Dwight Gooden, the Mets' 19-year-old rookie righthander, was scheduled to pitch against Montreal last Friday night, and the excitement mounted all day in New York. Offices buzzed with talk of his strikeouts. Radio stations led their sports reports with his name. People stampeded the Shea Stadium ticket windows, swelling the crowd to 39,586. Then, as Gooden built up two-strike leads against Montreal batters, the fans went bananas, clapping, screaming, whistling and waving "K" signs.
Gooden didn't disappoint them. He mowed down Andre Dawson. He whiffed Gary Carter. He fanned Pete Rose. In all, Gooden struck out 11 Expos, getting four of them twice, the decibel level increasing with each K. He allowed only five hits. He walked but one batter. It was an occasion, an event, a spectacle, and not even Gooden's only mistake—a high fastball Dawson lined over the fence in the fourth inning for a 2-1 Montreal victory—could ruin the show. Though the Mets lost, they actually extended their lead in the National League East to a full game because second-place Philadelphia dropped a doubleheader to Pittsburgh. Thus, Gooden's performance could be enjoyed for the near-masterpiece it was. He's a happening in New York, just as Mark Fidrych and Fernando Valenzuela were in their rookie years in Detroit and L.A.
For that matter, the '84 Mets have been as amazin' as the 1969 and 1973 Met teams that won National League championships. At week's end they had a 37-29 record and led the NL East by percentage points. More shocking, perhaps, was the fact they had reached first place on the arms of babes.
Gooden (6-4) was No. 2 in the league with 107 strikeouts, and his 2.55 earned run average was fourth among starters. "I'm going out on a limb," says Chicago outfielder Gary Matthews. "He's already my rookie of the year."
But Gooden's not the whole show for the pitching-rich Mets. Among the other starters, Ed Lynch, 28, was 7-3 with a 3.13 ERA; Ron Darling, 23, was 7-3 and 3.69, and Walt Terrell, 26, was 5-6 and 3.24. For relievers, the Mets have Doug Sisk, 26, who owned a 1-1 record with an 0.55 ERA and 10 saves, and Jesse Orosco, 27, whose numbers were 5-2, 2.06 and 13. The bottom line was that the Mets had won 17 of 29 games through last Sunday, including five shutouts, three in succession, and had a team ERA of 2.16.
They're an infectious bunch, too. On June 15 the Mets traded three minor-leaguers to Cincinnati for Bruce Berenyi, a pitcher with great promise but little in the way of past performance. On Saturday, however, Berenyi whipped the league's winningest (11-4) pitcher, the Expos' Charlie Lea, 2-0, getting two innings of relief from Sisk. "I'm really impressed with how the young pitchers adjust to pressure here," said Berenyi, the staff's senior citizen at 29. "I was watching Dwight last night, and I said to myself, 'There's no reason I shouldn't have that kind of control.' I guess it's rubbing off."
After finishing in last place in 1983, the Mets were ready to renovate their pitching. Tom Seaver, 39, was left unprotected in the free-agent compensation pool and was lost to the White Sox. Then the Mets released Craig Swan, 33, Dick Tidrow, 37, and Mike Torrez, 37, to make way for the ducklings. Everybody expected the Mets to be improved in 1984, but few expected them to be in first place so late in the season.
An exception was their rookie manager, Davey Johnson, himself an executive babe at 41. "What we did was all very logical and simple," says Johnson. "We'd finished sixth with some older pitchers, and I wanted to establish at least three young arms. I figured that even if they fell flat, we'd be better off in 1985, although we'd probably have made a managerial change by then. I knew Terrell, Darling and Gooden because I'd managed them last year at [AAA] Tidewater, and I knew Lynch had pitched well for the Mets. We're talking about a fine-tuning, not an overhaul. Originally, I was prepared to get one good outing and two bad ones at a time from each of them; I was tickled to death when I got 50 percent good ones in April and May. By June 1 they had gone around the league, and now they've become more confident. When you play behind pitchers you believe in, you can compete with anyone."
What makes Gooden so good? Some say his pitching style, same say his poise. He has a praying-mantis motion—all arms and legs—and a see-if-you-can-hit-it look on his follow-through. "His fastball rises like Sandy Koufax's," says Expo first baseman Pete Rose, the only man alive who has faced both. Others have likened Gooden to a young Bob Gibson or Seaver or J.R. Richard. "You know how the curve is called an Uncle Charlie?" says Lynch. "Dwight's is so good we call it a Lord Charles."
"I don't ever doubt myself," says Gooden, who has doe eyes, a gold-framed upper tooth and a controlled cockiness. "I don't feel any pressure. Of course, I hear the crowds; I just try to stay calm, follow my game plan and not overthrow."
Gooden is the youngest of six children born to Dan and Ella May Gooden of Tampa. "The next youngest is 31, and that has some bearing on his maturity," says Dan. A retired chemical plant worker and former semipro player, the elder Gooden started Dwight in baseball at age 3. When he was six he saw Al Kaline hit two homers and make two spectacular catches in a spring training game at Lakeland. "I fell in love with him and wanted to play outfield," says Gooden. At 12, however, he also became a pitcher. At 14, in senior Little League, he lost his temper—for the last time. "I thought I was never supposed to lose or give up hits," he says. "I gave up something like eight runs in 1‚Öì innings, banged my hand against a wall and fractured my wrist." Three years later the Mets made Gooden their first pick in the June 1982 free-agent draft.
