You don’t see the writing on the wall
Moving straight ahead, you knew it all
I heard the theme from the terrible movie St. Elmo’s Fire a little while ago. I make it sound as if it was an accident, but it’s on a playlist of what I call, with characteristic understatement, The Top 500 Songs of All-Time. It’s a big, garish, stupid song from the midpoint of a big, garish, stupid decade, so I won’t be offended if you don’t share my assessment of John Parr’s greatest hit as No. 482 for all eternity. Still, sometimes you come across something that’s so over the top, you can’t help but be taken in by the enormity of it.
Then or now.
The first time I heard “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion)” was the night of July 13, 1985, probably the early hours of July 14 to be perfectly accurate about it. I was in a hellacious Saturday night/Sunday morning backup on the southbound approach to the Whitestone Bridge, heading back from having driven my college friend Rob Costa home to Connecticut. We had hung out all day Saturday, first in the city where we converged by train at Grand Central and later on Long Island. I was 22 and, à la Parr, a man in motion, thinking nothing of giving somebody a lift to another state. Technically speaking, I would have been a man in motion had the traffic to the Whitestone been moving…which it wasn’t.
I don’t precisely remember if “St. Elmo’s” bombast hit me before or after the toll booth. It would make more sense if it was the latter, so let’s say it was. Let’s say I finally pulled away from the gate and revved my pair (two pair, actually) of wheels up to 55, 56 miles per hour and, per Parr, could suddenly see a new horizon underneath the blazing sky…or perhaps just the exit to the Cross Island. In any event, I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I heard the song that I would come to grudgingly adore because it so fit the mood of what consumed me most that very same summer.
On Sunday night, July 14, Dwight Gooden would pitch in Houston, the Mets’ last game before the All-Star break. All the Mets would give him in the way of offense would be an unearned run in the eighth, but at the midpoint of the 1985 season, two singles and a bad throw to first of a potential double play ball was about as much as the Doctor would think to order. Doc gave the Mets a nine-inning shutout as their going-away present: five hits, two walks, eleven strikeouts. Once he got a lead in the top of the eighth, he struck out the side in the bottom of the eighth. He struck out Kevin Bass to end the ninth. The Mets won for the twelfth time in thirteen games. Doc won for the thirteenth time in sixteen decisions. His last loss had been ten starts previous.
John Parr from “St. Elmo’s Fire”:
Just once in his life
A man has his time
And my time is now
I’m coming alive
Dwight Gooden from 1985:
13-3, 1.68 ERA at the All-Star break
11-1, 1.34 ERA after the All-Star break
While not technically a one-hit wonder — anybody else remember “Naughty Naughty”? — John Parr reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 only once, with “St. Elmo’s Fire,” the week of September 7, 1985. He and it stayed atop the chart for two weeks. While America’s disc jockeys were playing “St. Elmo’s Fire” to death, Dwight Gooden was burying nearly every National League hitter he encountered. In Doc’s final six starts of the season, the Mets played 59 innings; Doc pitched 53 of them.
Why only 53? Well, the first two games went thirteen and ten innings, respectively, and his manager had a rule about not letting him go more than nine. There was also a start in which Davey Johnson pulled him after eight innings with an eleven-run lead. Doc’s line that day: 3 hits, 2 runs, 0 strikeouts…
…oh sorry, that was Dwight Gooden’s hitting line. Doc did allow an unearned run to Pittsburgh on the afternoon of September 21 when he went only eight innings, but considering he socked a three-run homer and collected four RBI, I think we can pardon his not going the distance.
Which should remind us: Over his final nine starts of 1985, Dwight Gooden gave up one fewer home run than he hit.
He hit one.
He could climb the highest mountain. He could cross the wildest sea. He could confound every expectation a sane person would have for any pitcher in any season. 1985 was Doc Gooden’s Fire.
• His ERA after his first start, on Opening Day, was 4.50. After his second start it fell to 1.80. And it never rose as high as 2 again.
• On a steamy Shea afternoon in August, he simply did not have it: five earned runs in five innings against the Phillies (in a game the Mets eventually won 10-7; the other starter didn’t have it either — some 42-year-old lefty by the name of Jerry Koosman). The damage it did to his ERA? It was driven all the way up from 1.64 to 1.82.
• He went 14 weeks between losses. During that span, he won 14 consecutive decisions, a Mets record. The loss that snapped his streak came on the last day of August. And then in September, he gave up no earned runs.
• He made 35 starts overall. He was removed in the middle of an inning twice — and once was the crazy, rain-delayed July 4-5 eventually 19-inning nearly four in the morning game in Atlanta, when the craziest thing would have been to have risked Doc Gooden’s twenty-year-old right arm.
You can express it any way you like. You can add up the complete games (16), the shutouts (8), the strikeouts (268), the wins (24) and the ERA (1.53). You can gawk at his September and remember that the Mets needed every single inning he gave them as they chased, caught, passed and fell — again — behind the Cardinals. You can go straight to his last start, at St. Louis, when he was not at all sharp and still managed a complete game victory with ten strikeouts to move the Mets within one of the division lead with four to play. You can note his Cy Young Award was unanimous, his fourth-place finish in the MVP voting ludicrously low or that Wally Backman summed up the Mets’ ultimate three-game deficit in a nutshell when he wryly observed that it was all Doc’s fault — after all, he did lose four games.
I can hear the music playin’
I can see the banners fly
For four minutes and eleven seconds this morning, I was at the midpoint of a big, garish, stupid decade which also happened to the midpoint of the most remarkable baseball season I can possibly imagine one individual giving me. And I was 22. If you’re going to take a 251-second trip back in time, you can do worse than when you spent the day with a good friend from college who’s no longer around and you looked forward the next night to watching a great young pitcher who you knew was only going to get better as that season and that decade eased into their respective second halves.
I’m going to Mets Hall of Fame Day Sunday for Dwight Gooden’s induction. I figure it’s the least I can do considering how all my other tentatively set plans where he’s concerned went awry. See, I had hoped to be at Doc’s 300th win or his perfect game or when he threw that shutout that clinched our third consecutive world championship. I certainly thought I’d be there when the Mets retired his number and was sure I’d make the trip to Cooperstown after he made it in on the first ballot.
But I missed all those events, which I find surprising, considering I had more or less penciled every single one of them in while singing along with John Parr a quarter-century ago.