Defining majesty drives man’s pursuit of his literary boundaries. Ansel Adams, when he wasn’t trying with the click of his shutter, defined Yosemite Valley as “a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.” Neil Armstrong, seeing Earth from afar unlike anyone before, defined our planet as “that tiny pea, pretty and blue.”

The 1985 season of Dwight Gooden, likewise, is so impressively vast as to invite our most ambitious attempts at commemoration. It was, by measure of his 1.53 ERA, the greatest season since the mound was lowered in 1969. With a 24-4 record at age 20, he became the youngest 20-game winner in baseball history.

There is more. Gooden was removed from the mound mid-inning only twice all year—and never when trailing. He took the ball to the ninth inning 18 times in his 35 starts and finished the inning every time—while allowing one run (for a ninth-inning ERA of 0.50) and only one extra-base hit (a double). He pitched 28 innings in his four losses, during which his team scored a total of one run. He lost just once in his final 25 starts.

Still, we strive. For true appreciation there is his utter mastery of the Chicago Cubs, the defending NL East champions. Gooden started five times against the Cubs in 1985. He beat them every time, each time with a complete game; his five complete game wins against the Cubs are the most by any pitcher in the past 61 years. Chicago scored only five earned runs in five games off Gooden.

After a debut season in 1984 in which he went 17-9 and struck out 276 to win the NL Rookie of the Year award, Gooden would be even better in ’85 (above).
Neil Leifer for Sports Illsutrated

Veteran infielder Larry Bowa played on those 1985 Cubs until he was released in August. A week later he signed with the Mets, and could not wait to tell Gooden a secret.

TIME CAPSULE

August 1985

AUGUST 1

Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones born in San Diego.

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“Dwight,” Bowa told him, “you’ve been tipping your pitches. Every time you throw a fastball you lift your [left] index finger off your glove, and every time you throw a curveball you keep your index finger on your glove. We had every one of your pitches.”

That’s how good Gooden was in 1985: the Cubs knew what pitch was coming and still could not get him out of a game, much less beat him, in five tries.

Maybe this is even better: if the Mets gave him an early lead, Gooden privately would root for his own teammates to make outs—the quicker to get back on the mound. His confidence was well founded: when the Mets scored a second run when he was pitching, Gooden went 21-0.

Maybe, though, it is best to leave commemoration to the artist and adventurer himself.

“It was almost surreal, like an out-of-body experience,” Gooden says. “Every game I felt totally in control. I could put the ball where I wanted it. I could throw my curveball in any count. I knew how to set up hitters. I knew I had a plan and how I wanted to attack.

“Knowing I could throw it anywhere I wanted any time, before the hitter even gets in the box I’ve got him defeated. That was a great feeling.

Just 20 years old, Gooden brought a quiet confidence into his sophomore season. About 10 starts in, he says, he knew the year “was going to be something special."
Ron Frehm/AP

“About 10 starts into that season, I knew the year was going to be something special. Each time I went to the mound I wanted to pitch a complete game and I wanted 10 strikeouts. I’m not disrespecting other players, but I knew there were extra fans in attendance and they wanted to see a show. The best way to explain it is it was like a concert. And I was the main attraction. Every fifth day, when I took the mound, I felt like it was my show.”

The clattering, delirious tumult that welled within Shea Stadium in the summer of 1985 still hung faint in the ear when Gooden, the pitching prodigy who shook the grimy, hulking horseshoe on Flushing Bay like nobody since the Beatles, drove across Tampa from his house to his cousin’s house to smoke some weed. It was three months since he threw his last pitch of 1985 and two months since he turned 21. Gooden’s cousin told him he didn’t have any pot, but he would go score some for him.

“Be right back.” The cousin left.

Gooden poured himself a shot of vodka. He walked around the house. He opened a bedroom door. He found two half-naked women making out on a bed. They invited him in, and Gooden took a seat on a chair and watched. The women had cocaine. Would Gooden like to share it with them? Gooden declined. His drinking had picked up during the 1985 season, but he had never tried cocaine. Soon he joined them on the bed. The three of them downed shots of vodka.

The women brought out more coke, spreading it in neat lines over a credit card. Here, try some. And this time the freshly minted Cy Young Award winner thought, what the hell, we’re all just having fun here … and so he dragged his finger over the white dust on the credit card and touched it to his tongue, then snorted a line.

“At first, I thought it was the finest feeling I ever had,” says the man who had just been at the epicenter of New York’s joyful noise, “though it was a false feeling. The first time I tried cocaine …. the best way to say it is this: It was the worst mistake of my life, at [21] years old.

