Monday, February 1, 2010

16 Days Until Spring Training: Dwight Gooden

With the fifth pick of the 1982 draft, the Mets selected a lanky right handed pitcher from Tampa, Florida with an incredible amount of raw talent but only two years of experience pitching in high school. Gooden was not yet Doctor K. and had only begun to harness his talents when the Mets started him in Rookie Ball in Kingsport, Tennesee that year. He won the MVP of that league and finished the '82 season in Little Falls with the Mets' NY-Penn League team.

Gooden started 1983 in High-A ball and proceeded to destroy the Carolina League with a 2.50 ERA and 19-4 record, leading the 1983 Lynchburg Mets to a 96-43 campaign, 10.5 games ahead of their next closest competitor. After jumping all the way from from High A-ball to the Big Show in 1984, he pitched 218 innings at a 2.60 ERA and won 17 games. He also took home 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.

Doc's '85 season made his rookie campaign look pedestrian. Dr. K tossed 276 2/3 innings and the only time his ERA was over 2.00 that year 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 although he received a no decision in both. That year the Mets won 98 games but finished 3 games out of the postseason.

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 his first three years as a pro. He didn't get the decision in any of the games he started that postseason (and actually took three losses), but in Game 5 of the NLCS against Houston, Doc went 10 innings and only gave up one run. He missed the Mets victory parade that year and told people he overslept, but those closest to him knew the truth. He was already an alcoholic with an even more serious addiction about to be publicly revealed.

In December of that year, Gooden's legal troubles began, when he was arrested after being involved in vicious brawl with Tampa police. The officers were accused of racism and thought to have used excessive force so when the District Attorney released a report clearing them of any wrongdoing, 3 nights of rioting in Tampa ensued. 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. However, 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 to the Dodgers, 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 3.50 ERA twice, but picked up only 10 & 12 wins respectively.

Doc started off his 1994 season on the wrong foot, giving up 7 runs against the Cubs. He responded by kicking a step in the dugout and breaking his toe and went on the disabled list after only three starts. After he returned in June, he did cocaine for the first time in more than 6 years after it was offered to him at a nightclub in Manhattan. The downward spiral began quickly and the Mets announced on June 28th that he had violated the terms of his after-care program and would be suspended 60 days. After a month-long stay at the Betty Ford Center, Gooden fell off the wagon and began drinking and doing coke once again. He failed at least 8 drug tests and received a letter from Bud Selig that September informing him that he would be suspended for the entire 1995 season. It was during that time that he entered narcotics anonymous and began really trying to stop his destructive habits.

His problems with substance abuse, the extended period without pitching and the 1172 2/3 innings he threw from the ages of 19-23, all took their toll on Gooden. He returned to baseball in 1996 and signed with the Yankees but - except for some brief flashes - he was never the same again.

One of those fleeting moments of greatness game on May 14th against the Mariners when Gooden threw a threw a no-hitter. Just before the game, he had learned that his father needed a double by-pass surgery but he decided to take the mound instead of flying back to Tampa to be with his family. Unfortunately that game was the equivalent of sinking a hole-in-one on the way to shooting an 85, as he finished the season with an ERA of 5.01 and was left off the postseason roster.

He returned to the Yanks in 1997 and threw only 108 1/3 innings, but this time he did manage to be included on the 25 man for October. He started Game 4 of the ALDS and handed the bullpen a 2-1 lead after 5 2/3 innings but Mariano Rivera blew the save in the 8th. Despite appearing in 12 of them, Doc was never able to record a win in a postseason game.

At George Steinbrenner's insistence, Gooden was added to the Yankees in the middle of the 2000 season after he was released by the Devil Rays. He was a pretty useful piece for the Yanks that year, pitching 64 innings split between starts and relief appearances and recording a 3.36 ERA. He came in from the bullpen twice that postseason but sadly not against his former team in the World Series.

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. So far, it has. Gooden is now working as a Senior VP for the Newark Bears and has plans to open the Dwight Gooden Baseball Academy in New Jersey this year.

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. Although he won 91 games by the age of 24, he ended his career with only 194.

Like many of the Yankee greats we have profiled in this countdown, Gooden holds a special place in the minds of the franchise with which he was most inextricably linked though his career wasn't great enough to get him into Cooperstown. Happily, the Mets recently announced that Doctor K, former Yankee Darryl Strawberry, Davey Johnson and Frank Cashen would be inducted into their Hall of Fame.

No word on whether their musical efforts will ever be given such recognition:

No comments:

Post a Comment