There is one special memory from his wonder years that Dwight Gooden carries around like a black-and-white photograph tucked in a wallet. An image, until now, not for public display but for his own quiet comfort. "Do you want to know what it was like?" he asks, recalling the years in the mid-'80s when he was known as Dr. K. "If I had a one-run lead in the third or fourth inning and we were batting, I would sit there in the dugout and say to myself, 'Hurry up and make an out.' I mean, I wasn't exactly rooting against my teammates. But I was so pumped up that I couldn't wait to get back out there on the mound. That's what it was like. That was the feeling."
He laughs gently and tucks away the thought. "Now," he says, "it's like, Damn, three outs already?"
In sports, except for Olympic gymnasts and Filipino Little Leaguers, has age 28 ever seemed so ancient as it does for Gooden? Wasn't that another decade, another era—another pitcher—when he was great? He is starting his 10th season with the New York Mets. Among the current National Leaguers who have played for a single team, only Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres and Orel Hershiser of the Los Angeles Dodgers have been with their team longer than Gooden has been with the Mets.
If it seems long ago that Gooden became the first pitcher to strike out 200 batters in each of his first three seasons, that's because he reached that threshold only once in the six years that followed. And if his 24-4 Cy Young season of 1985 seems to have fossilized, that's because he has never again won 20 games. It is no surprise then to find Gooden at the Mets' camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla., as hittable as Jose DeLeon and as hopeful as Ponce: He is in Florida looking for his youth.
March 22, 1993
Before reporting to spring training, he shaved his head and requested that he be temporarily given uniform number 64—the same numeral he was issued, at age 19, at his first big-league camp in 1984, the year he went on to win 17 games and strike out a rookie-record 276 batters. "I'm sound physically, my shoulder's fine, so I said, 'Let's go upstairs,' " he says. "You know, be sound mentally, too. I thought about my first camp, when I was just trying to make the team. Just get back to basics. Keep it simple and have fun."
But Gooden is as much an uncertainty to the Mets as any scrub, the kind of player who would normally be assigned a number more often found on a pulling guard or a speeding ticket. He is coming off the first losing season of his career, a 10-13 clunker made slightly more palatable by his having worked 206 innings in the year after he underwent arthroscopic surgery to his pitching shoulder.
The Mets aren't sure what they have in Gooden anymore, though he continues to be the emotional cornerstone of the franchise, a player revered in his own clubhouse and unfailingly respected in others'. "There is an almost universal affection for him," Met general manager Al Harazin says. "For us, he represents the best of the '80s, a symbol of that success."
On the mound, though, the Mets can be sure only of what he is not. The organization has finally let go of the notion that Gooden is the dominating pitcher he was in his first three major league seasons. It has come to grips with the fact that Gooden, even when healthy, has not been that pitcher for several years. "I think the fans have accepted it, too," Harazin says.
Gooden's earned run average over the past three seasons is 3.71—more than a run higher than his 2.64 mark over his first six years. His career ERA has risen for seven consecutive seasons, starting at 2.00 after the 1985 season and climbing to its current 2.99. He has pitched just two shutouts in his past 109 starts, or one fewer than he had as a teenager in 1984. After racking up 52 complete games in his first five seasons, he has completed just eight starts in the four years since.
"I don't see him getting back to where he was early in his career," says Gerry Hunsicker, the Mets' assistant vice-president of baseball operations. "I don't see him dominating hitters like he once did. I think this year you'll get a look at the future. You'll get a lot of clues as to what to expect from him. It's been a year since he had surgery. He's 100 percent. He's entering a new phase in his career, and this is the year it will begin to take shape."
"He's right," Gooden says. "This year will tell. I'm anxious to see, too. It's funny, but I used to come to every spring training with certain numbers in mind, usually an ERA in the twos, 20 wins, 200-plus innings and 200 punch-outs. This is the first time I haven't thought that way. I just want to be consistent, that's all."
His comeback this spring has not begun without an occasional stubbed toe, which is what he got while covering first base in a fielding drill last week. Though the big toe on his left foot was not broken, it was tender enough to sideline him for several days and cause him to miss a start in what has been an underwhelming spring. (Before that, on Jan. 14, he was lucky to have suffered only contusions to his chest and forehead when, while driving his truck on a rain-slicked St. Petersburg street without his scat belt buckled, he veered to avoid hitting a car and slid into a mailbox.) Gooden has allowed eight runs in six innings without convincing himself that he can once again finish off hitters. His last start, a scheduled four innings against Montreal, ended after three because he had thrown 61 pitches. "I get the count to 1 and 2, and I'm still not putting them away," Gooden says. "I start overthrowing. I'm still in that rut."