“People ask me all the time: if my career started in a place like Kansas City instead of New York, would I have the same problems? My answer is yes. My problems started in Tampa. I ask myself that question a lot. And what came up with my therapist is one of the triggers is women. It’s all hand in hand. Women always played a part.

It was a heady time to be a young sports star in New York City. Gooden may have given up very few hits in 1985, but he was tagged here by Mike Tyson, then in his first year as a pro, as Mets teammate Darryl Strawberry tried to referee.
Vincent Riehl/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

“In ’94, when I was rehabbing—I broke my toe—I was coming back to New York. Monica [his wife] was in Tampa. I went to a strip club. I went to a back room at the strip club and the next thing you know they break [cocaine] out, and two days later, as soon as I go home, the baseball guys test me. If I had 10 relapses, seven of them [involved] women as a big-time trigger.

“With me, when the relapses came, it was a double-edged sword. If I was down or depressed and suffering from self-pity, I was very vulnerable. And if things were happening great, I was vulnerable, too.”

In 1985 Dwight Gooden threw a baseball like an Acapulco cliff diver. The beauty and fluidity of his body moving through space concealed the danger and speed. Tuck, coil, uncoil, thrust and re-tuck. At least one foot remained on the ground and there was no water to speak of, but had there been a pool waiting at the end of his delivery, Gooden would have pierced the surface with just the hint of a polite splash.

His motion began with Gooden lifting his hands head high and his left knee as high as his armpit and tucked inside his left elbow. From this tuck position Gooden coiled, as if loading a spring. And then, as the leg began to kick out, his left hip drove toward home plate and only then did he pull the ball out of his glove with a long, syrupy arm swing—down, up and through. His arm and hand moved so fast that Gooden had a signature finish: his hand passing behind him, close to his body with a bend at the elbow. The re-tuck. It was perfect form for the deceleration of the arm and shoulder, reminiscent of Nolan Ryan. It was the natural flow of his body.

Gooden’s delivery followed the natural flow of his body and ended with his signature follow-through, arm sweeping behind him close to his side. “My mechanics were so sound,” says Gooden of his approach in 1985.
Richard Drew/AP

Cocaine, diet, age, maturity, injuries, the development of a pitch-count conserving two-seam fastball … all of it conspired to wreck Gooden’s ethereal flow. After 1985 he became a knockoff of himself, like one of those watches for sale on a Manhattan street corner. Gooden trying to do Gooden. Pitching became laborious, especially on the night in 1986 when Gooden left the mound without getting an out in the fifth inning of Game 5 of the World Series against Boston. His worn, worried face was slathered in an oddly expansive pool of sweat on a cool fall night. Four nights later, in the clubhouse immediately after the Mets won the World Series, Gooden dialed his dealer’s telephone number from memory and told him he was on his way to the public housing projects. Gooden got so hammered on coke and booze he missed the ticker tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes. It was only nine months after that first hit at his cousin’s house with those two women.

“In ’84 and ’86 I had the same mentality, the same drive,” Gooden says, “and I could put maybe four out of six pitches exactly where I wanted. In ’85 it was every pitch. My mechanics were so sound. I’m not saying it was easy. It wasn’t. I was totally focused. It’s really hard to explain, like Jordan totally locked in hitting his jumpers. It’s almost the same thing—all year.”

AUGUST 9

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure released. The Tim Burton-directed comedy, starring Paul Reubens in his Pee-Wee persona, would gross $40 million and become a cult classic.

Warner Brothers/Courtesy Everett Collection

We had no idea we were looking at the apotheosis of a pitcher at age 20 in 1985. Instead of standing on a springboard Gooden was standing on the edge of a cliff, a twist that makes the year all the more unique. Gooden never would be as good and as gifted as he was in 1985, but how many pitchers ever have been in the history of baseball?

“Nineteen eighty-five was the year I got to say I played behind Dwight Gooden,” says former Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez. “I never got to play behind Bob Gibson or Sandy Koufax, but this was the equivalent. Gibson, Koufax, Gooden … legends, true greats. Dwight was in that class. He was so good that year that if he didn’t strike out 10 batters we would joke around, ‘Hey, what’s wrong?’ You expected greatness every start. It was something to see.”

Gooden made his major league debut in Houston the previous year at age 19. He was so young and anxious that many hours before the night game he walked from the team hotel to the Astrodome, found it closed, and hopped a fence to get in. Gooden would win 17 games and set a rookie record with a league-leading 276 strikeouts (which would remain his career high). He was the National League Rookie of the Year.

