I am hoping to visit New York City sometime this summer, and go to a Mets game. Last night I dreamt that I bought tickets to this game, and that Dwight Gooden would be pitching. I thought to myself, “How impressive that Gooden pitched the first game I ever attended, and he’ll be pitching this one, too. That’s a pretty good career.”
Gooden is long retired, but two of the three parts of that dream statement are true. Gooden pitched the first Mets game I ever attended, a win against Atlanta in 1985 (an account of this game can be found in Davey Johnson and Peter Golenbock’s book Bats [New York: Putnam, 1986] on page 210). Although I was unaware at the time of the amazing season Gooden was having (I was only five, so didn’t really understand the concept of statistics; Gooden went 24-4 that year with a 1.53 ERA and won the Cy Young Award), I already knew his name, and I love being able to say that I saw him in person during one of the best seasons any pitcher has ever had. The first Atlanta batter singled, but that was about it. The Mets won 16-4, and Darryl Strawberry (whose name I also knew) hit a grand slam. Also, the lady sitting next to me in the stands gave me some cookies (the weird thin wafer sandwich kind with vanilla creme layers, which were my favorite at the time), and my father bought me a pennant and a set of Mets wristbands, one of which I had to give to my sister when we got home.
People, myself included, tend to forget that Gooden had a good career because after the successes of his first few seasons he was supposed to have a great career. This potential was destroyed by drug abuse and its consequent legal problems. But he went 194-112 with a 3.51 ERA over sixteen seasons–with a winning record in all but four of them–and was an All-Star four times. That is nothing to sneeze at. The same (all of it, alas) can be said for Strawberry’s career, in which he hit 335 homeruns over seventeen seasons with eight straight All-Star selections from 1984-1991.
I admit that when I think of both of these men I think about their disappointments first. Together, they were the Mets version of Anakin Skywalker: the chosen ones who failed to fulfill that role, falling victim to the Dark Side instead. But this attitude isn’t quite fair to them. Aside from their individual accomplishments, they played central roles on the 1986 championship team and 1988 division winners, when Strawberry should have been voted Most Valuable Player (though again, my first 1988-related thought of Gooden is about his failure to close game four of the NLCS, even though that was just as much Johnson’s fault for not taking him out as Gooden’s). They both seem to have found some peace in their turbulent personal lives, and it is time for us as fans to come to peace with their impressive careers as well.