Shea Stadium was a sea of cardboard K's: black ones, red ones, green ones, orange ones, some held aloft, others hung from upper-deck railings. There were cloth K's, too, and K's drawn on blank sheets of paper. Shea didn't have enough nooks and crannies for all the K's that greeted the appearance of Dwight (Dr. K) Gooden on a gala night last week. "We've got a wild bunch tonight," said Mets video technician Joey Fitzgerald, looking out at Gooden from a runway behind home plate, radar gun in hand.
With none out in the top of the sixth, Gooden had already struck out 11 San Francisco Giants and was coasting on a 3-0 lead. In his next start, on Sunday, the Mets' 20-year-old ace would become the youngest 20-game winner in modern history, striking out four batters and allowing two earned runs and five hits before being lifted for a pinch hitter in the sixth inning of a 9-3 Mets victory over the San Diego Padres. It was his 14th win in a row and left him with a 1.78 ERA and 212 strikeouts, both best in the majors. And the win kept the Mets within a game of the Cardinals in the red-hot National League East race. Now, however, in the sixth inning against the Giants, Gooden was at his pluperfect best. He stared in, coolly snapping his gum, as Giants first baseman Dan Driessen stepped to the plate.
"He's really blowing it out now," said Fitzgerald, a former minor league relief pitcher who videotapes and radar-clocks Met players. In the world of Gooden, Fitzgerald is a sort of digitized Boswell, intimately familiar with the good Doctor's pitching life. He can tell you that Gooden throws the hardest curveball in the National League (at nearly 80 mph) and that Gooden and Lee Smith of the Cubs, according to his RA-GUN readings, serve the hottest fastballs (96 mph). Fitzgerald noted that over the last few innings Gooden had been scorching the air with 94-mph heat.
"Dwight is one of the few pitchers in the National League who actually get faster as they go along," he had explained. "Most guys start at their fastest, then gradually lose from five to seven miles an hour. Dwight starts at 89 or 90, then gets up to 93 or 94 around the third inning and holds it. And he'll bring it a notch or two above that if he really needs to, like if a runner's on third base."
September 1, 1985
Fitzgerald pointed his radar pistol directly at Gooden, who started Driessen off with a wicked curveball that caught the outside corner. Strike one.
"Seventy-four," reported Fitzgerald. "That's his better curve, the slow one. It moves more." Giants catcher Bob Brenly, who fanned three times during the game, calls Gooden's hook "a spine-bender." Mets second baseman Wally Backman just shakes his head. "Doc's out there throwing this incredible heat, and then he comes in with an 80-mile-an-hour hook a guy couldn't hit even with a four-by-four," Backman says. "You almost have to laugh."
Driessen only winced as a 94-mph fastball shot past him for a called strike two. The crowd of 31,758 roared—and kept roaring. Their K signs danced. Shea crowds swell by an average of about 5,000 when Gooden pitches, largely for the thrill of cheering his two-strike pitches. With Gooden on the verge of a K, the stadium rocks with noise. Now Gooden fired. Whooooosh! Driessen swung right through it. Shea rocked. "Ninety-four," Fitzgerald said, reading the figure from the RA-GUN.
Such was the fans' hunger for strikeouts that they actually booed Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez and leftfielder George Foster for catching two-strike foul pops in the seventh and eighth innings. But the levelheaded Gooden doesn't want to strain his K-pabilities. "A lot of strikeout pitchers develop arm trouble," he said after the game. "I'll take a ground ball over a K any day. That's less pitches." Still, Gooden fanned four more Giants to complete a 3-0, seven-hit shutout. His 16 strikeouts established a 1985 major league high, and by putting his season's total over 200—he ended the week with 212—he became only the second player in baseball history (Cleveland's Herb Score was the first) to reach that milestone in each of his first two major league seasons. "I never thought, I mean, no way, that I'd be striking out this many," Gooden says softly and earnestly. "They've been the biggest surprise."
Against the Padres on Sunday, Gooden struggled a little. Pitching in a drizzle, he had difficulty with slippery baseballs, tossing 93 pitches in his six innings and handing San Diego an unearned third-inning run with two wild pitches and his own throwing error. "I just never found my rhythm," he said afterward.
But when Mets manager Davey Johnson pinch-hit for him, the Mets were leading 4-3. Gooden repaired to the clubhouse and watched on TV as his teammates added five insurance runs and reliever Roger McDowell shut out the Padres over the final three innings to preserve the win that boosted Gooden's record to 20-3. He became the youngest 20-game winner by 27 days, supplanting Bob Feller.
If Gooden was extraordinary at age 19 as the NL Rookie of the Year, he has been, in Backman's words, "beyond awesome" as a 20-year-old. Despite having to wear an elastic brace on his right ankle all season because of strained ligaments, Gooden has allowed more than three earned runs only once in 28 starts. He has thrown 13 complete games and six shutouts, tying for the league lead in both categories. He hasn't lost since May 25.
"There's only one MVP in the National League, and that's Dwight Gooden," says St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog.
"His pitch does everything," Cubs first baseman Leon Durham says. "It moves, it sinks, it rises."