“It was almost surreal, like an out-of-body experience,” says Gooden of his 1985 season. “Every game I felt totally in control. I could put the ball where I wanted it.”

He returned home to Tampa, where he still was living with his parents. The house filled almost every day that winter with people he hardly knew: guys who he had played with in Little League or against in high school; girls who said they were in his third-grade math class; complete strangers who knocked on the door looking for an autograph.

“Nonstop,” Gooden says. “It was unbelievable. It was fun, but it was pretty hectic. My mom, she’d like people to come by and cook for them. She liked the company at the house. She’d say, ‘You’re welcome to come back.’ I don’t think my dad cared so much for it. People I hadn’t seen for years would just pop in and make themselves at home.

“Coming into spring training ’85, I felt like I truly belonged. I was more confident going into my second year. And I knew the league was going to be up for me.”

Gooden had a new catcher in 1985: all-star and future Hall of Famer Gary Carter, then 31 years old and in his prime. The Mets obtained Carter that winter in a trade with Montreal for four players, including their incumbent catcher, 23-year-old Mike Fitzgerald. Carter would catch 31 of Gooden’s 35 starts in 1985.

“Gary and Keith, those guys reminded me in spring training that when hitters face a top pitcher, they get to the ballpark early, they concentrate more in BP … they take the top guys more seriously,” Gooden says. “It was their way of letting me know that I had to be on top of my game.

Future Hall of Famer Gary Carter came to the Mets in 1985. He would catch 31 of Gooden’s 35 starts that season and helped to drive the young pitcher to new heights.
Ray Stubblebine/AP

“Throwing to Gary, that was awesome. I remember at the [1984] All-Star Game it was Gary who caught me. I guess he saw I was nervous so he told me, ‘Just relax and throw the ball.’ I remember after I struck out three guys he said to me, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice for us to be able to do this every fifth day?’ He was such a nice guy, but on the field he was so competitive and had this incredible drive. He didn’t care if we were up 10-0. He felt like if I was messing around even a little bit with one pitch he would say something. He wanted you to pitch every game like it was 1-0. And he wanted to totally dominate.”

Gooden started on Opening Day against the Cardinals. He took a 5-2 lead into the seventh inning, but when he gave up singles to the first two hitters, Mets manager Davey Johnson pulled him. (Johnson would take the ball from him on the mound only one more time in 34 starts: with one out in the seventh May 15 at Houston with a one-run lead.) St. Louis would tie the game. Carter won it with a home run in the 10th inning.

After 10 starts, Gooden was 6-3 with a 1.89 ERA. In his three defeats, he was removed after seven innings down 2-0, after eight innings down 2-0 and after seven innings down 3-1.

“I’ll never forget, I threw a shutout early in the season,” Gooden says, “and [pitching coach] Mel Stottlemyre asked me, ‘Are you tired?’ I said, ‘No.’ I measured being tired by my shoulder hurting. But that’s not what he was talking about. He said, ‘If you’re not mentally tired, that means you have more to give.’ He was trying to tell me that being mentally tired means you’re into each pitch to each hitter – just totally focused and locked in. Once he explained that to me, it made sense. I got it. I never forgot that.”

“I never got to play behind Bob Gibson or Sandy Koufax, but this was the equivalent,” says Hernandez. “Gibson, Koufax, Gooden ... legends, true greats.”

Gooden lost once in the final 134 days of the 1985 season. He went 18-1 with a 1.39 ERA in 200.1 innings in that run. It began May 30, when Gooden beat the Giants, 2-1, with 14 strikeouts. “Astounding,” Carter says about Gooden’s pitches that day.

The next day, a bombshell hit: seven men were indicted by a federal grand jury in Pittsburgh on drug charges, principally for providing cocaine to major league players, none of whom were yet publically named. Speaking to a group of sports editors in New York, baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth said, “This has not been a bellwether day for me … I want to see how much of baseball is involved.”

Before there was Gooden, there was Fernando Valenzuela. In 1981, a strike-shortened season, the Dodgers lefthander won the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards at the age of 20. Gooden, then in high school, was enamored with Valenzuela’s style and success.

As a rookie in 1984, Gooden matched up against Valenzuela twice. He beat him both times with complete games. On May 25, 1985, however, Valenzuela and the Dodgers handed Gooden a rare loss at Shea Stadium, 6-2, in which Gooden left after seven innings trailing 3-1. (Gooden would not lose at home for the rest of the year.)

A rematch took place June 4 at Dodger Stadium in front of 49,386 fans. The 20-year-old Gooden entered with a 1.79 ERA. The 24-year-old Valenzuela entered with a 1.85 mark.

