Author’s Note: Let me know if you are a Gooden collector. I have about 200 cards I’m still chasing for my Doc Gooden “near-master” set.
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. Sparing any advanced analytics, we’ll just note that at age 20, his average season was 21-7 with 272 strikeouts and a 2.00 ERA!
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 13th 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. (Added bonus: I met Darryl after the game, and he signed my card!)
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 – LEGACY
As a baseball fan, I would have loved nothing more than to see Dwight Gooden parlay his early dominance and infinite potential into a half dozen Cy Young Awards (that might someday be renamed Dwight Gooden Awards) and a first-ballot Hall of Fame career. Seeing him pitch at Dodger Stadium in 1985, I was convinced I was watching the GOAT (because I was). This definitely wasn’t the SI cover I expected was only ten years away.
If there was any talk of GOAT by 1995, it was all lowercase. There would be no bust in Cooperstown. There would only be a bust. (Okay, this one may take a minute to work.) In spite of his dramatic 1996 no-hitter, in spite of his .634 career winning percentage (49th all-time), in spite of his two World Series rings, the story of Doc’s baseball career is best summed up by an old Vin Scully go-to line from the poet John Greenleaf Whittier:
For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’
It was a fall–some would say a leap–from the absolute top of the mountain to true rock bottom. Drugs, injuries, jail time, a season-long suspension, and only 40 wins after his 28th birthday. (By comparison, Warren Spahn had more than 300!)
But that wasn’t the end. Doc came back. His comeback was less as a pitcher than as a man. For a decade there had been a Sports Illustrated mural in Times Square featuring a young Doc and the caption, “How does it feel to look down the barrel of a loaded gun?” Following his second suspension from baseball, Gooden held a loaded gun to his own head.
But more than 20 years later, Doc is still here. Still here.
I one time had the good fortune to hear the life lessons of a Mt. Everest climber. He talked about how many climbers don’t really understand the goal. It’s not simply to summit the mountain. You also need to get back down alive. And then he added more, after telling a story about some climbers who only made it down by stealing the equipment of some other climbers who ultimately perished. The real goal is to make it back down with your soul intact, and you WILL be tested.
So here is Doc. He climbed the mountain, and he sure as hell found the bottom. As I follow him on Twitter I see the joy he still brings to fans through his appearances and signings and the pride he takes in the accomplishments and pursuits of his family members. Alive and soul intact, this is Dwight Gooden’s greatest victory. The Doctor is very much IN!
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 card.
- Keep on fighting.
All the best,
Author’s note: While I saw the “Doc and Darryl” documentary as a redemption story, columnist Chuck Modiano presents an excellent counterpoint that is very much worth your read.