IN 1985, DWIGHT GOODEN OF THE METS HAD THE KIND OF SEASON ANY PITCHER WOULD DREAM OF—AND HE WAS 20 YEARS OLD. IT SHOULD HAVE MARKED THE START OF AN EPIC RUN. INSTEAD, IT MARKED THE BEGINNING OF THE END
This is an article from the Sept. 21, 2015 issue
DEFINING MAJESTY drives man to his literary boundaries. Ansel Adams 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, defined our planet as "that tiny pea, pretty and blue."
The 1985 season of Dwight (Doc) Gooden, likewise, was so vastly impressive as to invite our most ambitious attempts at commemoration. It is, by measure of his 1.53 ERA, the greatest season since the mound was lowered, in 1969. With his 24--4 record the righthanded Gooden became, at 20, 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 a total of one run and only one extra-base hit (a double). In his four losses, his team scored all of one run while he was on the mound. He lost just once in his final 25 starts.
Still, we strive. For true appreciation there was his utter mastery of the Cubs, the defending National League East champions. Gooden started five times against the Cubs in 1985. He beat them every time, always pitching a complete game.
Veteran infielder Larry Bowa played on those '85 Cubs until he was released in August. A week later he signed with the Mets and could not wait to tell Gooden a secret. "Dwight," Bowa said, "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." That's how good Gooden was in 1985: The Cubs knew what pitch was coming and still could not knock him out of a game, much less beat him.
Maybe this is even better: If New York gave him an early lead, Gooden privately would root for his own teammates to make outs—the quicker to get him back on the mound. When the Mets scored a second run with him in the game, 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 how I wanted to attack.
"Each time I went to the mound I wanted to pitch a complete game, and I wanted 10 strikeouts. I knew there were extra fans in attendance, and they wanted to see a show. It was like a concert, and I was the main attraction."
THE DELIRIOUS tumult that welled within Shea Stadium in the summer of 1985 still hung faint in the ear when Gooden, the pitching prodigy who had shaken that grimy, hulking horseshoe on Flushing Bay like nobody else since the Beatles, drove across Tampa to his cousin's house to smoke some weed. It was three months since he had thrown his last pitch of '85 and two months since he turned 21. When Gooden arrived, his cousin told him he didn't have any pot but he would score some for him. "Be right back," he said.
Gooden poured himself a shot of vodka. He walked around the house. He opened a bedroom door and 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 '85 season, but he had never tried coke. 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 mirror. This time the freshly minted Cy Young Award winner thought, What the hell, we're just having fun here. He snorted a line. "At first I thought it was the finest feeling I ever had," Gooden says, "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  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. And one of the triggers is women. Women always played a part.
"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, Gooden threw a baseball the way an Acapulco cliff diver moved through space. The beauty and fluidity of his body concealed the danger and speed. Tuck, coil, uncoil, thrust and retuck. Had there been a pool waiting at the end of his delivery, Gooden would have pierced the surface with just the hint of a splash.
He began his motion by lifting his hands head-high and his left knee as high as his armpit, tucking it inside his left elbow. In this tuck position Gooden coiled, as if loading a spring. 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 his hand passed behind him, close to his body, with a bend at the elbow. The retuck. It was perfect form for the deceleration of the arm and shoulder, reminiscent of Nolan Ryan.
Cocaine, diet, age, injuries, the development of a pitch-count-reducing two-seam fastball to complement his fastball and curve—all of them conspired to wreck Gooden's ethereal flow. After 1985 he became a knockoff of himself: Gooden trying to do Gooden. Pitching became laborious, especially on the night in '86 when he left the mound without getting an out in the fifth inning of Game 5 of the World Series against the Red Sox. Gooden's worn, worried face was slathered in sweat on a cool fall night. Four nights later, in the clubhouse after the Mets won the World Series, Gooden phoned his dealer and said he was on his way to the public housing projects. Gooden got so hammered on coke and booze that he missed the next day's ticker-tape parade in the Canyon of Heroes. It was only nine months after that first hit at his cousin's house.
"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. I'm not saying it was easy. It wasn't. I was totally focused, like Jordan totally locked in hitting his jumpers."