In 1981, at age 20, Fernando Valenzuela won the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards. In ’85, the Dodgers star would bring out Gooden’s best in five classic duels.
Peter Read Miller for Sports Illustrated

The stars delivered. The score was tied at one entering the bottom of the eighth inning when Steve Sax led off with a single off Gooden. Ken Landreaux followed with a hit-and-run single. Sax took third and Landreaux advanced to second on the throw. Johnson ordered Gooden to intentionally walk Pedro Guerrero, who in the sixth inning had blasted an 0-and-2 fastball for a home run.

Now Gooden faced the bases loaded and no outs in the bottom of the eighth at Dodger Stadium with the knowledge that one run would likely mean defeat. What happened next was legendary. Gooden ended the inning with nine pitches—all of them fastballs and all of them strikes. First he whiffed Greg Brock on three fastballs. Then he handcuffed Mike Scioscia on a first-pitch fastball, getting a foul pop-out to Carter. Then he blew a fastball past Terry Whitfield, who had managed the small triumph of two foul balls before succumbing.

Gooden was clocked at 94 mph in that inning, though the radar gun used at the time typically measured the speed of the pitch as it neared the plate, not as it left the pitcher’s hand, as is commonly done today. His fastball likely would have been clocked at about 99 mph with today’s technology.

AUGUST 10

Michael Jackson outbids Paul McCartney to buy the Beatles’ back catalog of songs for $47.5 million.

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Twice during the nine-pitch sequence Carter had called for curveballs—Gooden’s Uncle Charlie was so good it was known as Lord Charles—only to have the kid shake off the veteran each time.

“I knew I had to try for the strikeout there,” Gooden explained after the game. “I just decided to go with my best, and that’s the best I could be.”

The game still was tied but the Dodgers were defeated. Valenzuela coughed up three runs in the top of the ninth. Gooden knocked him out with his third hit of the game, an RBI single. Naturally, Gooden went back out for the ninth, once again serving as his own closer. He finished with 12 strikeouts. The Mets had grown accustomed to his greatness.

“I used to get goosebumps,” Johnson said after the game, “but not any more. Dwight’s like a security blanket for me.”

Johnson approached Gooden in late June with an idea: “How would you like an extra start?”

The Mets wanted to send their ace young to the mound as often as possible. Johnson could arrange his rotation to have Gooden start the last game before the All-Star break and the second game after it, but the plan required Gooden to make a start on short rest in Atlanta on the Fourth of July.

“Yeah, I’ll take it,” Gooden said.

“You’re looking at something special,” said Johnson after Gooden’s 16-K shutout of the Giants. “You probably won’t ever see anybody at his age who dominates so completely.”

The start of the game in Atlanta was delayed 84 minutes by rain. In the bottom of the third, with the game tied at one, another storm swept through. This one caused a delay of 41 minutes. Johnson decided not to bring back Gooden when play resumed. (Technically, it was a third start in which Gooden was removed mid-inning.)

“I was so hot and pissed off that I didn’t even shower,” Gooden says. “I just got up, walked out, got a cab and went to the hotel. I watched the game on TV for a while, then fell asleep with the TV on. I woke up about three, three-thirty, and I saw the game was on. I thought it was the highlights, actually. The game was still going on.”

The Mets won, 16-13, in 19 innings. Ron Darling threw the last pitch at 3:55 AM. Six minutes later, the Braves began their post-game fireworks show.

New York was a Mets town in 1985. For the first time since the remodeled Yankee Stadium opened in 1976, the Mets drew more fans than the Yankees. The Mets drew 2.7 million fans, an almost unheard-of 50 percent jump from the previous season, and a threshold the Yankees would not reach until 1998. Gooden was the biggest drawing card of all in 1985.

New York City in 1985 belonged to the Mets, who drew 2.7 million fans to Shea Stadium and stayed in the playoff race until the penultimate day of the season. At the very center of all the excitement was Gooden, here being congratulated by his teammates after beating the Cubs 1-0 on June 20 for his 10th victoy.
Ron Frehm/AP

In the 60 home dates when Gooden didn’t pitch, the Mets averaged 34,005 fans. In the 18 games Gooden started at Shea Stadium, attendance spiked 18 percent to 40,072. Gooden, while being paid $450,000, was worth an extra 819,045 fans by himself—more than the Mets drew for their entire season just six years earlier.

“That was a great feeling,” Gooden says about pitching at Shea. “When the stadium was like that, especially for a night game, it was special. I would be driving out to the park, getting totally fired up just thinking about it. It was just an overwhelming feeling, knowing that they’re there to watch me pitch.”

