Welcome to Flashback Friday,  a weekly feature devoted to the 20th anniversary of the 1986 World Champion New York Mets.
Twenty years, 43 Fridays. This is one of them.
Seventeen votes. Seventeen lousy votes. That’s what the most exciting pitcher in the history of baseball received in Hall of Fame balloting a couple of weeks ago.
Seventeen wins. Seventeen lousy wins. That’s what the most exciting pitcher in the history of baseball compiled in National League play a couple of decades ago.
There’s a connection.
Dwight Gooden, as has been widely and continually reported, did not live up to long-term expectations as a pitcher and a human being. Hence, when Cooperstown did not call, it was no fluke.
He didn’t have an altogether bad career, you know.
.634 Winning Percentage
68 Complete Games
Maybe it wasn’t HOF material but it definitely rated more than 17 votes. All it was going to take to remain on the ballot another year, an honor unto itself, was 26. Coming within six wins of 200 wasn’t enough to secure an extra nine nods from the 503 writers who didn’t vote for Doc.
If I told you this in 1986, you wouldn’t have believed me. If you told me this in 1986, I wouldn’t have believed you. A future in which Dwight Gooden didn’t climb unassailed into immortality was the one scenario where we didn’t gotta believe. We couldn’t have.
But really, we should have seen it coming. The transition that swept Doc Gooden from the most exciting pitcher in the history of baseball to 17 votes for the Hall of Fame (to say nothing of everything else about his life) began in 1986. I remember the moment.
I’m not talking about the cops in Tampa pulling him over or the hassle with the rental car clerk at LaGuardia. I could rationalize that away. I had lived in Tampa. I could only assume the worst. And rental car clerks? Seinfeld would do an episode about their rudeness, it was so relatable. No, anything that happened to Doc off the field leading into the 1986 season wasn’t his fault. He was Doc.
On the field, something eventually happened that didn’t seem right, something that wasn’t anybody else’s fault. It had to do with a pitch Doc threw, one that seemed innocuous enough, but one that began the dismantling of a legend before the blueprints for his statue were dry.
Everybody who was around in 1984 and 1985 remembers the Dwight Gooden of those years. It feels almost superfluous to get into details. When he was declared by this blog the No. 5 Greatest Met of the First Forty Years , he was given one of the scantest writeups — 98 words — of anybody in the entire survey. “What is there to say?” I thought.
Aren’t “Dwight Gooden” and “1985” code words? Need anything more be said? Don’t they immediately translate to 24-4, 268, 1.53? Do those need elaboration? Doesn’t that line imply high heat and hard cheese and Lord Charles and helpless hitters and an eleven-game winning streak and a duel for the ages with Fernando Valenzuela and a night when he loaded the bases with nobody out and allowed nobody to score and double-digit strikeouts as the norm and the Daily News printing an inning-by-inning breakdown of each of his starts including how many two-strike counts he ran and, of course, the K Korner and the K Kards and the simple act of referring to Dwight Gooden, a.k.a. Doctor K, as Doc?
It does. The Dwight Gooden of 1985 was incandescent. He was transcendent. He was every fancy word for really, really great that you could think of. He started the season on the cover of Sports Illustrated and one year later he was on the cover of Time. He was that big.
All but forgotten is that as 1986 got underway, Dwight Gooden was still very much Doc. The pitcher who began putting it all together in the second half of 1984 (8-1) and kept it all together throughout 1985 (24-4) maintained that beautiful cohesiveness for the first month of 1986.
April 8 at PIT: Opening Night CG win, 2 ER
April 14 vs STL: Home Opener ND, 8 IP, 2 ER
April 19 vs PHI: CG win, 1 ER
April 25 at STL: CG shutout
April 30 at ATL: 8 IP, 1 ER, win
May 6 vs HOU: CG shutout
In the top of the first against the Reds at Shea on Mother’s Day afternoon, May 11, Doc gave up two singles to start the game but then threw a flyout and two strikeouts.
Of course he did.
At that moment, he had pitched 54 innings in 1986 and had given up 6 earned runs. I taught myself how to calculate earned run averages (divide earned runs by innings pitched then multiply by 9) just so I could track Doc’s as it fell below 1.00. When the top of the first ended on May 11, his ERA was exactly 1.00.
Of course it was.
During the preceding winter, Joel and I mused over the phone what our team’s record would be in the coming year. We decided the best way to project it would be to slot in the won-lost records of our starters.
Ron Darling was due to win 20 or so. Sid Fernandez should be close. Rick Aguilera would surely be in double-digits. We didn’t know much about Bobby Ojeda so he was in the preteens. Some wins had to be distributed among the relievers. Even Sisk was likely to get a couple. I don’t remember the totals we gave out to everybody.
Except that the Mets were going to go 109-53.
