Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What If Dwight Gooden Had Stayed Clean?



NOTE: The following was written in March 2010, after Gooden had been pulled over for drunk driving. The story presumes that he never fell victim to substance abuse, which we first found out about on April 1, 1987 -- April Fool's Day, nearly 25 years ago.

Remember back in 1984, when Dwight Gooden was just 19 years old, went 17-9, and set a rookie record with 276 strikeouts? Met fans were already saying he was the greatest pitcher ever.

It was like Knick fans would get a year later after they got the top pick in the NBA Draft (wonder how that happened) and used it on Patrick Ewing: It wasn't if he would lead them to championships, it was how many.

The Mets finished 2nd that year, but the next year, 1985, they looked ready to make a serious challenge at the World Series. With Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and Keith Hernandez already in place, they added Gary Carter. They came close, chasing the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League Eastern Division Title to the last weekend before falling short. Gooden had one of the best seasons any pitcher has ever had: 24-4, ERA of 1.53, 268 Ks, and a WHIP of 0.965. (Walks and Hits, divided by Innings Pitched. Anything under 1.3 is good. Under 1.2 is excellent. Under 1.0 is ungodly.)

Dwight Gooden, "Doctor K" (eventually just "Doc"), won the Cy Young Award the year after being Rookie of the Year. He had won 41 games before he was old enough to legally drink. His future, and the Mets' seemed limitless.

In 1986, it all came together. True, he went "only" 17-6, and he failed to win either of his World Series starts (but then, he was opposed in both by Roger Clemens, who was every bit as dominating in '86 as Gooden was in '85), but the Mets did win the Series, after winning 108 games in the regular season.

What a rotation: Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Bob Ojeda. A bullpen with Jesse Orosco, Roger McDowell and Randy Myers. An outfield of Kevin Mitchell, the platoon of Mookie Wilson and Lenny Dykstra, and Darryl Strawberry. An infield of Keith Hernandez, Wally Backman, Rafael Santana and Howard Johnson -- and Backman and Johnson could be platooned with Tim Teufel and Ray Knight, respectively, with occasionally "Amazin'" results.

At the City Hall celebration after the ticker-tape parade -- a bigger one than the Yankees had ever received to that point, but, then again, then-Mayor Ed Koch was a Met fan (no wonder he went bald: He probably pulled out most of his hair!) -- Mookie told the crowd, "1986: The Year of the Mets! 1987: The Year of the Mets! 1988: The Year of the Mets!"

Big roar. No one doubted him. Yankee Fans feared it would be true, but even we found it hard to doubt that it could happen.

*

But that was when things began to go wrong for the Mets. They traded Mitchell for Kevin McReynolds, who just didn't produce the way Mitchell did the next few years. They released Knight, which became a problem when HoJo kept getting hurt. Hernandez hurt his back and got old in a hurry. They traded Dykstra for Juan Samuel, a great trade for the Phillies but yet another in a long list of bonehead moves for the Mets. Hot prospects Dave Magadan and Gregg Jeffries didn't quite work out.

Through it all, Gooden kept on pitching. In 1987, he went 20-9, as the Mets again finished 2nd to the Cardinals, by just 1 game. In 1988, he had another great year, going 18-9, and starting the All-Star Game, as he had in '84. But a little foreshadowing came when he gave up a home run to the weakest hitter in the American League's starting lineup: Terry Steinbach, the catcher for the Oakland Athletics.

The Mets again won the NL East. Gooden shut down the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, and the Mets won that series in 5. This enabled Gooden to start Game 1 of the World Series, but, again, he was victimized by an A's homer, as manager Davey Johnson left him in to pitch a complete game, and in the top of the 9th, Mark McGwire crushed one over the picnic area in Shea Stadium's left-center field, turning a 4-3 Met lead into a 5-4 A's win. The Mets never recovered, and the A's won in 5 games, with Gooden also losing the clincher.