Those faithful to Gooden were led by a recent Seton Hall graduate named Dennis Scalzitti, who the previous year, with his friend Leo Avolio, started the K Korner in the upper deck near the leftfield foul pole. (Another friend, Bob Belle, replaced Avolio in 1985.) The friends hung white placards with a red K for each of Gooden’s strikeouts. They crafted their own definition of Gooden’s greatness just with the number of K cards they prepared and brought to each game: 27.

Signs of the times: The Shea faithful kept track of Dr. K’s strikeouts, posting a letter for every whiff. Here a 14th K goes up during Gooden’s Aug. 20 outing against the Cubs. Those fans would post two more, as Gooden finished with a complete-game 3–0 win and 16 strikeouts.
Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated

After every start, before he spoke to the press, Gooden would call his father, Dan.

“My dad, not that he was critical, but he always found something for me to work on,” Gooden says. “Like that game against Fernando. ‘Great game, son, now between starts you can work on this, work on that …’ He would find something. Later on I realized he didn’t want me to settle for the success I was having.”

On Aug. 20, 1985, Dan Gooden called his son before the game. He had a request.

Says Dwight, “I have three brothers—one passed away—who are my dad’s sons and a lot older. I saw them as a kid in the summers before ’84. They were in San Jose. So we’re playing the Giants and he says to me, ‘Give me 16 Ks tonight.’ I said, ‘Okay, you got it.’”

That night Gooden, number 16, struck out 16 Giants in a seven-hit shutout, 3-0. He threw 143 pitches. Chili Davis of San Francisco saw fit to point out, “He’s not God, man.”

“You’re looking at something special,” Johnson said after the game. “You probably won’t ever see anybody at his age who dominates so completely.”

Five days later, Gooden beat the Padres, 9-3, with six pedestrian innings (three runs, four strikeouts) for his 20th win—younger by 27 days than Bob Feller had been when Feller won his 20th in 1939.

Gooden was the talk of baseball. Even wise, hardened baseball men scrambled to come up with the appropriate level of wonder for what they were watching. Whitey Herzog, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, the team the Mets were chasing all summer, said, “There’s only one MVP in the National League, and that’s Dwight Gooden.”

Gooden’s form and command impressed the experts as much as the fans throughout the season. Said Sandy Koufax, “I’d rather have his future than my past.”
Neil Leifer for Sports Illustrated

(Incredibly, Gooden would receive only one first-place MVP vote and finish fourth, behind Guerrero, Reds outfielder Dave Parker and the winner, outfielder and batting champion Willie McGee of Herzog’s Cardinals.)

Stan Williams, a Yankees scout and former major league pitcher, said, “He’s the only guy I’ve ever thought about with a chance to break Cy Young’s record of 511 wins.”

And Sandy Koufax chipped in with this gem: “I’d rather have his future than my past.”

One notable person, though, didn’t share enough in all the joy Gooden created: Dwight Gooden.

“Looking back, I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as I should have,” he says. “It was a game, but it’s a job. I was so locked in from start to start that I wasn’t truly aware of what was going on, even after games that I won. Now I have a 10-year-old son, and sometimes we’ll be watching one of those games from ’85, and it’s almost like watching somebody else.

“He’ll say to me, ‘Wow. You were 20 years old. You must have been happy.’ And I would tell him, ‘Where’s the joy on my face? When I was going through it, I wish I could have enjoyed it more.’ It was like every game was so serious, like that whole year I stayed totally locked in and focused. It was draining. To a certain degree, a very small percentage, my drinking increased that year. I guess I was afraid to fail. Part of me was afraid to fail. When I pitched well I immediately started to think about having to do it the next game.”

Despite his success, Gooden felt little joy through the course of the season, saying he was so “locked in and focused” that he constantly felt drained.
Ray Stubblebine/AP

The Mets began September with the third best record in baseball (76-52), but two games behind St. Louis in the NL East. These were the days when only division winners advanced to the playoffs. Their plan to catch the Cardinals was simple: lean even more heavily on Gooden.

Gooden only got better as the season went on. In this Sept. 16 outing, he beat the Phillies 9-0 for his 21st win, while extending his scoreless streak to 21 innings.
Ron Frehm/AP

Gooden threw 53 innings in September (the baseball “month” includes regular season innings in October). No one since then as young as Gooden has worked that much in September. The September load pushed his season total to 276 ⅔ innings—more than any pitcher that young in the live ball era (since 1920) except Feller in 1938 and 1939 and Bert Blyleven in 1971.

