13 runs (all earned), 15 hits and eight walks in just 11 innings.  Incredibly, he was the winning pitcher in both games.

For the season, the Mets averaged over six runs per game in Gooden's 34 starts.  As a result, Gooden won 19 games in 1990, losing his final start as he attempted to become a 20-game winner for the second time in his career.  Gooden also struck out 223 batters, his highest total since his Cy Young season in 1985.  But Doc's 3.83 ERA was the highest of his career and was more than a run higher than his 2.64 lifetime ERA coming into the season.  The years of sub-3.00 ERAs would become a thing of the past for Gooden, as would winning seasons for the Mets.

In 1991, the Mets finished the year with a 77-84 record; their first losing season since Gooden was pitching for Single-A Lynchburg.  Although Gooden won 13 of 20 decisions, his campaign was curtailed by another injury to his pitching arm, which required season-ending surgery in early September.  Prior to Opening Day of the '91 campaign, a healthier Gooden had signed the richest contract in National League history, which guaranteed him $15.45 million through 1994 (the contract wouldn't kick in until the 1992 season).  Unfortunately, Gooden had difficulty living up to his end of the deal.

From 1984 to 1991, Gooden finished at least five games over .500 in each season.  But from 1992 to 1994 - which covered the length of his new contract - Gooden had a losing record in each campaign.  His 1994 season was especially harsh, beginning with his Opening Day outing, when he allowed three home runs to Tuffy Rhodes at Wrigley Field.  Gooden also injured his toe during the season opener and exacerbated the injury over his next two starts, which caused him to spend nearly two months on the disabled list.  During his time away from the team, Gooden was randomly tested for drugs as part of his after-care program.  He returned to the team in early June, just three weeks before the results of his drug test were made public.  The news was not what the Mets and their fans wanted to hear.

Gooden was caught with cocaine in his system.  Again.  And this time, he was suspended by Major League Baseball for 60 days.

"I have been suspended for breaking the rules of my aftercare program," Gooden said in a prepared statement.  "I'm truly sorry it happened.  I will be back stronger and better."
 
Gooden never did come back to the Mets, as the 1994 players' strike canceled the remainder of the season before his suspension had come to an end.  Then, just days after the World Series would have ended had it been played, it was revealed that Gooden had tested positive for cocaine multiple times after completing his rehabilitation in August.  He was suspended for the entire 1995 season, which disappointed Joe McIlvaine, the team's executive vice president of baseball operations.

"Right now our only concern is for Dwight Gooden the person," McIlvaine said.  "Any speculation about his baseball future is secondary and unimportant.  It's a shame at the age of 29 his future is so much in doubt."

Gooden's declaration of coming back stronger and better would have to come in another team's uniform, as the Mets did not offer their former ace a contract after he completed his suspensions.  Gooden signed with the crosstown Yankees in 1996 and almost immediately pitched a no-hitter for his new team.  He went on to win two World Series rings with the Yankees and made a triumphant return to Shea Stadium in 2000, defeating the Mets in the first game of a two-stadium doubleheader.

Gooden retired just days before the start of the 2001 season, ending his 16-year major league career six wins shy of 200 for his career.  All but 37 of his 194 victories came as a member of the New York Mets.

"It's a sad and enjoyable day for myself," Gooden said upon announcing his retirement.  "I've enjoyed a great career.  It's been a joyous ride."

Dwight Gooden played 11 seasons with the Mets.  His once-promising career should have yielded so many memorable moments, but instead ended up seeing Gooden with more drug suspensions as a Met than championship trophies.  Despite the personal demons that he could never quite conquer, even well after his retirement as a player, Gooden has remained quite popular with Mets fans.  Gooden received the loudest ovation when he returned to Shea Stadium for the park's closing ceremonies in 2008 and was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame in 2010.

Doc's memorabilia is in Cooperstown, but not Doc himself. (Ed Leyro/Studious Metsimus)

In 1984, a 19-year-old rookie gave fans a reason to come to the ballpark after the Mets had spent seven seasons as the dregs of the league.  Dr. K had his own "Korner" at Shea Stadium.  He also had his own six-story mural on one of New York's busiest streets.  But for all the hold Gooden had on the city of New York, he couldn't control his own vices.  And a road that should have led to Cooperstown ended up leading to one rehab trip after another.

There's an old saying that reminds us "it's not where you start, it's where you finish."  Players like David Clyde and Joe Charboneau are quite familiar with that quote.  So is Dwight Gooden.  His first few years in the majors had many pundits mentioning his name in the same sentence as the game's all-time greats.  By the time his career ended, those same people were including Gooden on their lists of the game's greatest disappointments.

The Mets won one World Series during Gooden's tenure in Flushing.  Gooden then missed the parade that celebrated that lone title.  Just like Mets fans missed out on what should have been a legendary career in orange and blue.


Note: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players and personnel who experienced the best of times and the worst of times with the team.  For previous installments, please click on the names below:

January 2, 2017: Tom Seaver
January 9, 2017: Mike Piazza
January 16, 2017: Wally Backman
January 23, 2017: Daniel Murphy
January 30, 2017: Frank Cashen
February 6, 2017: Ed Kranepool
February 13, 2017: Doug Sisk
February 20, 2017: Joan Whitney Payson 
February 27, 2017: John Franco and Armando Benitez

 

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