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Home Is Where The Hall Is

“Thank you. This is really, really amazing. And it feels so good to be home.”

So said Doc Gooden [1] Sunday as he was inducted into the New York Mets Hall of Fame, and he couldn’t have been more correct — for him or for us.

On some level, Dwight Gooden’s been wandering the periphery of Metsdom since the day after his team won the World Series in 1986. He didn’t show up for the ticker-tape parade a grateful city threw its champions. Five months later, he tested positive for cocaine and wasn’t present on Opening Day when the flag his team earned was raised and the rings with which they were to be rewarded were distributed. He’d be pitching again in June and would be a mainstay of the rotation for another seven years, but Doc was never quite at the heart of this operation again.

If he had been, it would have seemed more tragic or heartbreaking when he tested positive a second time in 1994. It may have been tragic yet it didn’t seem all that heartbreaking. Regrettable, yes, but the hue and cry was muted. He had his problems in 1987, he was welcomed back. They reignited in 1994, the door was over there — be sure to use it. The Mets of post-1993 were a whole different story, a whole different vibe from the Mets of post-1986. There was no patience for an addict or a junkie or a recidivist user, whatever he was. Go away, Doc, was the prevailing verdict. Fix your life on your own time.

We stopped caring diligently about Dwight Gooden because Dwight Gooden apparently didn’t care about himself. We had to move on. We did and he did. He had his moments of success and so did we. We had our slipups and so did he. We’d hear about him from time to time, but he wasn’t our concern and there was no way of telling if we were any of his. Any opportunity [2] that arose when he might have re-emerged, he wouldn’t or, more likely, couldn’t. Whether by conflicting commitments or by law or by personal discomfort or even choice, the estrangement proved immovable.

It would go on that way until September 28, 2008, when Doc Gooden materialized out of the shadows and into the Met midst. The occasion was the final afternoon of his old address. He was one of dozens of former players to take the Walk of Shea [3] that day, but he was the one who jumped out at you. He was the one who owned the place as no more than maybe three or four others owned it, and he was the only one to never set Met foot in it after his title on the property lapsed.

Doc was just visiting, just checking in before Shea would check out. But after fourteen years in which his absence was occasionally noted, his presence was genuinely felt.

Two years after that, he came home for good. Dwight Gooden — Doc — is a Met again. Not because he signed a one-day contract [4]in order to symbolically retire as a Met. Not even because there now hangs a plaque that says he was a Met. It’s because every effort to certify his standing as a pre-eminent Met of Mets was made and achieved. The Mets did their part and so did Gooden.

He’s no longer the NO PHOTO AVAILABLE in our alumni newsletter. He’s no longer on the outs. There are no grudges or grumblings or self-imposed exiles anymore. Doc’s one of the Met family again. Better yet, a Met family at last exists for him to be a part of.

My happiness for Doc Gooden’s happiness on Mets Hall of Fame Day is an emotion I reproduced in quadruplicate Sunday so as to include Darryl Strawberry, Davey Johnson and Frank Cashen in my loud ovations and quiet satisfaction. I was beaming on each of their behalves from the Promenade as each made brief but heartfelt remarks about what it meant to them to be inducted into the New York Mets Hall of Fame.

Did you hear that? There’s a New York Mets Hall of Fame! It’s real. It’s a living, breathing, functioning entity. It’s not shunted away in the Diamond Club. It’s not just two display cases of sculpted heads. It’s not just those couple of pages in the media guide that never require updating. There was an election [5] for it in January, there’s been a museum [6] housing it since April and there’s been a parade of promotional announcements beating the drum that there’d be inductions into it for weeks. Yet not until I actually saw Cashen, Johnson, Gooden and Strawberry express their thanks for being a part of it did I really and truly believe it was real and true.

Each of those gentlemen treated membership as an honor of the highest order, a pinnacle to their long and distinguished baseball careers. I’d been to three previous HOF days at Shea — Mookie Wilson in ’96, Keith Hernandez in ’97, Gary Carter in ’01 — and while those were delightful, they didn’t rise to this occasion. Those were outliers, nice tributes, but essentially a “Day” the same way you might see Copiague Day recognized forty minutes before first pitch.

This was serious, nearly solemn business. I don’t mean to imply it didn’t have its lighthearted moments (Davey complimenting us as the most intelligent fans in baseball because he always heard us on the radio telling him how to manage was a hoot), but this ceremony had gravitas. The Mets organization made as big a deal as it could out of this and the honorees seemed truly humbled. It wasn’t just one more rubber chicken circuit award they were scooping up. These guys actually cared about being Mets Hall of Famers.

What a worthwhile endeavor this was, reviving this thing that barely existed before, and making it bigger, better and more beautiful than it’s ever been. Kudos to all involved on a classy, meaningful presentation — and some unsolicited advice below to Dave Howard, who rained, or at least drizzled in advance, on his own parade [7] when he told Brian Heyman of the Journal News, “I don’t think it’ll necessarily be an annual thing.”

Make sure it’s an annual thing, Dave. Build on this tradition. You just did it for the first time in eight years. The last time you did it, you inducted a great Met, Tommie Agee, a year after he died and thirty years after he last played for the Mets. Then you let it wither. It’s back and it’s blossomed on your watch. You should be proud of these ceremonies and that museum and those plaques (even though the end date on Doc’s plaque says 1995 and his last Mets game was 1994). You should be proud to honor Met greats and even Met very goods every single year [8].

Mike Hessman just became the 890th individual to play as a New York Met. Fourteen players are in the New York Mets Hall of Fame. I’m thinking there have to be at least a couple of Mets worthy of strong consideration on an annual basis among the 876 Mets who aren’t in our (yes, our) Hall. Take that momentum, sir, and run with it. Just as I was this year, I will be among the first to buy tickets next year for Mets Hall of Fame Day. And I’ll bet more will join me as it becomes an established event.

One other thing I particularly enjoyed about Hall of Fame Day and presumably will for a very long time is that the speakers invoked the name “Shea Stadium” repeatedly. Shea lives! Lives on in the official memory again, that is. 2009 was the year we were told Mets history began ten minutes ago and their only home ever was Citi Field. Now, in 2010, I sat in Citi Field and heard the village elders speak fondly of Shea. There’s nothing to lose in remembering it existed, that the franchise’s greatest baseball was played there and that it sure was fun at Shea.

Now, it sure is fun at Citi. Like Doc Gooden, I’m home…whatever drawbacks [9] the current house engenders.

After the ceremonies ended, the 2010 Mets played a baseball game that was as dreadful [10] as the ceremonies preceding it were beautiful. But I had a really good time, hanging back, no thoughts of streaks [11] (and little of possible contention) in the air. I was with my old friend Dan for the first time since the Home Opener in 2008 [12] (with a welcome half-inning cameo from Sharon) and we just talked non-stop Mets/life for nine innings, much as we might have in the Upper Deck or Mezzanine or Loge in Shea days of yore. In my 54th regulation game there, it was the first time feeling at home felt effortless. Just as I’d been waiting for Doc to return to the Mets for fourteen years, I’d been waiting to for my own sense of ballpark estrangement to completely evaporate for most of two seasons.

Me and Doc, we arrived together where we belong. And we are so happy to be home.

In case you missed ’em, some perspective on the Mets Hall of Fame tenures on Davey Johnson here [13], Dwight Gooden here [14] and Frank Cashen and Darryl Strawberry here [15].