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February 23, 2006

Can Of Corn

Winners

by Dayn Perry

The following is an excerpt from Dayn Perry's new book, Winners: How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones (And It's Not the Way You Think), which is shipping now from Amazon.com.

Here we have the story of Dwight Gooden's early and astounding rise to prominence taken from Chapter Eight: The Veteran and the Youngster (or, What Teams Can Learn from a Bottle of Wine).

***

It's a task to impart just how brilliant Dwight Gooden was early in his career and the level of enthusiasm he engendered among fans of the game. Whatever his human failings and however disappointing the sum total of his career in light of his early promise, he was, for a fugitive time, the greatest pitcher anyone had ever seen. Like Hercules strangling the serpents at his crib, Gooden, even from an improbably young age, seemed on an unswerving course for greatness.

Less than two years before his major league debut, Gooden was pitching for Hillsborough High School in East Tampa. During his senior season, Gooden began drawing the attention of scouts with his blazing fastball and tremendous hammer curve (a pitch that would later be called "Lord Charles," a more distinguished variant of "Uncle Charley," the common baseball colloquialism for the curveball). The Mets were duly impressed and made Gooden the fifth overall pick of the 1982 draft.

Going into the 1984 season, accomplished minor league manager Davey Johnson, who was up for the Mets job and had been Gooden's skipper the previous year in Double-A, joked that in the upcoming season he'd be managing wherever Gooden was pitching. The message, couched in humor, was that Johnson wanted Gooden at his disposal were he to manage the Metropolitans. It was hard to blame him. Gooden, in his first full minor league season, led his league in ERA and struck out an unthinkable total of 300 in 191 innings. As much as those numbers might lead you to believe that Gooden's "prospect meat thermometer" was poking out, GM Frank Cashen favored a more conservative tack for his 19-year-old phenom. Fresh in Cashen's mind were memories of Tim Leary, a then recent Mets pitching überprospect who, less than three years prior, blew out his arm pitching on a frigid, inclement day in Chicago while concealing an arm injury. Cashen, aware of Gooden's redoubtable promise yet wary of the fragile nature of young pitchers, envisioned a more neighborly debut for his prize prospect. As for Johnson, he learned all this only after accepting the Mets' job. Still, he didn't have to wait long.

Cashen and Johnson agreed that Gooden would make his major league debut on April 7, 1984, against Houston in the Astrodome. Johnson liked the date on the calendar; Cashen liked the atmospherics. Not only would Gooden be spared from unfriendly weather while pitching in the domed ballpark, but he'd also be working in a prominent pitcher's environment and in front of what figured to be a modest crowd--both in terms of numbers and conviction. "Dr. K," as he was called in the minors, delivered. In five innings, Gooden allowed one run, whiffed five, and walked three.

Later that season, after he cut an untrammeled swath through the Cub lineup for an entire afternoon, a reporter asked Cub manager Jim Frey what he thought of Gooden's poise. "The guy has a 93-mile-per-hour fastball and one of the best curves in baseball and you ask me about his poise?" Frey sniffed. "What the hell does he need poise for?"

To say Gooden's rookie campaign went swimmingly is to indulge in criminal levels of understatement. It didn't take long for the Dr. K nickname to catch on and begin an upper-deck trend that's still very much with us. Fans in the far reaches of Shea Stadium, after every Gooden strikeout, would hang a red "K" placard over the railing. In '84, Gooden gave those fans plenty to keep track of. He set a major league record for rookies with 276 strikeouts in 218 innings (in the process becoming the first teenager in history to lead the majors in whiffs). On consecutive starts on September 12 and 17, he broke Sandy Koufax's NL record by striking out 32 batters in back-to-back outings. Throw in Gooden's September 7 start (a one-hitter against the division champion Cubs), and his 43 Ks broke Herb Score's record for strikeouts over a three-start span. Gooden also became the youngest player ever to play in an All-Star game (in that game, he and Fernando Valenzuela combined to break Carl Hubbell's record by fanning six straight hitters) and the youngest player ever to be named Rookie of the Year. Believe it or not, he was even better the following season.