Somehow, Gooden was at his best so deep into the grinding season. He allowed two earned runs the entire month. Gooden went 5-0 in six September starts with a 0.34 ERA, the third lowest ERA among any pitcher who ever threw 50 innings in the month, trailing only Orel Hershiser in 1988 (0.00) and Jim Kaat in 1974 (0.30). Gooden faced 203 batters in September—only one of them when he was trailing. (It happened after an unearned run in the top of the first inning of a game the Mets would win, 12-1, with Gooden logging eight innings in the blowout.)

AUGUST 16

Madonna marries Sean Penn on her 27th birthday. The marriage would last barely two years.

Vinnie Zuffante/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Gooden’s month began with a third matchup of the season against Valenzuela, the second one at Dodger Stadium. Again, neither ace gave ground. This time the game was scoreless through nine innings. In the 10th, with a runner at first base and one out, Johnson sent Keith Hernandez to pinch hit for Gooden, who had struck out 10 batters and walked none.

Hernandez did not start the game because earlier in the day he gave dramatic testimony in Pittsburgh at the federal drug trials. One of several players who testified under immunity at the trial of clubhouse caterer Curtis Strong, Hernandez said he began using “massive” amounts of cocaine in 1980 and developed “an insatiable desire for more.” He admitted he played under the influence of coke as a Cardinal before quitting just prior to his trade to the Mets in June of 1983. Hernandez quit, he said, because he was petrified from having lost 10 pounds, awakening one morning with his nose bleeding, dealing with “the shakes” and seeing St. Louis teammate Lonnie Smith suffer from such a “bad experience” from the drug that he was unable to play a game.

“I consider cocaine the devil on this earth,” Hernandez testified.

Keith Hernandez helped lead the Mets’ charge all through the 1985 season. He would finish eighth in the NL MVP race (behind Gooden in fourth and Carter in sixth). He would also emerge as a key figure in the Pittsburgh drug trials that brought on baseball’s cocaine scandal.
Amy Sancetta/AP

In covering the trial, Time magazine wrote that the drug scandal detracted from an otherwise “banner year” in baseball, in which the feel-good stories included Pete Rose taking aim at Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record and “the young Met fireballer, Dwight Gooden … prompting comparisons with the greatest pitchers of the past.”

Fresh off the witness stand, Hernandez grounded into a double play.

The game remained scoreless. Valenzuela pitched 11 innings before Los Angeles manager Tommy Lasorda finally removed him for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the inning. The Mets eventually won in 13 innings, 2-0.

“It’s a game I’ll remember as long as I live,” Gooden said after the game.

In 1984 and 1985, Gooden and Valenzuela matched up five times. Between them they averaged 8⅔ innings per start. The Mets won four of those games. Gooden was 3-1 in those duels with a 1.05 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 43 innings.

“Believe me,” Gooden says, “pitchers don’t like to say it, but when you’re pitching against another team and you’re facing a guy like Fernando, you are aware of who you’re pitching against. You know you can’t give up a couple of runs.”

The Mets took over first place from the Cardinals on Sept. 10, when they scored five runs in the first inning at Shea and held on to beat them, 5-4. Gooden was scheduled to pitch the next night against Cardinals ace John Tudor. In those years Hernandez liked to say that the biggest game for the Mets was the one before Gooden started; the team felt they had a built-in winning streak in place if they were coming off a win when Gooden took the ball.

Gooden gave the Mets nine more scoreless innings, but for a second straight start, the Mets didn’t score for him. The Mets lost, 1-0, when reliever Jesse Orosco yielded a home run to the first batter he faced in the 10th, Cesar Cedeno. Tudor threw all 10 innings, lowering his ERA to 1.87. The Mets and Cardinals were tied with 25 games to play.

Gooden hated Wrigley Field. The mound was too flat. The wind affected his curveball. And Gooden hated day games. (Wrigley Field did not get lights until 1988.)

“Dr. [Alan] Lans brought it to my attention,” Gooden says, referring to the team psychiatrist. “I was the type who was always up until one, two in the morning. So to be up, eat breakfast and get ready for a day game, my body was only half awake. In my third year Dr. Lans came up with this idea to get up earlier so I have time to get my body ready. Instead of getting up at eight or nine, I got up at six or seven.”

