In the early 1980s the Mets were bad, baseball lost an entire summer to a labor war, and I was becoming a teenager, a transformation I navigated with the grace and self-confidence that have launched a thousand family sitcoms. Put those three things together and something not particularly surprising happened: I drifted away from the team I had loved as a child, watching less avidly, then less frequently, then not at all. I was around for the Mets of Ricky Sweet and Rusty Tillman, but they’re as theoretical to me as those of Choo Choo Coleman and Tim Harkness.
And it could easily have stayed that way. I could never have found my way back. Perhaps today I’d be your co-worker who sees your Mets gear and talks awkwardly about Rusty Staub and Lee Mazzilli, calls Citi Field Shea, then tries to segue into some vague point about the Madoffs or Ike Davis.
What brought me back was Dwight Gooden.
I can’t remember exactly when I heard about this young pitcher who’d appeared and who, I realized, wasn’t really so much older than I was. Things were different then — something caught my eye in the paper, or I heard about him at school, or caught some chirpy feature on the evening news. By May or June I was watching his starts, and starting to get excited about his teammates, who were winning games again. By July I was back in the fold — and nervous as a cat when 19-year-old Dwight Gooden, our Dwight Gooden — went to the mound in the All-Star Game at San Francisco. This was the chance for America to get a look at Dr. K outside of “This Week in Baseball” and see what we were so excited about back in New York. I was desperate for him to do well — full of jittery hope that he might and anxiety that he might not.
He struck out the side. I felt like we’d won the World Series.
Two years later, we did.
By then, of course, Gooden wasn’t anybody’s secret anymore. He’d put up one of the more astonishing seasons in baseball history in 1985, one recognizable by a single number. And, though we didn’t know it yet, seeing him in the pile after Orosco’s glove went skyward, his story was already changing. Over the years that followed I would cheer for Gooden and try to disdain him, pity him and write him off, glower at the sight of him in a Yankee uniform, applaud his moments of glory and mourn his setbacks. It got complicated, but it was always personal — because of the joy he’d brought me, and the sense of betrayal and despair he’d engendered, but underneath it all because he was the one who’d made me care again.
I say all this to explain why having Dwight Gooden walk over and sit down with us last night wasn’t just another moment in the Mets’ outreach to bloggers. I’ve been a journalist for a long time, and no longer get nervous if I’m near famous people, or talking with them. I’ve even seen Gooden up close before — as a teenager I lived a couple of blocks from him in St. Petersburg, Fla., and he shopped in the same Albertson’s that we did. But this was different. This was Doc, for goodness sake.
Gooden’s promoting his memoir, a frank look at his struggles with addiction and his efforts to overcome it. He talked with us about that, but also about Matt Harvey, and his own career, and pitching, and a lot besides.
On his memoir: He said he wrote it partially as therapy for himself, and to encourage himself to come clean with things in his past he wasn’t sure he wanted to talk about. But he said he also wrote it in hopes that it will help someone else draw lessons from the mistakes he made.
On learning to pitch: He said he was fortunate that his Dad knew a lot about pitching, teaching him the grip for the fastball and curve when he was 10, and was able to effectively serve as his coach until he went to high school and got drafted. He said that Mel Stottlemyre always challenged him, insisting there was still room for improvement — and added that it was very important to have Stottlemyre in that same role with the Yankees, even though Doc was a very different pitcher by then.
On Gary Carter: He “was like a security blanket for me and our other young pitchers,” Doc said, adding that he played with catchers who’d mope and “just put down whatever” signs when not hitting. He said Carter wouldn’t tolerate it if his focus wandered — say if the Mets were up by seven or eight runs and Doc wanted to fool around with his change-up, and would also buck him up if he didn’t have his good stuff. “He’d make me believe I had better stuff than I had,” Doc said.
On the crowds at Shea: He got adrenaline from the rising cheers when he had two strikes on a batter, and said with a smile that yes, he looked up at the Ks being hung to check how many he had.
On hitting: He acknowledged being a pretty good hitter despite never being allowed to hit left-handed, which was his natural side. Noting that he’d hit eight homers as a righty (with a .196 career average), he bet he could have hit twice that lefty. He said he’d told Davey that he hit lefty, but all thought of him doing so stopped after Rick Sutcliffe drilled him during a Mets-Cubs beanball war and he had to come out of the game.
On his 2000 start against the Mets: He was at his most relaxed and funny talking about this odd homecoming, saying he’d been working with Yankees pitching guru Billy Connors in Tampa after getting released by the Devil Rays. “I had nothing,” he said, and so when Connors called him into his office he figured he was getting released again — only to be told he was going to New York to start against the Mets. Warming up at Shea, he said, none of his pitches was working; it was so hopeless that Stottlemyre stopped offering suggestions about what to try, and Doc saw all the relievers heading down to the bullpen, which they never do that early. Then Joe Torre told him to give the Yankees whatever he had, whether it was one or two or three innings — something Doc noted managers never say. With everyone expecting him to get lit up, he said, he somehow found his pitches, scattering two runs on six hits over five innings.
On perspective: He acknowledged disappointment with himself, saying he used to beat himself up thinking how he might have won 300 games and gone to Cooperstown. But he said he’d come to think of things a little differently, remembering that as a kid his dream was to get to the majors and have a long career. He did that, won three World Series rings, and “every award a pitcher can win.” You know what? He’s right about that.
On returning to Shea for its final game: He was very nervous about returning, not knowing how he’d be received by Mets fans, and was cajoled into it by Gary Sheffield. When it rained that day, he admitted, “Part of me was like, ‘Wow, I hope they get rained out so I don’t have to go on the field.’ ” But he said he knew it would be OK before the ceremony when fans caught sight of him and some other Mets greats and started cheering — in response, he said, he got chills and teared up. He then extended an arm to us, noting that “I get goosebumps now just thinking about it.”
And after that? Well, Greg and I headed upstairs and spent a couple of innings in the press box (where he stifled a happy bleat and my fingertips came together in one abortive clap) before heading back downstairs and taking in the game from the stands. Matt Harvey, Gooden’s spiritual heir in the age of Twitter, was on the mound and he was 1985 Doc — striking out 11 over seven innings and taking a no-hitter into the fifth, which is an absurd thing to have gotten used to.
After seven it was Mets 4, Nationals 1 … and then my mind goes curiously blank. I must have hit my head or suffered some other trauma, and I have a vague worry that something awful may have happened. But how could that be true, after such a night?