Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Number of Days Until Spring Training: Dwight Gooden (#16)

When Doc Gooden played for the Yankees, he wore #11 in 1996 & 1997, and #17 when he returned in 2000. Obviously, he would have liked to wear #16, which he adorned while with the Mets, but it had already been retired in honor of Whitey Ford, who Cliff will pay tribute to later today.

Gooden burst on to the scene as a 19 year old in 1984, after destroying the Carolina League and leading the 1983 Lynchburg Mets to a 96-43 record, 10.5 games ahead of their next closest competitor. After jumping all the way from from High A-ball to the Big Show, he won the Rookie of the Year, finished second in the Cy Young voting, became the youngest All-Star in the history of the MLB, and struck out all three hitters he faced in the game.

His '85 season made his rookie campaign look pedestrian. Dr. K tossed 276 2/3 innings and the only time he had an ERA of over 2.00 was after his first start of the season. He won pitching's Triple Crown, leading the league in ERA (1.53), wins (24) and strikeouts (268). He threw 16 complete games, including two back to back CG shutouts in September in both of which, he got a no decision. That year the Mets won 98 games, but missed the playoffs.

When the Mets won the World Series in 1986, Gooden threw 250 regular season innings at a 2.84 ERA, won 17 games and made it back to his third All-Star game in three years as a pro. He didn't get the decision in any of the games he started that postseason, but in the NLCS against Houston, Doc went 10 innings and only gave up one run.

In December of that year, Gooden's legal troubles began, when he was arrested after being involved in a "full scale brawl" that took 20 police officers to contain. In Spring Training in 1987, Gooden tested positive for cocaine, agreed to enter a rehab center, and as a result didn't make his first start until June 5th. That didn't stop him from winning 15 games and finishing 5th in the Cy Young Voting.

Still only 23 years old in 1988, Gooden threw 248 more innings of a 3.19 ERA, picked up 18 wins and made another All-Star team. Unfortunately, his 1988 season might best be remembered by the game tying home run he gave up to Mike Scioscia in a game they eventually lost, leveling the NLCS at 2-2, instead of giving the Mets a 3-1 lead.

After missing more than half of the '89 season (but still pitching effectively in his appearances), Gooden had another very solid season in 1990. He struck out 223 in 232 2/3 innings, finished 4th in the Cy Young voting, and even got some acknowledgment in the MVP race. On two terrible Mets teams in 1992 & 1993, Gooden threw over 200 innings to about a 3.50ERA twice, but picked up 10 & 12 wins respectively.

Perhaps it was his problems with substance abuse or the 1172 2/3 innings he threw from the ages of 19-23, but Gooden never regained his dominant form.

After signing with the Yankees in 1996, he threw a no-hitter on May 14th against the Mariners, which was unfortunately the equivalent of sinking a hole-in-one on the way to shooting an 85, and was left off the postseason roster.

He returned to the Yanks in 1997, threw only 108 1/3 innings, but managed to make the postseason roster, where he started Game 4 of the ALDS. Gooden left after 5 2/3 leading 2-1, but Mariano Rivera blew the save in the 8th inning. Despite appearing in 12, Doc never got the decision in a postseason game.

At George Steinbrenner's insistence, Gooden was added to the Yankees in the middle of the 2000 season, but didn't pitch against the Mets in the World Series, thereby summing up the anticlimactic nature of his career. Although he won 91 games by the age of 24, he ended his career with only 194.

Since he retired in 2001, Gooden has had more than his fair share of legal troubles, spending time in jail and rehab for DWI, cocaine use and violating probation. In 2006, he chose to do time as opposed to extending his probation in hopes that being in prison would finally help rid himself of the addictions that dragged down his career.

Gooden's story is simultaneously incredible and terrible. He had an ephemeral, meteoric rise at an impossibly young age. He also had an inescapable and tragic decline far too soon.

We all know people who have tussled with the demons of addiction and substance abuse. Here's to hoping Dr. K can summon "Lord Charles" and strike them out for good.

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