Gooden sustained his first major league injury in 1989, but bounced back to put together a 12-5 season. The Mets again finished 2nd, to the Chicago Cubs as they had in '84, Gooden's first season. In 1990, he was 19-7, but the Mets again finished 2nd, this time to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Another injury in 1991 left Gooden only 13-7, but by now the Mets had collapsed. In 1992, they were so bad that Bob Klapisch, the Mets' beat writer for the New York Daily News, published a book about them, titled The Worst Team Money Could Buy. Gooden fell to 10-13 in '92 and 12-15 in '93 as the Mets lost 103 games. For a while, in '93, they were ahead of their 1962 team's 20th Century record pace of 120 losses, and they were a bunch of juvenile delinquents as well, tossing firecrackers that ended up hurting children, spraying reporters with bleach, threatening reporters with physical harm. (Including Bobby Bonilla to Klapisch: “Make yo’ move, ‘cause I’ll hurt you!”) In all this, Gooden, now 28, was a beacon of maturity.

But improvement was not on the horizon for a man who seemed, with injuries and a poor supporting cast, to have fallen off the Baseball Hall of Fame's radar. In 1994, with a players' strike shortening the season, and a rotator cuff shortening his own, Gooden finished just 3-5. He bounced back in 1995, going 7-3 in limited action, but the atmosphere in Flushing Meadow was so bad that he wanted out. He entered the free agent market.

*

That's when Yankee owner George Steinbrenner pounced. In one of the great coups in baseball history, he took the biggest star the Mets had produced since Tom Seaver, and brought him to The Bronx.

On May 14, 1996, Dwight Gooden did something neither he, nor any other human being, had done, or still has done, in a Met uniform: He pitched a no-hitter. He blanked the Seattle Mariners as the Yankees won, 4-0. Rejuvenated, he went 13-8, and won Game 4 of the World Series, as the Yankees beat the Atlanta Braves in 6 games. (Note: Gooden doing the job that Kenny Rogers failed to do erased that 6-0 to 8-6 comeback, which means that Jim Leyritz is mainly known for his rain-strewn walkoff homer in Game 2 of the 1995 ALDS.)

Gooden again pitched well for the Yankees in 1997, going 16-9, helping them beat out the Baltimore Orioles for the AL East title, the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS, the Orioles again in the ALCS, and the upstart Florida Marlins in the World Series.

None of those teams have made the World Series since; in fact, only the Indians have even reached the postseason since, and South Florida doesn't even have a team anymore, after the Marlins were broken up, attendance sank like a stone, and the team was moved to Washington, D.C. Rumors abound that the Montreal Expos, if they can't get a deal for a new ballpark to open by the 2014 season, may move to Miami, but they'd still be stuck in whatever the Miami Dolphins' stadium is being called these days.

Gooden hadn't had a 200-strikeout season since 1990, and only that one since 1986, but it didn't matter, as, like his former Met, now Yankee, teammate David Cone, he became a smarter pitcher with age -- or, if you prefer, a pitcher rather than a thrower. The 1998 Yankees were the greatest team of all time, with a rotation of Cone, Gooden, Andy Pettitte, David Wells, and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, making the '86 Mets look like pikers. Their 117 wins were the most in baseball history, including Gooden's 12-9 record. They swept the Texas Rangers in the ALDS, took the Indians in 5 in the ALCS, and swept the San Diego Padres for their 3rd straight World Series. The Yankees had an unbelievable 11-1 postseason, the greatest performance in baseball's postseason since the '76 Reds went 7-0 (facing a maximum of 12, as opposed to 19).

Gooden finally seemed to slow down in 1999, at age 34, going 12-9 but with an ERA of 4.70. He did not appear in the Yankees' 2nd straight 11-1 postseason. An 11-10 season in 2000 showed him the writing on the wall, though it also showed him a 5th straight World Series ring -- something only the 1949-53 Yankees had previously done. He had surgery on his shoulder, allowing him to come back in time for the 2001 stretch drive, going 4-1 in limited action. He managed to shut down the Arizona Diamondbacks in emergency relief of Andy Pettitte in Game 6 of the World Series, and the Yankees claimed their record 6th straight World Championship, their 28th World Series overall.