It’s no stretch to call Gooden’s 1985 season the greatest for any pitcher since the mound was lowered in 1969. He led the majors in wins (24) strikeouts (268) and ERA (1.53), while pitching 16 complete games. He was a unanimous choice for the National League Cy Young Award.
Tony Triolo for Sports Illustrated

There was something about the day games in Chicago that he did love: they enabled him to eat at his favorite Japanese steakhouse there. Gooden was a prodigious eater. Raised on fast-food burgers, when he reached the big leagues he fell hard for restaurant quality burgers. He used to eat a cheeseburger after batting practice every day. He ate so many hamburgers as a rookie that his teammates called him “Wimpy,” after the burger-loving cartoon character. At the Japanese steakhouse in Chicago, Gooden would eat their deluxe dinner—“Steak, lobster, shrimp, fried rice, soup, salad, extra shrimp, vegetables …”—and then eat another full deluxe dinner in the same sitting.

Later in his career when he joined the Yankees and visited Chicago for night games at the White Sox’s park, Gooden would shower after batting practice (to save time so he didn’t have to shower after the game) and make sure the clubhouse attendant had a cab waiting for him with the engine running after the last out so he could make it to the steakhouse, which the owners kept open just for him.

“A lot of times I was the only one in there,” Gooden says.

“Looking back, I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as I should have,” says Gooden of ’85. “I was so locked in from the start that I wasn’t truly aware of what was going on.”

On Sept. 26, 1985, Wrigley Field greeted Gooden with a damp, cold, windy afternoon. Only 11,091 people bothered to show up. Gooden struggled. He pitched with 11 runners on base. But he permitted none of them to score. He pitched his fifth complete game win against the Cubs that year. Johnson, despite all the traffic on the bases and the poor weather, didn’t dare trust the game to a reliever.

“He’s fun to watch,” the manager told reporters after the game. “He’s got to the point where you never think of relief for him. He labored a little. He fought himself a little. He showed a little more expression; he’d throw a bad pitch and talk to himself. But how can you have a bad game when you don’t give up any runs?

“You’ve seen him get in traps many times. But he’s not really in trouble. He just has to throw a few more pitches.”

When the Mets arrived in St. Louis for a three-game series that began on Oct. 1, the Cardinals, riding a 15-3 run, held a three-game lead with six games to play. Johnson lined up Darling, Gooden and Rick Aguilera to start the three games. When Herzog saw Johnson’s plans, he switched his ace, Tudor, to pitch the first game instead of the second.

Asked to explain the switch, Herzog said, “Avoid your best pitcher pitching against Gooden, especially when you have a three-game lead going in. I’d hate to send Tudor against Gooden and lose, 1-0. I might lose, 1-0, with him in the opener, but that’s the chance I have to take.”

Herzog did lose the opener, 1-0. Tudor pitched 10 shutout innings again, but the Mets won in 11 innings when Darryl Strawberry hit a monster of a home run off reliever Ken Dayley that smacked off a digital scoreboard clock reading 10:44. Hernandez was happy; the Mets had won the game before a Gooden start.

Gooden had thrown 48 consecutive innings without giving up an earned run. The streak ended at 49, but he pitched one of his most gallant games of the year. The Cardinals put 14 runners on against him, including at least one in every inning. Gooden permitted only two of them to score. Johnson let Gooden start the ninth with a 5-1 lead, and left him in when, with two outs and the bases empty, the next four Cardinals all reached base: walk, walk, single, single. The score was 5-2, the bases were loaded and Tommy Herr was at bat, but still Johnson stayed with Gooden. Herr smashed a line drive. Second baseman Wally Backman reached over his head to snare it for the final out. Gooden had thrown 136 pitches.

“Nice going,” Backman joked to Gooden, after the Mets’ elimination. “You lost four games. We would have been in the playoffs if it wasn’t for your four losses.”

“I threw a hanging breaking ball to Tommy Herr,” Gooden says. “I was so competitive, that even though guys were high-fiving, we won the game, I was so pissed off after the game because of that pitch.”

The Mets were one game out with four to play. The Cardinals, though, rebounded the next night behind Danny Cox and four relievers to win, 4-3. St. Louis clinched the division two days later on the penultimate day of the season with a win over the Cubs while the Mets lost to the Expos. Until then, Gooden was prepared to pitch game 162 on three days of rest. New York was eliminated despite 98 wins, 24 of them by Gooden.

“Nice going,” Backman joked to Gooden. “You lost four games. We would have been in the playoffs if it wasn’t for your four losses.”

Dwight Gooden is 50 years old. He lives on Long Island. He has seven children ranging in age from five to 29. He has three grandchildren, one of which is older than his youngest child. He earns a modest living making public appearances.

In 2006, Gooden was sentenced to jail in Florida for using cocaine in violation of an earlier probation. He would serve seven months.
Steve Nesius/AP

“I’m a little worried about Doc,” says one of his former Mets teammates. “Lately he’s been blowing off appearances.”

