Welcome to Flashback Friday: Tales From The Log, a final-season tribute to Shea Stadium as viewed primarily through the prism of what I have seen there for myself, namely 361 regular-season and 13 postseason games to date. The Log records the numbers. The Tales tell the stories.
8/11/84 Sa Pittsburgh 1-5 Gooden 1 11-22 W 3-1
Dwight Gooden’s eleventh Shea Stadium start was the first of his I ever saw in person. No disrespect to the other 87 Mets I’ve seen start at home, but I never looked forward to seeing a pitcher the way I did Doc.
How could you not? He was the sensation of the National League in 1984 — he and the shockingly surging Mets. While I was at school in Tampa during the spring and early summer, I would read descriptions of the scene at Shea and dream about what it would be like to be there for something like this, as related by Jim Kaplan in Sports Illustrated that June.
Dwight Gooden, the Mets’ 19-year-old rookie righthander, was scheduled to pitch against Montreal last Friday night, and the excitement mounted all day in New York. Offices buzzed with talk of his strikeouts. Radio stations led their sports reports with his name. People stampeded the Shea Stadium ticket windows, swelling the crowd to 39,586. Then, as Gooden built up two-strike leads against Montreal batters, the fans went bananas, clapping, screaming, whistling and waving “K” signs.
On that particular night, the Mets didn’t win. They fell to the Expos 2-1, but it was almost beside the point. Gooden struck out eleven Expos, with the fans who had waited seemingly forever for someone like him growing more and more frenzied with every pitch. As Kaplan put it, “the decibel level [was] increasing with each K … It was an occasion, an event, a spectacle … He’s a happening in New York, just as Mark Fidrych and Fernando Valenzuela were in their rookie years in Detroit and L.A.”
Mark Fidrych never came to Shea, but I was there when Fernandomania touched down. That was indeed a happening, even if it was the guy in the wrong uniform causing it. Mike Scott pitched, to that stage of his career, the game of his life, but nobody cared. It was Fernando Valenzuela, the 1-0 winner on May 8, 1981, for whom nearly 40,000 crowded normally moribund Shea. Sombreros were worn. The Mets gave out tortilla chips. It was exciting, if bittersweet, given that it was the visiting starting pitcher at the center of the fuss.
Not the case in ’84. It was all Doc and he was all ours. I would get my first look that counted (after seeing him in St. Pete that March) on a Saturday night against the Pirates in August. It was something to see, something to be a part of.
First up for Pittsburgh, former Met farmhand Marvel Wynne. Doc gets a strike on him. Then another. I’m up and applauding — CLAP CLAP CLAP. Just like I read about. Just like I saw on TV. Guy behind me taps me on the shoulder and asks me to sit down, it’s only the first.
Sorry, I say. It’s just that I’ve waited so long for this.
Wouldn’t take very long to get what I came for. Wynne struck out. I was back on my feet again, applauding wildly and unrhythmically. Doc had one K in the books, one instantly affixed to the facade of the upper deck in left. It was a ritual that would be repeated nine more times. Doc would blaze a fastball by an overmatched Buc. Doc’s curve would drop in for black & gold doom. The DiamondVision would display a shark swallowing a batter. The PA would blare the theme from Jaws. An alphabet of nothing but K’s would be extended.
Everybody was beside himself with joy. Everybody was standing in front of the guy behind him.
Hubie Brooks doubled home two runs. George Foster drove one over the fence. Jesse Orosco registered a save. The Mets won 3-1, but it was almost beside the point. Doc was the point. Doc’s 10 K’s. Doc breaking Jerry Koosman’s team rookie record for strikeouts. Doc being 19 and virtually untouchable.
What could be better than that?
It’s easy enough to remember Dwight Gooden’s role in the Dwight Gooden phenomenon. It was his, after all. But you can’t overlook the fans in accounting for what a big, big deal he and his strikeouts were. You can’t think of Dr. K without the literal hanging of K’s in his honor. That was my thinking when, in imagining the Countdown Like It Oughta Be, we had the Mets pay homage to not just Gooden but to those who came up with the K Korner koncept.
I faced one problem, however, in writing up that entry. Who was responsible? I could remember the K’s, I could remember the buzz around them, but I couldn’t remember the names of those who gave life to them. It was a couple of guys, I thought. Or maybe more. Or maybe one. After running some searches, I came up ‘Net-empty. The only clue I had came from Jack Lang’s eternally Amazin’ The New York Mets: Twenty-Five Years of Baseball Magic: a picture whose caption identified three fans hoisting K’s. One was Dennis Scalzitti who was said to have “originated the idea” and the other two were “his cohorts” Bob Belle and Neil Kenny. With at least that much information on hand, I credited them, as a unit, for having “founded the K Korner” and gave them the virtual honor of removing, in conjunction with Gooden himself, number 31 from our fanciful right field wall.
