Friday, April 28, 2017

The Key To Gooden

"Doc didn’t get the accolade that day in 1986, that parade, he didn’t get to stand here with teammates and Mayor Koch. We’re going to fix that right now, 30 years later. We’re going to celebrate the player and the man.”  -- Mayor Bill de Blasio

"The '86 World Series always left a void in my heart.  Today I can close that wound. I can fill that void with love, and peace and joy. That’s because of you guys believing in me even when I didn’t believe in myself.” -- Dwight Gooden
Dwight Gooden was one of the greatest and most exciting pitchers I ever saw.  He won 100 games by the age of 25, but then injuries and substance abuse tragically derailed his career.  He was only 19 years old in 1984, when, with incredible poise, an explosive fastball and a devastating curve he won 17 games and led the National League in strikeouts.  He was an All Star and Rookie of the Year.  In 1985, Gooden had one of the best seasons any pitcher ever had -- and he was only 20 years old.  With 24 wins, 268 strikeouts, and a 1.53 ERA (leading the league in all three categories), he became the youngest player to win the Cy Young Award.

But the numbers don't begin to tell the story.  I still remember the game I saw him pitch that year at Candlestick Park against the Giants.  He struck out 14, in a 2-1 victory, going the distance and striking out the side to end the game.  I've been lucky to witness some extraordinary performances by some of the greatest pitchers of all time.  That includes some of Tom Seaver's gems at Shea, most notably his historic 19-strikeout game in 1970.  But that day I saw Dwight Gooden was something special.  He was more electrifying than anyone I'd ever seen.  And he pitched that way every time he went to the mound that year.  What no one could have imagined then was that 1985 would be his greatest season.

In 1986, the Mets' championship season, Gooden was their ace, winning 17 games and striking out 200, but he faltered in the World Series and failed to show up for the ticker-tape parade.  While the Mets and their fans were ecstatically celebrating, Gooden was succumbing to what we later learned was a drug addiction. 

That winter, Gooden was arrested for fighting with police and during spring training, he tested positive for cocaine.  I recall hoping desperately that Dwight could overcome his personal problems and resume a career that looked to be a lock for the Hall of Fame -- for his own well-being, of course, but also, selfishly, because he was such a joy to watch.  Indeed, for awhile all seemed well.  He returned in 1987, after missing the first third of the season with a stint in rehab, winning 15 games, and in 1988, he won 18.  But he then suffered a series of injuries and drug relapses, and although he continued to have occasional flashes of brilliance (and a 19 win, 200+ strikeout season in 1990), he was never again the truly dominant  pitcher he had been.  He left the Mets after 10 years, in 1994, and pitched for the Yankees and three other teams, retiring after the 2000 season.  In subsequent years, he had periods of apparent recovery followed inevitably by substance abuse and legal problems.  

Yesterday, Mayor Bill de Blasio presented Gooden with the key to the city to make up for the fact that he missed the ticker-tape parade in 1986.  It was arranged by sports radio host Amy Heart, who is producing a documentary.  Gooden always deeply regretted missing out that day and being able to celebrate with his team and be celebrated by the fans who loved him.  I still think about what could have been for Gooden as a pitcher.  But how great that Gooden the man is still with us and could, in some way, get that day back.

As he said:  “Unfortunately, my addiction had the best of me that night and as the mayor mentioned, I didn’t get to make it. That stayed with me for a very long time. It kept me sick for a very long time.  But today I’m not that person. And to get the opportunity to share that moment here again with my teammates and with you guys, I can’t thank you enough.” 

2 comments :

heidipie said...

I caught a very sad and moving documentary on Strawberry and Gooden, then and now, the glory and the drugs, the two of them interacting in the present, Doc ducking the hard questions Darryl would ask him about his relapses. It was on an airplane and I don't remember what sports TV channel it was on, but it's well worth finding. I think it's from last year.

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