In 1985, the Mets would win 98 games--at that time the second most in franchise history, behind only the '69 club--but they'd finish second to the Cardinals in the NL East. Gooden, however, was second to no one. That season he led the majors in wins (24), ERA (1.53), and strikeouts (268), thus making him the youngest hurler ever to win the "pitcher's Triple Crown," the first to do so since Steve Carlton in 1972, and the first New York pitcher to turn the trick since the Yankees' Lefty Gomez in 1937. Gooden's ERA in 1985 was the lowest since Bob Gibson's 1.12 mark in 1968, and Gooden also paced the league in complete games, with 16. As the Mets tried in vain to run down the Cardinals in the season's final weeks, Gooden was at his best; in five September starts totaling 44 innings, he surrendered not a single earned run. As such, Gooden became just the ninth pitcher ever to win the Cy Young Award by a unanimous vote and finished fourth in the balloting for NL MVP. When the season ended, he was still only 20 years old.

It's too tidily cinematic to say that after reaching such breathtaking heights, Gooden declined overnight, but he was never again quite the same. It could have been the imprudent workload foisted upon such a young arm. It could have been that the Mets, in an effort to improve Gooden's ability to hold runners, had pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre reconstruct his mechanics over the winter. It could have been that hitters were finally learning to abstain from Gooden's high fastball, which often popped in the mitt well out of the strike zone. Or it could have been the young man's baneful lifestyle exacting an early price. Whatever the reasons, Gooden would again be good in a handful of seasons, but he'd never again be great.

In '86, he gave up a home run to the first batter he faced that season, the Pirates' R.J. Reynolds. It was an augury of things to come. Gooden still had a strong season, but he declined in almost every regard compared to his work the previous two years. In particular, his strikeout rate plummeted from 9.9 in 1984-1985 to 7.2 in 1986. Even so, Gooden managed to become the first pitcher in major league history to strike out at least 200 batters in each of his first three seasons. His '86 ERA of 2.84 looks sparkling by today's standards, but consider that the NL ERA that season was only 3.54 and that Gooden was pitching half his games in Shea, one of the league's better parks for pitchers. In fact, away from Shea in '86 Gooden's ERA was 3.47, or just a hair better than the league mean. Gooden managed to make the All-Star team in '86 (mostly by virtue of his 9-3 record in the first half), but he took the loss in the midsummer classic, giving up a two-run bomb to Detroit's Lou Whitaker.

In the postseason, Gooden dazzled in the NLCS, although he wasn't credited with a win in either of his two starts. He suffered a nail-biting loss in game one against Mike Scott, the Astros' briefly untouchable ace, by the score of 1-0, with the lone run coming on a Glenn Davis home run. The Mets won Gooden's game five start, but it took them 12 innings to do so. Gooden squared off against Nolan Ryan and allowed only one run in 10 innings of work. It was the first time Davey Johnson had allowed Gooden to pitch beyond the ninth inning. In the process he set the NLCS records for strikeouts (20) and walks (eight) in a seven-game series. In the World Series, he was much less effective. Pitching on short rest, Gooden logged an 8.00 ERA in two starts.

Following the '86 season, Gooden's off-field troubles began in earnest. He and his nephew, future All-Star Gary Sheffield, were assaulted by police in Tampa over the winter, and the organization sent Gooden to a drug rehabilitation program after he tested positive for cocaine just before the 1987 season began. He didn't pitch until June 5, but performed well upon his return. Still, the Mets lost the division to the Cardinals that season by three games, and some within the organization blamed Gooden's absence for the first two months of the season.

Going into the '88 season, Gooden declared that he was a different pitcher than he had been in the past. As such, he requested that he be called "Doc" instead of "Dr. K." That year, Gooden pitched a full season and won 18 games; however, his 3.19 ERA was just a tick better than the league average. In the postseason, Gooden set a record by fanning 20 batters in three NLCS appearances, but the 100-win Mets suffered a stunning defeat at the hands of the manifestly inferior Dodgers (whom the Mets that year had beaten in 10 of 11 regular season contests). In 1989 Gooden missed more than two months with a shoulder injury, but his 9-4 record on the season ferried him into the record books once again. He became the first pitcher in 90 years to post a winning record in each of his first six seasons, and Gooden also became the third-youngest pitcher in the modern era to reach 100 career wins. Additionally, he reached the 100-win mark with the second-best winning percentage ever, only points behind legendary Yankee lefthander Whitey Ford. Even so, Gooden was able to return for only a pair of relief outings in September, and the Mets finished six games behind the division-winning Cubs.