Gooden says he is sober, but is being treated for depression.

“Back in December, my mom had a massive heart attack and I went through a massive depression,” he says. “It was the Saturday after Christmas. They gave her three months to live. At the time, it was almost like what my dad went through all over again, hooked up to machines.”

Dan Gooden died in 1997 at age 69 after years of heart and kidney issues.

“It was horrible,” Gooden says of the effect on him of his mother’s illness. “I started feeling vulnerable. I felt like drinking and taking drugs, but that’s messed up. I went back to therapy for about eight months.

“I’m still medicated,” says Gooden. “It’s tricky. If I miss a day for whatever reason, if I don’t take it, I still occasionally get down and depressed for no reason.”

“She’s doing better now. She’s 84. She’s definitely a warrior.”

Asked how he was doing, Gooden replies, “Okay. I’m still medicated. It’s tricky. If I miss a day for whatever reason, if I don’t take it, I still occasionally get down and depressed for no reason. My brain is like chemically dependent. If I don’t take it, I get depressed. Now I’ve got to commit to taking it for the rest of my life.

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“It’s like this: my mom had a bad day at the hospital, I left the hospital, and the next day I didn’t take my medicine, and then the depression came. Depression is tricky. I don’t know how to compare it to addictions like drugs and alcohol. I can’t say it’s worse. But it’s almost like … say if your sister is getting married, and you might say, ‘She’s getting married but I don’t want to go.’ People don’t understand that.

“That football player who talked about it, Brandon Marshall, watching his career and seeing some of the things he did all didn’t make sense. I would go, ‘Man, this guy’s crazy.’ But now I’m going through it, and I can totally relate.”

Gooden did not break Cy Young’s record of 511 wins, but he did pitch until he was 35 years old. He finished his career in 2000 with a record of 194-112. He was placed on the 2006 Hall of Fame ballot and received 3.3 percent of the vote – below the five percent threshold to remain eligible. Five months after the vote was announced, Gooden reported to Gainesville (Fla.) Correctional Institute to serve a sentence of one year and one day for using cocaine in violation of his probation. (He was released after serving seven months.) It was three years and one month after Strawberry left the same prison for the same offense.

“When I went in,” Gooden says, “for some strange reason I didn’t think I would come out. I thought I would be killed or die in there or something.

“Then as I was in there I began to think, if I can make it out of here my life will change for the better. In there, you have nothing but time. I thought about my career, my life, my mistakes. I had a long look back on my career.

Wherever Gooden goes people remind him of 1985. Shea Stadium may be gone, but the joy and wonder that welled within its walls when Gooden was the show still echos.

“I used to beat myself up about it. Looking back, once I retired, every time I got in trouble it seemed to be in March. I wouldn’t understand that – that’s when baseball was starting—but my career was based on what other people thought it should be. My own expectation was to try to stay healthy and play a long time. I never thought about awards, and then things started happening pretty fast.

“Of course I think about that [decision to use cocaine]. I feel like my career was cut short because of it. But in jail I came to realize, why should I beat myself up on things that didn’t happen when I had so much good that did happen? Today, I can honestly say I don’t beat myself up, no.”

Nineteen eighty-five is forever his personal property, the way 1968 is Gibson’s. Gibson’s 1.12 ERA in 1968 and Gooden’s 1.53 ERA in 1985 are the two lowest ERAs in the 95 years of the live ball era. Gibson walked 62 batters and struck out 268 in 1968; Gooden walked 69 batters and also struck out 268 in 1985.

Gooden was never again as good as he was in that 1985 season. He would go on to throw a no-hitter for the Yankees and finish his career with 194 wins. But the image that remains clearest is of that virtually untouchable 20-year-old dominating from the mound at Shea.
Jerry Wachter for Sports Illustrated

Wherever Gooden goes people remind him of 1985. Shea Stadium may be gone, but the joy and wonder that welled within its walls still echo. They echo in the memories of those who saw when Gooden was the show, or in the acquired knowledge of those who know about his greatness only from their parents’ stories or YouTube clips. Each carrier of oral history has a favorite story, a favorite definitive takeaway, from the year a 20-year-old kid with just two pitches and the kinetic beauty of a ballet dancer grinded through the most exquisite 276 ⅔ innings in the five decades since the mound was lowered.

“One more thing,” Gooden says. “I don’t want anybody to break my records. I’ll be honest. Ninety-five percent of the guys who say, ‘I don’t care. Records are made to be broken,’ they’re just saying it because they think it’s the right thing to say. They don’t really mean it. I’ll be honest with you: I don’t want anybody to break mine.”