Having lost his greatest gift as a pitcher, the natural movement on his fastball, he is Thor without the thunder.
He arrived in the big leagues as supple and as slender as a garden hose and with the perfect arm extension and release point for a power pitcher. "Every pitch he let go out in front with real good extension," Met pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre says. "That's where all the life on a fastball comes from. Most guys, you have to constantly remind them. With him, it was always there. Every pitch. Now it comes and goes."
Gooden started losing the hop on his fastball in 1987, after his return from a drug rehabilitation program. He began using a cut fastball, dropping his arm a little in his delivery, which produces a pitch with a slight break that resembles a slider. "I got caught up in what people expected of me," Gooden says. "They'd say, 'You won 2-1, but you only had three strikeouts. What's wrong?' I said to myself, 'Maybe I need another pitch.' I had fooled around with a slider, but I experimented with a cut fastball and said, 'I'll try this.' "
He threw so many cut fastballs that he became sloppy with his highest-octane heater, letting that pitch go from a lower angle, too. His fastball had deteriorated so badly by 1991 that, after one pasting by the Philadelphia Phillies that year, former teammate Wally Backman marched into the Met clubhouse and asked him, "Doc, what are you doing? That thing is about a yard shorter."
"He said he wasn't even trying to cut the ball," Backman says. Gooden had lost the natural action on his fastball. Though the Mets still clock his heater around 93 mph on the slower of the two radar guns used by major league teams, Backman says, "It doesn't have that rise to it anymore."
"He lost the movement because of throwing the cut fastball over time," Stottlemyre says. "And because of injuries to his shoulder, his arm strength wasn't always there to get the proper extension."
Gooden has been placed on the disabled list with shoulder trouble three times in the past six seasons. His natural looseness betrayed him. The ligaments that held his shoulder in place were so loose that they put a greater burden on his rotator cuff, which began to fray.
"That same looseness that made Doc such a great pitcher is part of what led to his physical problems," says Met physician David Altchek. Thirty-three pounds heavier than when he began his career, Gooden now throws with a more erect delivery. He has junked the cut fastball and still resists the urging by Stottlemyre to embrace the changeup—he throws it occasionally but with little confidence—as a legitimate third pitch. Despite his troubles, Gooden has remained essentially a two-pitch pitcher. "But I throw my curve-ball at different speeds and my fastball with different grips," he says.
Moreover, Gooden's personal life frayed as his shoulder did, at a rate of nearly one crisis a year. There was the off-season tussle with Tampa police officers in 1986; the drug test that turned up positive for cocaine in '87; the prolonged hospitalization of his father in '91; the allegations by a woman that she had been raped in Port St. Lucie by Gooden and two teammates in '92 (Florida law enforcement officials declined to press charges); and the deaths, in the last three years, of his maternal grandparents and an uncle.
"I haven't been happy," Gooden says. "The worst of it was last year. I was playing Nintendo, and my mom's mom had just died, and the rape thing was going on, and it all just hit me. It's been one thing after another for years. I was like, 'Why me? When does it stop?' This spring, for the first time since I can remember, there's nothing on my mind. No arm trouble, no controversy. I know baseball is my job, and I'll do the best I can. But I want to be happy again, too."
Life and baseball were once so simple for him. Calling up that fading photograph in his mind, he remembers how he neither knew nor cared who the hitter was or what pitches he liked to hit. He just threw. When he broke Herb Score's rookie strikeout record, Gooden now says, he "had no idea who the guy was."
"He's the only pitcher I know," Back-man says, "that hitters were scared to face. It's one thing to be intimidated, but there were guys who were actually scared. In the major leagues."
Though Gooden dresses each morning in a Met jersey bearing the number of his youth, he knows he cannot be 19 again. "The strikeouts," he says. "I'll never be that pitcher anymore. I can't. But maybe I can be back at that level in other areas."
Like any good pitcher in a jam, Gooden is reaching back. What, at 28, is still there?