And Dwight Gooden was going to go 30-2.
Thirty wins? A number that hadn’t been reached since 1968, the year pitching mounds were apparently 10 feet high?
Yeah, I know, I know. It seemed ridiculous.
After 1985, how could we not pencil in Doc for 35-0?
We were trying to be realistic. Even a pitching god was bound to lose a decision here and there. So we predicted he’d lose one here and one there, totaling two.
Our logic was sound. At the age of 19, Dwight Gooden won 17 games. At the age of 20, Dwight Gooden won 24 games. He had improved by leaps and bounds and continents from ’84 (when he was phenomenal) to ’85 (when he was sensational), so naturally, at the age of 21, he would take the next step to nearly infallible in ’86.
Made sense to us. From the night he harnessed whatever rookie yips were still plaguing him, August 11, 1984 (I was at Shea that night as he breezed by Jerry Koosman’s team rookie record for strikeouts in a season) right through that May 6 conquest of the Astros (a large-deal duel against Bob Knepper, then the other hottest pitcher in the league), this was Dwight Gooden:
.881 Winning Percentage
25 Complete Games
That’s a span of almost a season-and-a-half. Just for fun (as if Doc’s pitching wasn’t fun enough), compare that stretch to this:
56 Games (44 Starts)
.771 Winning Percentage
34 Complete Games
That was Christy Mathewson in 1908. That was back when pitchers started far more often and relieved when they weren’t starting, and a hundred things about the game were different. It’s not a comparison that would hold up in SABR court, but that’s how striking Doc’s numbers were during the period in question. He was pitching from another time, as if from another planet. Thirty wins in 1986? Maybe Davey could work him out of the pen on his side session days and give him a chance to surpass Matty. Hell, he wouldn’t need to come out for pinch-hitters — Doc was one of the best hitting pitchers in the N.L.
In the top of the second on May 11, Buddy Bell led off by flying out to Darryl Strawberry in right. That made it 54.1 innings pitched in 1986 for Dwight Gooden. If anybody (besides me) bothered to notice, his ERA had dipped below 1.00. It was 0.99.
Bo Diaz singled. Ron Oester singled Diaz to third and took second on the throw. Bill Gullickson grounded out with the runners holding. Dwight Gooden’s season line was now 54.2 innings pitched, 6 earned runs allowed, an ERA that ebbed imperceptibly, still rounding to 0.99. Eddie Milner walked. Bases loaded, still two out, Doc still carrying an earned run average that didn’t begin until after the decimal point.
The next batter? Pete Rose.
Pete Rose? The greatest pitcher in the game versus the greatest hitter of all time? The greatest in terms of hits anyway, an accomplishment he secured the previous September in Cincinnati on a night when Doc and John Tudor were swapping crucial zeroes at Shea. Pete Rose was 45 years old for the balance of the 1986 season. He was player-manager then, more manager than player. Rose started himself at first base that afternoon. He had singled in the first but was stranded by Doc.
Four nights earlier, Joel and I went to our first game of the year. It was the night after Gooden outdueled Knepper. This time it was Fernandez (4-0 himself) besting Ryan. Besides collecting a win, I brought home the Official Anniversary Scorebook, one of a series celebrating that year as the 25th year of Mets baseball. In it was an article rightfully fawning over Dwight Gooden.
Oddly enough, the story described the Mets’ recent trip to Cincinnati, specifically all the autograph-seekers who gathered outside the visiting team’s hotel with just one visiting player’s autograph in mind. Dan Castellano wrote about the dedicated hunt for Doctor K’s signature:
Two older women were in the group surrounding Gooden and they let out shrieks that could be heard in Kentucky when the Doctor signed for them. These women probably were familiar with two faces in baseball — Pete Rose and Dwight Gooden.
Castellano’s article sprung to mind as Rose came to bat. The two most famous players in the game…the middle-aged Charlie Hustle and the barely legal Doctor K…4,208 career hits (but only 4 in ’86 to that point) versus 46-13 lifetime (including 5-0 in ’86 to that point).
Rose and Gooden. The only two baseball faces recognizable from coast to coast. One at the end of the trail, one bursting into his prime. Two surefire, mortal-lock, bet-the-ranch future Hall of Famers in a faceoff for the literal ages.
Ball one. Ball two. The pitcher battled back. The hitter worked the count full. With Doc pitching from the windup, Milner took off from first. Rose connected. He lined it to the right of Tim Teufel. The new righty-platoon second baseman lunged but it glanced off the top of his glove.
“I thought I had a good shot at it,” Teufel said afterward. “It was just out of my reach.”
Diaz scored from third. Oester scored from second. And given his jump, Milner was able to come all the way around from first. Rose settled for a single. A three-RBI single.