As a roving instructor visiting Kingsport, Tenn., the Mets' lowest Class A farm team, that summer, Johnson asked Gooden to show him his stuff. He threw one fastball that rose, another that tailed away, and also showed a superb curve. "I knew we had something," says Johnson. That season Gooden struck out 84 batters in 79 innings. In 1983 he went 19-4 with 300 Ks in 191 innings at Lynchburg, in a tougher Class A league, and jumped from there to Tidewater, helping pitch that team to the minor league championship. One of Johnson's first acts after being named Met manager last Oct. 13 was to ask general manager Frank Cashen to keep an open mind about promoting Gooden to the majors.
Gooden made a compelling case for himself in spring training. First, he pitched well in B-squad games. In his first A-game start, he surrendered a two-run homer to Toronto's Cliff Johnson, then calmly retired eight of the next nine batters. Johnson started him against the Yankees before a large crowd in Fort Lauderdale. Gooden, unfazed, went on to make the club. "Davey gerrymandered the rotation so that Dwight could open the season in the controlled conditions of the Astrodome," says Cashen. Pitching before his parents, whom the Mets had flown in, Gooden struck out five batters and yielded but three hits and one run over five innings, and got the win. "People kept telling me I'd be nervous," he says. "I never felt nervous at all—just strange." Now, after every start, Gooden calls his father and goes over nearly every pitch with him.
Bringing Gooden along slowly—"no crush or rush to go nine," says Cashen—the Mets didn't allow him to complete a game until May 11, when he shut out the Dodgers 2-0 in L.A. In six of his seven starts since then, he has allowed two runs or fewer. "He brushes off games as just another day at the office," says Darling.
Call it the Gooden Effect—his poise has rubbed off on other Met pitchers. But what a crew Gooden has to work with: an odd couple, two erstwhile store detectives and a big guy who can't throw hard.
The odd couple is Darling and Terrell, who were acquired from the Rangers in exchange for outfielder Lee Mazzilli on April Fools' Day 1982. Darling is a Yale man and 1981 No. 1 draft choice whose major pitching problem is his subtlety. Terrell, a 1980 33rd-round choice, is called Bulldog because he goes right at 'em. "Ron's intelligent," says Johnson, "but I sometimes wonder if he has common sense." Darling's getting there. In early May, he stopped falling behind on the count by trying to throw "fine" pitches. Terrell gives up a lot of hits (101 in 94‚Öì innings) but not many walks (35).
Sisk and Orosco share the bullpen, a house in Queens, N.Y. and the distinction of having worked as store dicks. "It's hard to believe," says Sisk, "but people were ripping off Goodwill stores." Orosco became one of baseball's best relievers last season when he won 13 games, saved 17 and held opponents to a .175 average with men on base. Sisk can pitch short relief, but he's happier setting up Orosco, both at home ("paper plates") and in the pen ("What else can you do but pitch middle relief when you've only got one pitch?"). Throwing virtually nothing but a sinker, Sisk has only allowed three earned runs in 31 appearances and has a league-leading hits-per-inning ratio of .5. "His pitch is like a dry spitter—you won't see many guys getting the fat part of the bat on it," says Met broadcaster Tim McCarver, an ex-catcher. "I think he's the key to their staff," says Atlanta reliever Terry Forster.
And then there's Lynch, who is 6'5" tall, weighs 207 pounds and doesn't have much of a fastball. "You used to get 10 to 12 changeups out of every 20 pitches from him," says Met first baseman Keith Hernandez. "Now he throws a lot of cut fastballs and sinkers, which make his changeup that much better. He's the most improved pitcher in the league."
Hernandez is a vital member of the staffs supporting cast. The best-fielding first baseman in the league, he made a spectacular stop to preserve the Berenyi-Sisk shutout. Because the team's putative sluggers, leftfielder George Foster (.217, 10 homers, 32 runs batted in) and right-fielder Darryl Strawberry (.269, 9, 32), have produced only sporadically, Hernandez (.303, seven game-winning RBIs), centerfielder Mookie Wilson (.288, 19 stolen bases) and third baseman Hubie Brooks (.320) have carried the offense. And Hernandez is constantly going to the mound with advice on opposing hitters.
Another regular visitor to the mound is Mike Fitzgerald, the rookie catcher whom Hernandez calls the team's "unsung hero." A young catcher to handle young pitchers? "He grew up with these pitchers in the minors," says Johnson, "the way Andy Etchebarren did with the young Oriole pitchers of the mid-'60s. Old-fashioned baseball theory says to have an old catcher with young pitchers. That's nice, but it takes a period of adjustment. Why not use a young catcher with no adjustment?"
What's stranger than a rookie catcher working with rookie pitchers? A National League pitching coach who has never worked in the National League. But Mel Stottlemyre, the ex-Yankee, is getting high marks in his first year with the Mets. He even has a system of fines—$1 for a minor infraction like reporting late to batting practice, $3 for walking the leadoff man, $7 for failing to bunt a man over and a higher amount for "embarrassments to the club," such as looking foolish at the plate.
Gooden, who is wise beyond his years, has been assessed only a few dollars for piddling offenses. "I look hard in order to keep him on his toes," says Stottlemyre, "but he's tough to catch."
And match. Midway through Friday's game Gooden had the crowd in a frenzy. Whole sections of fans rose, one after the other—a giant wave rippling around the park. "The only time I've heard it so loud and boisterous was in the seventh game of the 1979 World Series," said Met first base coach Bill Robinson, who played in that series for the winning Pirates. "These kids really deserve it. Let's hear it for the boys!"