PART ONE – WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
No matter what team you followed in 1985, there was no greater pull from a pack of cards than young Dwight Gooden, who was at that time working on the greatest first two years of any pitcher in baseball memory. It would be hard to forget just how dominant Dr. K really was, but here are some numbers from the back of his 1986 Topps card in case a reminder is helpful.
I was lucky enough to catch Dr. K live at Dodger Stadium in a late season matchup against Fernando Valenzuela, himself once the young phenom with unlimited potential. Going into the contest, Gooden’s record was 20-4 with a 1.81 ERA while Fernando sat at 16-9 with a 2.37 ERA. While each pitcher had lost their prior start, they had preceded the losses with 11 and 9 game winning streaks respectively. The contest had all the makings of a pitcher’s duel going in, and it absolutely lived up to the hype. At the end of nine innings, the teams were knotted at 0-0, a score that prevailed until the 12th when Darryl Strawberry launched a two-run double off Tom Niedenfuer (of course!). Doc’s final line that night was not much different from his line on most nights: 9 innings, no runs, 5 hits, no walks, and 10 Ks–all of them awesome. Best game I ever saw live.
Doc followed up his stellar 1985 season with a solid but very mortal effort in 1986. As a kid, I didn’t know what personal challenges Gooden was dealing with, but it was clear he wasn’t the same pitcher, even as he went 17-9. Though the Mets would go on to be world champs, Gooden was winless in the postseason, and there was a real sense that the magic was gone.
In truth, Gooden remained a very good pitcher for many more years (74-34 over the next five years with an ERA in the low threes), but even “very good” was nowhere near what once felt like his destiny–to be the greatest ever. Add in ten more years of largely journeyman-level pitching, punctuated by a full-year suspension, and the career of Dwight Gooden, despite the 45th highest winning percentage in Major League history and a career ERA bested by only 12 active pitchers–all aces–today, reads much more like a tale of what might have been than what actually was.
PART 2 – WHAT ACTUALLY WAS
From a news perspective (and even a privacy perspective), the 1980s and 1990s might have well been ancient history. There was no internet (apart from military, university, or uber-nerd populations), no social media, nothing viral apart from actual diseases, and little you might learn about your sports heroes beyond the stories told in numbers on the backs of their baseball cards. The high-profile coverage of cocaine use on Gooden’s Mets teams was at that time the exception rather than the rule for hearing just about anything our favorite players did off the playing field.
For me, it took watching the ESPN documentary “Doc and Darryl” to fully understand the arc of Dwight Gooden’s baseball career and to even begin to learn about Dwight Gooden the man. I won’t offer any spoilers here but will simply encourage all baseball fans to see the film, which is well worth the $3 or so on YouTube. What I will say is that Gooden was and remains a man whose larger challenges were never on the ballfield. His life was incredibly difficult, and I gather it sometimes still is.
PART THREE – HEROES THEN AND NOW
As a kid in 1980s, I had the same dream as so many other boys. When we threw tennis balls against the garage door, it was always alongside the same play-by-play: two outs, bottom of the ninth, World Series, game 7. When we tossed acorns or buttons or pairs of socks in the air to hit over the fence, the bases were always loaded and our team was down by three. No matter how unspectacular our Little League “careers” or even if we were still on a team, our dream was to be the hero, to get the last out, to knock in the winning run. We wanted to be Darryl. We wanted to be Doc. We would have traded away everything we had for even one moment on the baseball diamond with such infinite possibilities. Such was what it meant to be young and in love with the game.
Nowadays, I still marvel at the sight of Clayton Kershaw or Jake deGrom on the mound, but I’ve never once dreamed of being either. Maybe I’m too old, too busy, or just too boring these days. All I know is I’ve moved on. On the rare day I grab a bat or put on a glove, the narration is no longer some dramatic baseball scenario but simply a “Please, God. Don’t let me rupture my achilles.” But even today, there is no pitcher I root for harder and no card I’d rather find in my old stacks than Dr. K.
Part of it is the memories–how much of a thrill Dwight Gooden made the 1985 baseball season. However, the larger part is story of Dwight Gooden the man. Even with his 194 victories on the baseball diamond, his biggest victory is simply that he’s still here. I imagine every day as a battle for him and not every day a success. Some days he throws strikes, and other days he gets shelled. But there he is, still on the mound, still competing, trying to go nine. So maybe I’m just a sucker for a happy ending, but I’ll still say that this is what it means to be an inspiration: to “fall down seven times, stand up eight,” as they say. To keep battling. To help others battle. To not always win. To be like us. And most of all, just to be yourself. The hardest part of being a real hero isn’t the hero but the real.
With that, I offer this short to-do list–
- Watch “Doc and Darryl” if you haven’t already.
- Support Doc and his family (while looking badass) by buying GoodenBrand apparel.
- Dig through your old shoeboxes and relive the thrill of pulling a Dr. K rookie.
- Keep on battling.
All the best,