Charlie Hustle won. Doctor K lost.
Rose’s hit gave Cincy a 3-0 lead. The Reds held on to win 3-2. The defeat snapped the Mets’ latest winning streak at seven and short-circuited what had been the season-defining 18-1 spurt that essentially clinched them the division well ahead of June. The Mets’ lead over the Expos was cut to 4 games that afternoon. Not a problem, not really.
But something much more meaningful was lost on Sunday, May 11, 1986. Something that couldn’t possibly go on into eternity came to a dead stop. It took a fairly freakish three-run single from the man with more safeties than anybody else ever to do it, but it did the dirty trick.
Pete Rose began the end of Doc Gooden’s epic greatness. It lasted exactly 50 starts.
The 8/11/84 to 5/6/86 span described above accounted for only 11.6% of Dwight Gooden’s regular season appearances, but added up to more than a quarter of his career wins. It encompassed half his shutouts, better than a third of his complete games and nearly a fifth of his strikeouts. Without those 50 starts, his lifetime ERA would be 3.87.
• Dwight Gooden’s first regular season appearance came on April 7, 1984.
• Dwight Gooden’s final regular season appearance came on September 29, 2000.
• The Hall of Fame consideration portion of Dwight Gooden’s career ended in the top of the second inning on May 11, 1986.
Doc Gooden ceased being a pitching god when Rose singled. I could feel it. The Doctor K who lit up New York and the baseball world since the second week of August in 1984 was human. Even if Teufel had made a nice grab (I recall the ball as one Wally Backman would have nabbed), Gooden wasn’t quite Gooden that afternoon. Howard Johnson told the Daily News‘ Jim Naughton, “It looked from short like he wasn’t getting loose. He didn’t have good pop on his fastball.”
If it hadn’t been Rose, it may very well have been Max Venable or Dave Parker or Davey Concepcion who revaled there was a fallible pitcher inside the No. 16 jersey. Pete Rose is no favorite of Mets fans, but there’s something darkly poetic that it was he who did what was going to be done sooner or later.
I just thought if it were going to happen, it would be much, much later.
Dwight lasted five innings against the Reds. When he departed, his ERA stood at 1.42. He would never boggle the mind below 1.00 again. His next start in L.A. was somewhat More Like It (three unearned runs over eight innings for a no-decision in an eventual extra-inning loss at the park where he always did well), but the number that had been so low was headed ever higher over the course of 1986. On June 7, Gooden’s ERA floated over 2.00. On August 6, it soared over 3.00. By season’s end, it had settled at 2.84.
Even with those nearly pristine first 54.2 innings to his credit, Doc gave up 1.31 more earned runs per game in 1986 than he did in 1985. Once in a while, he got roughed up. That sort of thing was unimaginable in ’85. Those who dared to mention that something didn’t seem quite the same were reminded that Doc’s final totals — 17-6, 200 strikeouts on the nose, the ERA under 3.00 — were wonderful where any other pitcher was concerned. They only looked less than wonderful when compared to the Dwight Gooden of late 1984 and 1985 and, though it wasn’t generally included as part of the immaculate ledger, the first six starts of 1986.
Nobody dared suggest that Dwight Gooden was, as Ed Kranepool was accused of being on a memorable mid-’60s Shea banner, over the hill at 21, but there was a growing, palpable undercurrent of worry throughout the land. None other than the wise man Roger Angell acknowledged it in the New Yorker at year’s end:
“What’s the matter with Doc?” became a handy substitute for talk about the onrushing Expos or Cardinals or Phillies, who never onrushed at all.
Yes, it seemed close to pointless to dwell on the “problem” of having a pitcher who was supposed to win 30 games win only 17 when the team that was supposed to win 109 came away with 108. Fans of the Expos or Cardinals or Phillies would’ve killed for such a problem.
Nevertheless, “what’s the matter with Doc?” theories blew around town.
The umpires weren’t giving him the high strike as much.
Hitters were bound to catch up to it regardless.
Davey Johnson and Mel Stottlemyre were tinkering with him to get more grounders and thus preserve his arm for more innings down the road.
His mechanics were off.
The bar was set impossibly high after 1985.
Whaddaya want from the kid?
Nobody mentioned drugs, at least not in polite company.
Dwight Gooden wasn’t exactly a hopeless case for the final five months of 1986. He did take 12 of 18 decisions from Mother’s Day on. He did complete eight more games and did strike out 10 on four separate occasions between the end of May and the start of September. His final four starts of the year, beginning with the division-clincher on September 17, yielded a 3-0 record and 1.59 ERA. Doc was considered tuned up to a tee for the playoffs, which is where the real action would be anyway.