Funny how the Web works. I couldn’t find any concrete background on the K Korner before I mentioned it, but now I’ve been sent some by a person who read that entry. He’s seems a reasonably reliable source:
For the record, The K Korner was created in 1984 by two 22-year old guys from northern New Jersey named Dennis Scalzitti and Leo Avolio, and was present in the left field upper deck (Section 42) at every game Dwight Gooden pitched at Shea Stadium.
Kenny, our source says, was a “rabid” enough Mets fan, but just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the photo that wound up in the book was snapped. In ’84, it was Scalzitti and Avolio, from Doc’s early starts (when only diehards were in attendance) to his explosion onto the national stage, who were tracking strikeouts. Soon, with ESPN taking note, the K Korner was as famous as the Doctor himself.
Scalzitti’s distinctive handpainted red K’s on white posterboard hanging from the left field upper deck railing became a familiar and recognizable icon that summer, and fans were quick to jump on the bandwagon and get caught up in all the excitement of “swaying for a K” after Dwight got two strikes on a hitter.
1984 ended with Doc winning Rookie of the Year honors, but only half of the K tandem willing to see their phenomenon through to ’85.
Leo indicated he didn’t want to make the commitment to make the trek to Shea Stadium from Jersey anymore. Dennis begged to differ, and believed their efforts would lead to bigger and better things down the road. Regardless, Leo dropped out. In 1985 Scalzitti recruited his high school buddy Bob Belle as a replacement, and that was the year Gooden electrified the baseball world with one of the single greatest seasons any pitcher has ever had.
Indeed, Doc went 24-4 with a mind-blowing 1.53 ERA and 268 more strikeouts to go with the 276 from the season before. Doctor K was clearly established in his practice and those who hung out his shingle were steadfast in their support.
Dennis and Bob were besieged with newspaper and television interviews, as well as four appearances on The Joe Franklin Show. Their names, along with the trademarked name of “The K Korner,” were now a part of New York baseball history. Dennis and Bob marketed their K cards, t-shirts and bandanas via a mail-order company and received orders from all over the country as Mets fans everywhere got caught up in strikeout fever.
The next year was stupendous for the Mets if only pretty darn good for Dwight Gooden (17-6, 2.84 ERA, a mere 200 strikeouts). Yet it wasn’t at all bad for the K Korner duo.
Dennis and Bob signed a shoe contract with Nike. To date they are the only two fans to sign a contract of this sort. Nike reached out to Scalzitti and Belle and provided them with 27 laminated blue & orange K’s with a flaming baseball in the center. This logo would appear on a full line of “Dr. K” shoes and merchandise later in the year, and the executives at Nike felt they would achieve maximum exposure if the logo was promoted in The K Korner. At that time, Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News applauded this business deal and called Scalzitti an entrepreneur. The “K-men” were invited to some celebrity events that season, and were seen rubbing shoulders with everyone from Bob Murphy and Ralph Kiner to Nelson Doubleday, Frank Cashen, Mayor Ed Koch and Carly Simon. Security guards were provided (at Scalzitti’s request) to protect them from some of the more “enthusiastic” fans, and they posed for photos and autographed everything from baseballs and scorecards to a girl’s chest.
With the 1986 World Series won, the K Korner crested. One K went to Kooperstown, driven there personally by Dennis. One more trip to Joe Franklin’s show came, too, though it was a sad one. Dennis and Bob went on to announce they were giving up their perch. This was in the spring of ’87. The innocence surrounding Dwight Gooden had been sapped. But the memories would remain and are as indelible as those K’s.
Two games will forever stand out in my mind: Dwight had 16 K’s against the Pirates in late September 1984 and another 16 against the Giants in 1985. The entire stadium was just going completely NUTS!!! It was beyond description.
Anybody who watched Doc pitch then would agree, but I put particular stock in these recollections of what was “truly a magical time” at Shea Stadium. Why, you may be wondering, should we take this source’s word for it?
Because I lived it…I was there. My name is Dennis Scalzitti.
Yes, the Dennis Scalzitti, then the guy who started playing up the K’s, today the North Jersey-based owner of Coconut Joe’s Music-To-Go, a full-time DJ service. Apparently he still likes making people happy. His K partner Bob Belle, meanwhile, seems to have taken his inspiration from the likes of Gary Carter and has gone into a segment of the cleanup business. In writing to us here, Dennis had just one request:
Please make sure to let the fans know how much we appreciated their incredible enthusiasm and support from 1984 to 1986. Not even ONE time did we ever get harassed or given a hard time by the people sitting around us when we were standing up or running up and down the aisles whipping everyone into a frenzy. The fans were just so cool, and it’s very important they know how we fed off their energy and truly enjoyed being there to provide some entertainment for them.
This Friday’s Flashback turned out to be as much Dennis’s as mine, but that’s all right. I wouldn’t remember Doc’s eleventh Shea start so fondly if it weren’t for what Dennis began doing at the outset of ’84, for the passion he unleashed in the rest of us. That’s why you can’t tell the story of a stadium via only its ballplayers. That’s why sometimes, at the risk of being rude, you just can’t sit down, no matter what the guy behind you says.
Another tale of another fan of another team from another ballpark in another time, very much worth reading here.