"Oh, crap," says
The words come automatically. The dismay is legitimate. I have just informed the long-retired major league catcher that the Washington Nationals seem to think
That sentiment was expressed by Washington manager
Hearn is stunned. He has seen a ghost, and it is standing in front of him in his Overland Park, Kans., home. The apparition is a lanky kid, 6-foot-2, maybe 175 pounds, with elastic arms and a crooked gold front tooth. He is a perfect physical specimen -- long and lean and blessed with a Ford Mustang-powered fastball. He is unshakable, and unbeatable. "
In the summer of 1983, Hearn was a catcher with the Lynchburg Mets of the Class A Carolina League. The team was loaded with future Major League arms, from
Then he squatted behind the plate and received the Uzi blast that was the 18-year-old Gooden's four-seam fastball.
"I could turn to the hitter and say, 'Here comes Doc's heater,' and he wouldn't be able to hit it," says Hearn. "He blew the ball by people, and it never looked especially hard. His fastball had a very natural movement. Dwight had that gift." Indeed, in one of the great seasons in minor league baseball history, Gooden went 19-4 in 27 starts, with a 2.54 ERA and 300 strikeouts over 191 innings.
Gooden debuted with the Mets the following year, and in 1985 established himself as an official heir to the
Before Gooden could take the next step toward legend, however, the Mets committed an unforgivable faux pas: They tinkered. GM
Hence, during spring training before the Mets' world-championship 1986 season, Stottlemyre spent hours upon hours tutoring Gooden on the intricacies of the two-seam grip. "I always thought they should have left Doc alone,"
The results speak for themselves. In 1985, Gooden was the elite arm in all of baseball. In 1986, he was merely good -- a 17-6 pitcher whose ERA rose by more than a run per game and whose strikeouts dropped precipitously. "Looking back, you never knew with Dwight whether some of that was related to his [well-documented] substance abuse issues," says Hearn. "But I caught Doc, and I can tell you he wasn't the same after being forced to throw a pitch he was never comfortable with.
"I don't know this Strasburg kid, and all I've watched were the highlights on TV. But if I'm Washington, I leave him alone and let his talent shine. Because I've seen what can happen when you mess with a great thing.
"It's not pretty."