In 1985 we had no idea we were looking at the apotheosis of a pitcher at age 20. He never would be as good as he was that year, but how many pitchers in baseball history were ever that good?
"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. If he didn't strike out 10 batters, we would joke, Hey, what's wrong?"
Gooden had made his major league debut in Houston the previous year, at 19. He was so young and anxious that many hours before that night game he walked from the team hotel to the Astrodome and, finding it closed, 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 named NL Rookie of the Year.
Going into spring training in 1985, "I felt like I truly belonged," Gooden says. "And I knew the league was going to be up for me." He had a new catcher: All-Star and future Hall of Famer Gary Carter, the Kid, then 31 and in his prime. "Throwing to Gary was awesome," Gooden says. "He was so competitive. He didn't care if we were up 10--0. If I was messing around even a little bit with one pitch, he would say something. He wanted to dominate."
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. In the final 129 days of the 1985 season, he went 18--1 with a 1.39 ERA in 2001/3 innings. The run began on May 30, when he beat the Giants 2--1, with 14 strikeouts.
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 leaguers, none of whom were yet named.
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 20. Gooden, then at Hillsborough High in Tampa, loved 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.
A rematch took place on June 4 at Dodger Stadium in front of 49,386 fans. Gooden entered with a 1.79 ERA, Valenzuela with a 1.85. The stars delivered. The score was tied at one entering the bottom of the eighth, when Los Angeles loaded the bases with no outs on two hits and an intentional walk. Gooden knew that one run would likely mean defeat. What happened next was legendary. Gooden ended the inning with nine pitches—all fastballs and all strikes.
Gooden was clocked at 94 mph in that inning, though today's more advanced radar gun probably would have measured his fastball at about 99 mph. Twice during the nine-pitch sequence Carter called for curveballs—Gooden's Uncle Charlie was so good it was known as Lord Charles—only to have the kid shake him off each time.
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. He finished with 12 strikeouts.
The Mets had grown accustomed to his greatness. "I used to get goose bumps," manager Davey Johnson said after the game, "but not anymore. Dwight's like a security blanket for me."
NEW YORK was a Mets town in 1985. For the second straight year, the Mets drew more fans than the Yankees: 2.7 million, an almost unheard-of 50% jump from the previous season. Gooden was the biggest drawing card of all.
In the 63 dates at Shea that Gooden didn't pitch, the Mets averaged 32,384 fans. In the 18 home games he started, attendance spiked 24%, to 40,076. Gooden, while being paid $450,000, was worth an extra 138,459 fans by himself.
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 guys hung white placards with a red K for each of Gooden's strikeouts. They articulated their own definition of Gooden's greatness with the number of K cards they brought to each game: 27.
After every start, before he spoke to the press, Gooden would call his father, Dan. "My dad, not that he was critical, 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....' Later 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. They were in San Jose. So we're playing the Giants, and [my dad] says, 'Give me 16 K's tonight.' I said, 'O.K., you got it.'" That night Gooden, number 16, struck out 16 in a seven-hit shutout. Five days later he beat the Padres for his 20th win—younger by 27 days than Bob Feller was when he won his 20th in 1939.
"I'd rather have his future than my past," said Sandy Koufax.
One notable person, though, didn't share enough in all the excitement Gooden created: Dwight Gooden. "I don't think I enjoyed it as much as I should have," he says. "I was so locked in from start to start that I wasn't truly aware of what was going on. It was draining. When I pitched well, I immediately started to think about having to do it the next game."
THE METS began September two games behind the Cardinals in the NL East despite having the third-best record in baseball (76--52). Back then only division winners advanced to the playoffs. The Mets' plan to catch St. Louis was simple: Lean even more heavily on Gooden.
He threw 53 innings in September (the baseball "month" includes regular-season innings in October). Since then, no one as young as Gooden has worked that much in September. The load pushed his season total to 2762/3 innings—more than any pitcher that young in the live-ball era (since 1920) except Feller in '38 and '39 and Bert Blyleven in '71. Yet Gooden was at his best so deep into the grinding season. He allowed only two earned runs the entire month, going 4--0 in six starts with a 0.34 ERA.