It was too much for his shoulder, and Gooden sat out the entire 2002 season, in which the Yankees lost to the Anaheim Angels in the ALDS. But he was back in 2003, squeezing out one more solid season, going 15-12, with his first 200-K season in 13 years. His heroic bullpen work saved the Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS against the Boston Red Sox, leading to Aaron Boone's epic home run to win the Pennant. Doc again pitched in relief to shut down the Chicago Cubs, in their first World Series in 58 years, to win Game 4, allowing the Yankees to beat the Cubs in Game 6 for Title 29. (Note: With the Marlins in disarray, and in Washington, the Cubs don't collapse in the NLCS. They do get the Pennant, if not the whole thing.)

*

But the end was near. The pain was too great for much of the 2004 season, and Doc announced it would be his last. He would, after all, be turning 40 shortly after it ended. But he did manage to make his last regular-season strikeout the 3,000th of his career. The Doctor still had one last procedure to perform.

With the Red Sox (cough-steroids-cough) having completed baseball's first-ever 3-games-to-0 postseason comeback, manager Joe Torre had a tough choice to make in Game 7. Pettitte had been allowed to leave for Houston. So had Roger Clemens. Mike Mussina wasn't ready. Neither was Jon Lieber. Wells had left. Kevin Brown hadn't been effective. Neither had Javier Vazquez. Neither had Esteban Loaiza. El Duque was hurting. So was Doc.

Doc sucked it up and said, "Skip, gimme that ball."

Joe gave Doc the ball. He sent the Sox down in order in the 1st. In the 3rd, David Ortiz led off. The biggest Yankee-killer of his generation had pummeled them the last 2 seasons, but Gooden stuck a fastball -- "The last good one I ever threw," he would tell the press -- right in Big Papi's fat ribs. Ortiz pointed at the mound, and Gooden, in his best imitation of an English hooligan's "Come on then" style, threw out his arms and accepted the challenge. Both benches cleared, and Ortiz flattened Gooden. Not by punching him, but by falling on him. That would flatten anyone. The umpires threw both men out of the game, thus requiring a new pitcher for the Yankees, but also taking the Sox' biggest threat out.

Vazquez came in, settled things down, and held the Sox off until the 7th. Then the Sox made the mistake of bringing Pedro Martinez in to pitch, and he found out "Who's your Daddy!" The Yankees tallied twice off him to take a 3-0 lead. Mariano Rivera pitched the last 2 innings to give the Yankees their 41st Pennant.

The Curse of the Bambino lived, and still lives. Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon, Mark Bellhorn and Bill Mueller were soon outed as steroid users. Sox management allowed Pedro to leave Boston via free agency, just as they did to Clemens after 1996.

The Red Sox have not won a World Series for 94 years. This past offseason, team owner John Henry, fed up with it all, sold the team to a Russian oil billionaire, who has promised to build a new ballpark on landfill in Boston's North End. "Of course," Yankee Fans are saying. "Landfill for a garbage team." Sure, build a ballpark on landfill. After all, it worked so well for Cleveland Municipal Stadium, right?

Gooden pitched just one inning in the World Series against the Cardinals, but he said it was sweet revenge for 1985 and '87 with the Mets. The Yankees had their 30th World Championship, and Dwight Gooden walked away from baseball with a 9th World Series ring. Only Yogi Berra then had more (though Rivera, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada have now matched Yogi).

Dwight Gooden retired with a career record of 256-149, for a superb winning percentage of .632, and just barely entered the 3,000 Strikeout Club – all this despite several injuries that got in his way.

After Gooden's retirement, the Yankees hit a little dry spell, as the World Series was won by the Chicago White Sox in 2005, the Cardinals in 2006, the Colorado Rockies in 2007, and the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008, before the Yankees dethroned the Phils in 2009, and the San Francisco Giants won in 2010 and the Cards again in 2011.

Gooden was caught speeding in March 2010, on his way to a banquet honoring his recent election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Some say he was the greatest New York pitcher ever. Well, probably not. Not even if you include what he did for the Mets.

Still, Dwight Eugene Gooden is a Yankee hero, and a baseball hero. With his injuries, it could have been a lot worse.

In fact, it could have been even worse than that. Look at his former Met and Yankee teammate Darryl Strawberry. Can you imagine if Gooden had wasted his life on cocaine and alcohol? It could have been not just a shame, but a tragedy.

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