"Someone should check his age," says Giants coach Rocky Bridges.
In fact, Johnson suggested that that be done the first time he saw Gooden in the minors, in 1982. Gooden was then fresh out of a Tampa, Fla. high school, but he has since moved on to his pitching doctorate. Last winter he spent six weeks in the Florida Instructional League working on changeup grips (the resulting pitch "has thrown a few people's backs out of place" this season, according to Padres shortstop Garry Templeton) and improving his one glaring weakness: holding on base the few runners who reach base. Runners stole 47 times in 50 attempts against Gooden in 1984 and were picked off only twice. This year, with former Expo Gary Carter catching Dwight, they're 16 of 25, and Gooden has already picked off five.
"Any superlative that you could come up with would apply," says Johnson.
"He has great poise, control and natural gifts; he's eager to learn and eager to win," says Carter.
"His curve is as good as [Bert] Blyleven's," says San Diego catcher Terry Kennedy.
"What's he going to be like when he's 30?" asks former political hardballer Richard Nixon, now a Mets fan.
Hail to the Doctor, say Johnson, Carter, Kennedy, Nixon and RA-GUN.
Gooden's golden arm and sterling image have made him the hottest item in New York this side of a lucky $41 million Lotto ticket. He has more than doubled his base salary of $335,000 with endorsements, posters, T shirts and an autobiography (Rookie, Doubleday, $13.95), and next year he should approach seven figures from his off-the-field endeavors alone. His "Dr. K" is now awaiting approval as a registered U.S. trademark. He has even appeared in a Bruce Springsteen video.
Media interest has become so overwhelming that the Mets usually make Gooden available to reporters only on days he pitches—and then only at a post-game press conference. "People sometimes forget he's only a 20-year-old kid," says p.r. director Jay Horwitz. The team hired a tutor, Andrea Kirby, late of ABC's college football scoreboard show, to work with the Doctor and other Mets players on handling interviews. "I always had a problem, talking with the press, of talking too fast," Gooden says. Ever cooperative, he seems less nervous this year. In 1984, facing packs of reporters for the first time in his life, he was downright scared. "It was a rough experience," he admits.
Gooden still keeps a low profile off the field. He rents an apartment on Long Island and phones his father, Dan, in Tampa after every game he pitches. But it's no longer so easy for him to visit the local pizzeria for a slice or two after the game. "People have changed a little," he says. "They figure they've got to treat you, you know, like you're somebody big—but I'm still the same person. It feels kind of strange."
While Gooden is shy, quiet and even-tempered in public, his teammates know a slightly different character—no less humble, no less likable, but more of a schemer, one quick to feign innocence. He fits in perfectly. The Mets have plenty going for them—brilliant young pitching, a defense that has made the fewest errors in the league, a bright and popular manager and a .288 team batting average since July 4—but what really keeps them rolling is a clubhouse esprit de corps typified by exploding cigarettes and faces pushed into birthday cakes. There goes Backman nailing Gooden's shoes to the floor. Here come outfielder Darryl Strawberry and pitcher Ed Lynch to do what most of the NL would applaud—smear Heet balm in the seat of Gooden's trousers. "Hey, Howard," yells reserve catcher Clint Hurdle as third baseman Howard Johnson arrives for a double-header in some heavy-duty sunglasses, "you plan on doing some welding after the first game?"
Gooden, says infielder Ron Garden-hire, is "an instigator. He'll ask you for some sunflower seeds, then you pour him a handful and he throws 'em on the floor. If you ever get on him about anything, he'll just give you this look and say, 'Hey, I thought we were tight.' " Strawberry still hasn't finished picking all the gum and tobacco out of his hair from the time Gooden stuck a sticky wad in his cap.
Gooden has been especially rough on one of his best friends, equipment manager Charlie Samuels. Besides serving as special negotiator for Samuels's clubhouse boys ("They said they needed someone to get them more shoes, a couple sweat suits, some more money," he says), he has feasted on cheeseburgers, a favorite of his, at Samuels's expense. "He gets a free burger for every shutout inning he pitches before he gives up a run, as long as he wins the game," says Samuels. "If he loses, I get a free dinner anywhere I want. So far, he's hit me up pretty good."
Samuels has the unusual duty of stretching Gooden's cap before each game. Could this be the result of a swelled head, you ask? "No, he just sweats so much it makes the stitching shrink," says Samuels. "It's become his good-luck charm, a ritual. The very last thing we do before he goes out there is stretch the hat." Then Gooden goes out and stretches the imagination.
It's far too early to predict Gooden's eventual place in baseball history, especially in light of what happened to Score. After 36 wins and 508 strikeouts in his first two years, the Indians' lefthander, then 23, was struck in the right eye by a line drive early in his third season and was never the same. He retired five years later with 55 career victories and 837 strikeouts. But Gooden seems destined for longevity: He is mechanically sound, works in a five-day rotation and even hits righthanded (though he prefers lefty) to protect his throwing arm from incoming pitches.
"When people start comparing me to Hall of Famers and everything...I haven't been in the league long enough to be in that category," Dr. K says. "I just want to be the first Dwight Gooden." From what we have seen, that should be more than Goodenough.