But…but he wasn’t Doc Gooden anymore. Everywhere you looked, somebody was better. Though he would be given the ball for both Game Ones of the postseason, it was Bobby Ojeda who was clearly the best pitcher on the Mets in 1986. Though he would be named starter for the National League in the All-Star Game, it felt more like a nod to his residual starpower from 1985 — and he was saddled with the rare senior circuit loss. Though his numbers were far above average, they were far from the dominant performance scuffed out of nowhere by Houston’s Mike Scott. Scott won the Cy Young award going away. Gooden received a single third-place vote.
Most disturbing to my psyche was Dwight Gooden was possibly not the greatest young pitcher in baseball anymore. I can admit that now. I wouldn’t have said it then. I never accepted that anybody was more of an ace in his time than Doc Gooden, at least not out loud. I knew Ojeda had the superior ’86, but he wasn’t Doc. In later years, David Cone and Frank Viola and Bret Saberhagen would make their cases, but as long as Doc was here, Doc was The Man.
And no matter what was going on in Boston in 1986, nobody was really a better pitcher than Dwight Gooden. Nobody. Not even a frighteningly hard-throwing righty I had barely heard of before that year.
On April 29, 1986, Roger Clemens struck out 20 Seattle Mariners at Fenway. Hey, I thought, good for him. I didn’t even notice that he got off to a 5-0 start of his own. By summer, it was hard not to notice him. He didn’t lose his first decision until June 27. The All-Star Game was billed as a matchup of the two overarching young guns of the sport, Gooden for the Nationals, Clemens for the Americans. Clemens, who was becoming known as the Rocket, won. His final record for 1986? 24-4. Same as Doc’s a year earlier.
Big whoop, I thought. His ERA was almost a run higher than what Gooden’s was in ’85. He didn’t have as many strikeouts. And, most importantly, la-la-la-la I can’t hear you! I was filtering out any and all arguments on behalf of any other pitcher, even one who had been as stellar as Roger Clemens, someone who we would very likely be seeing in October.
It’s twenty years later and Roger Clemens will have to be found with baseball betting slips in one hand and a tall bottle of steroids in the other to be denied entrance to the Hall of Fame five years after his retirement, which may or may not have commenced. Say what you will about him (and I’ve said plenty that’s been deservedly unflattering), but Roger Clemens became the pitcher we were all sure Doc Gooden was going to be for the rest of his career. Dwight Gooden, meanwhile, became a pitcher who wasn’t Doc Gooden very often after the first inning on May 11, 1986.
Ever see The Simpsons in which Lisa tells Ralph Wiggum on live TV that she doesn’t like him? Bart was kind enough to tape it and freeze-frame it for his sister:
Watch this, Lis’. You can actually pinpoint the second when his heart rips in half.
Pete Rose’s three-run single off Tim Teufel’s glove was that moment for Doc Gooden’s immortality. It was right then and there that Dwight Gooden hinted at what would later be sadly confirmed.
That he was only human.
When Doc turned 40, my musician buddy Gary/Jane — the name after the slash recognizes his flair for handling “Meet The Mets” on the Thomas Organ — admitted to our e-mail group, “If I had a second chance to be 19 again I’d almost give it up to him so I could watch him get a second chance as ace for the Mets.”
Extreme sentiment but typical for those who managed to forgive Dwight Gooden’s later transgressions. Doctor K meant that much to us in 1985. That he began to mean less and less year by year starting in 1986 doesn’t quite dismiss that emotion.
Dwight Gooden has bigger troubles than his place in our hearts or baseball history. I’ve lost track of his run-ins and rehabs, but it was no surprise that when a majority of the ’86 champs showed up in the city the other night for the Baseball Assistance Team dinner, Dwight Gooden was in the no-show minority. I doubt he could’ve come if he wanted. While Darryl Strawberry, his own rap sheet rather extensive, fronted the Mets Caravan, Doc was at a facility in Florida learning yet again to cope with impulses he can’t control one day at a time. When today’s Mets lined up on the steps of the New York Public Library, one player, Paul Lo Duca, donned uniform top No. 16. It was supposed to be on a wall in Flushing by now.
When the Mets were at the library, I rather doubt any of them ran in to check out 1999’s Heat: My Life On and Off the Diamond by Dwight Gooden with Bob Klapisch. Somewhere next to the rules against gambling that are posted in every Major League clubhouse, I think it would be a nice idea to tack up this excerpt regarding the shape the author was in after his second suspension from baseball in 1994:
When I looked in the bathroom mirror, I saw a monster looking back at me. Drawn, haggard, utterly spaced-out and washed-out. I could only imagine what Monica and the kids would say if I walked into the house looking like this. I wonder what the Mets would think, the millions of Mets fans in New York and around the country. The great Doc, reduced to this.
I can’t help but think he should have gotten more than 17 lousy votes in 2006 and 17 lousy wins in 1986.