Gooden's month began with his third matchup of the season against Valenzuela, the second at Dodger Stadium. Again, neither ace gave ground. The game was scoreless through nine innings. In the 10th, with a runner at first and one out, Johnson sent Hernandez to pinch-hit for Gooden, who had struck out 10 batters and walked none.
Hernandez had not started the game because earlier in the day he had given dramatic testimony in Pittsburgh at the federal drug trials. Hernandez, who testified under immunity, 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 but gave up the drug just before his trade to the Mets in June 1983. Hernandez said he quit because he was petrified after he lost 10 pounds, awakened one morning with his nose bleeding and suffered the shakes. "I consider cocaine the devil on this earth," Hernandez testified.
Fresh off the witness stand, Hernandez grounded into a double play. The game remained scoreless. Valenzuela pitched 11 innings, and the Mets won in 13, 2--0. "It's a game I'll remember as long as I live," Gooden said afterward.
New York took over first place from the Cardinals on Sept. 10. Gooden pitched the next night against St. Louis ace John Tudor. Gooden threw nine scoreless innings, but for his second straight start the Mets didn't score. They lost 1--0 and were tied with the Cardinals with 25 games to play.
GOODEN HATED Wrigley Field. The mound was too flat. The wind affected his curveball. And he loathed day games. "I was the type who was always up until one, two in the morning," Gooden says. But there was something about day games in Chicago that he did love: They enabled him to eat at his favorite Japanese steak house, Ron of Japan. Gooden was a trencherman. At the steak house he would order the deluxe dinner—"Steak, lobster, shrimp, fried rice, soup, salad, extra shrimp, vegetables," he says—and then eat another one in the same sitting.
The afternoon of Sept. 26, 1985, was damp, cold and windy. Only 11,091 people showed up at Wrigley. Gooden struggled. He pitched with 11 runners on base—but he permitted none of them to score. He threw his fifth complete-game win against the Cubs that year. "He labored a little," Johnson said, "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 to play. Johnson lined up Ron Darling, Gooden and Rick Aguilera to start the three games. When St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog saw Johnson's plans, he switched his ace, Tudor, to the first game instead of the second. The Cardinals still lost the opener 1--0.
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. St. Louis put 14 runners on base; 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. 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 that second baseman Wally Backman snared for the final out. Gooden had thrown 136 pitches.
The Mets were one game out with four to play. The Cardinals, though, rebounded the next night to win 4--3. St. Louis clinched the division two days later. 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 whom is older than his youngest child. He earns a modest living making public appearances.
"I'm a little worried about Doc," says a former Mets teammate. "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. "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 69 after years of heart and kidney problems.
"It was horrible," Gooden says of his mother's illness. "I started feeling vulnerable. I felt like drinking and taking drugs. I went back to therapy. She's doing better now. She's 84. She's a warrior."
Asked how he is doing, Gooden replies, "O.K. I'm still medicated. If I miss a day, I still occasionally get down and depressed for no reason. My brain is like chemically dependent. Now I've got to commit to taking [medication] for the rest of my life."
Gooden pitched until he was 35. He finished his career in 2000 with a record of 194--112. On the '06 Hall of Fame ballot he received 3.3% of the vote—below the 5% threshold to remain eligible. Three months after the vote was announced, Gooden reported to Gainesville (Fla.) Correctional Institute to serve one year and one day for using cocaine in violation of his probation. He would be released after serving seven months.
"When I went in," he says, "I didn't think I would come out. I thought I would be killed or die in there. Then I began to think, if I can make it out of here, my life will change for the better. I had a long look back on my career. I used to beat myself up about it. 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.
"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 about 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 Bob Gibson's. Gibson's 1.12 ERA in '68 and Gooden's 1.53 ERA in '85 are the two lowest in the 95 years of the live-ball era. Gibson walked 62 batters and struck out 268 in '68; Gooden walked 69 and also struck out 268 in '85.
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 Gooden when he was the main attraction, and in the acquired knowledge of those who know his greatness only from their parents' stories or from YouTube clips. Each carrier of oral history has a favorite story from the year a 20-year-old with just two pitches grinded through the most exquisite 276 innings in the five decades since the mound was lowered.
"One more thing," Gooden says. "I don't want anybody to break my records. 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."