In 1990 Gooden struck out 200 batters for the first time in four seasons, but his ERA was worse than the league mean. Still, as he racked up a 16-2 record after June 2, it seemed that the Gooden of yore had returned. That year would be his last healthy one as a Met. The first half of the decade would be a particularly cruel one for him. In the '90s, Gooden would spend 264 days on the DL with an array of shoulder maladies, a toe injury, and a hernia, and off the field he burnished his reputation as a troubled soul. Just three starts into the 1994 season, he hit the DL with a case of turf toe. He returned in June, but it wasn't long before an illness of another sort took hold. Gooden battled addictions to alcohol and cocaine throughout the latter stages of his career, and in September of '94, after he once again violated baseball's substance abuse policy, Commissioner Bud Selig suspended him for the balance of the '94 season and all of 1995. The day after news of his punishment came down, Gooden sat on the edge of his bed with a loaded 9 mm pistol jammed against his head. But he didn't pull the trigger. Following the '94 season, the Mets allowed him to become a free agent.

In February of 1996, the defrocked superstar got his second chance. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner signed him, and Gooden was determined to seize the opportunity. Going into his May 14 start in the Bronx against the Mariners, Gooden was lugging around a 5.67 ERA and was in danger of losing his job as the Yanks' fifth starter for a second time in the young season. Twenty-seven outs later, he had pitched around six walks and a wild pitch to no-hit the best offensive team in the majors. In fact, he was only the fifth AL pitcher in history to spin a no-hitter against a league-leading offense (joining Dave Stewart against the '90 Blue Jays, Hoyt Wilhelm against the '58 Yankees, and Ernie Koob and Bob Groom on back-to-back days versus the 1917 White Sox). It was a stunning flash of brilliance from a pitcher who seemed to be drawing his final breaths as a ballplayer. Incidentally, Gooden's no-no was the 11th by a former New York Met. The count is currently 13 (more than half of which belong to Nolan Ryan), which is notable since the Mets have yet to record a no-hitter in their 40-plus years as a franchise.

Gooden, suddenly beloved and revered again, was granted the key to the city by Mayor Giuliani. One great day aside, Gooden wasn't particularly effective that season, in spite of his 11-7 record. The Yankees even opted to leave him off their postseason roster, thus depriving him of the chance to be a part of the first Gotham World Series winner since his Mets a decade earlier.

He returned to the Yankees in '97, pitched marginally better for the season (although a misdiagnosed hernia cost him a good chunk of the season), and this time pitched on the October stage for the first time since 1988. In game four of the ALDS, he limited the powerful Indians to one run over 5 2/3 innings of work, but Cleveland touched the Yankee bullpen and won it 3-2 with runs in the eighth and ninth.

The next season, Gooden caught on with those same Indians and worked 134 innings with a park-adjusted ERA 27 percent better than the league average, his best such mark since his mind-blowing season in '85. The year, however, did not end happily for Doc, who was ejected for arguing balls and strikes in the first inning of his ALDS start against the Red Sox. He was also roughed up in his lone start against the Yankees in the '98 ALCS. He returned to the Indians the following season, but his decline resumed. In 115 innings he posted a 6.26 ERA and was deservedly left off the Tribe's playoff roster.

The Astros signed Gooden that winter, but he made only one start for Houston before they sold him to his hometown Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He struggled terribly with the Rays in 36 2/3 innings before they released him. Once again, however, the Yankees took a flier on him. Working primarily in relief, Gooden gave the Yanks 64 1/3 innings and a 3.36 ERA in the second half and a strong relief outing in the ALCS win over the Mariners. The 2000 season would be his final one, but is troubles weren't over. During the course of Gooden's divorce from his wife, Monica, the extent of his financial difficulties came to light. According to court documents, the Goodens regularly burned through $40,000 a month in expenses, and Mrs. Gooden managed to pile up an additional $50,000 in credit card debt. Monica Gooden even testified that she would habitually write personal checks until the account was overdrawn; then and only then would she call one of the couple's financial counselors to clean up the mess. In fact, despite making roughly $35 million over the course of his 17-year career in the majors, Gooden met with financial destitution in the years following his retirement. It's impossible to remember Gooden without an eye toward the flotsam of his life outside of baseball.

Still, in those early days, when he was young, when his future--and even his present--seemed honeycombed with possibilities, he was really something, wasn't he?

***

Winners: How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones (And It's Not the Way You Think)--available now at Amazon.com.

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