Saving Dwight Gooden

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Image from Amazin’ Avenue.
Dwight Gooden is allegedly in bad shape.

On Sunday, the New York Daily News ran an interview with Gooden’s old Mets teammate, Darryl Strawberry, in which Strawberry maintained that Gooden is “a complete junkie-addict.”

The condition Doc is in, it’s bad, it’s horrible. It’s like cocaine poison. I feel like I’ve got to get it out there because nobody else is doing anything to help him, and it might be the only way to stop him.

Gooden’s son is also concerned.

Gooden refuted Strawberry’s diagnosis in a statement Monday, and the New York Post caught up with him Tuesday and said that reports of his ill health are exaggerated.

It’s hard to tell from the Post’s photo — Gooden is smiling and he looks fit, but his face seems drawn, though that could be because of the recent death of his mother.

I hope the Post is right (for once) and the 1985 Cy Young winner is simply a victim of unnecessary concern, but there’s always been something a little hidden about the pitcher. He wasn’t supposed to go down this path in the first place.

When Gooden came up in 1984 — a year after Strawberry, a gangly, erratic slugger who’d won the 1983 Rookie of the Year — he seemed everything Strawberry was not: poised, polished, fully formed. He won 17 games that first year, including two consecutive in which he struck out a total of 32 batters — 16 each game — and walked zero. He was an almost unanimous Rookie of the Year winner. He was 19 years old.

He was even better in 1985, winning 24 games, losing just 4, posting a 1.53 ERA and winning a Cy Young. That’s 41 wins in his first two years, and he hadn’t even turned 21 yet.

I’d grown up a Mets fan and was finally being rewarded for the Doug Flynn years of the late ’70s. To watch Gooden was to see a future Hall of Famer. Memory is faulty — one of the themes of this blog — but it’s also uplifting (another theme), and I can still remember watching Gooden blow away hitters with his high fastball and looping curveball, the latter so strong that someone (Tim McCarver?) suggested that the usual curveball nickname “Uncle Charlie” didn’t apply. Gooden’s, it was said, should be called “Lord Charles.”

He was, simply, amazing. I could swear there was one game against the Cubs in which he loaded the bases — I want to say on three walks — and then struck out the next three batters, each one overpowered by that 98 mph fastball. He had a 0.00 ERA in September 1985. There was no question he was going to win 300 games. There were times I thought he would win 400.

And then it started coming apart.

In 1986, the Mets’ World Championship year, Gooden won “only” 17 games with a 2.84 ERA. It was troubling, but not terrible; the Mets had a phenomenal pitching staff that year, solid from 1-4 (Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Bob Ojeda), with a good No. 5 — Rick Aguilera — and Roger McDowell winning 14 games from the bullpen. (Ojeda was actually the Mets’ top winner, with 18.)

But 1987 saw more decline, led by a stint in rehab. He did win 15 games even after missing two months. (However, his ERA was over 3.) He had a good 1988 season, but gave up a game-tying home run to Mike Scioscia in the playoffs, helping turn a possible 3-1 lead in games into a 2-2 tie. The underdog Dodgers won the NLCS in 7 and then the World Series.

And Gooden? He had a shoulder injury in 1989 and won just 9 games. After that, it was never the same. His ERA was never below 3 again. He won 19 games, then 13, then 10, then 12, the last two losing seasons overall. He was accused of rape. He tested positive for cocaine. He thought about committing suicide.

He helped the Yankees win a couple pennants, but the rest of his career — from 1996 until 2000 — was desultory. He finished with 194 wins and a 3.51 ERA: a nice run, but no Hall of Fame candidate.

I have to say, I used to be disappointed. He was going to be one of the all-time greats. To look at a pitcher like Gooden … it’s a once-in-a-generation thing, and you hope it will last forever, that you were there when a legend showed up. Instead — maybe because of all the pitches, barely a concern then (35 complete games his first three years!), maybe because of the New York pressure cooker — he turned out to be human, just like the rest of us.

So it’s sad if the rumors are true. I’d rather he live his life sober and reasonably content. He’s only 51, after all — just five months older than me. (Amazing.)

He had some off-the-field problems even after there was no field for him to play on: DUI, battery, violating probation. But in recent years he seems to have turned it around.

I hope the present tense is the right one to use.

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