Walter Iooss Jr. for Sports Illustrated
It was a heady time to be a young sports star in New York City. Gooden may have given up very few hits in 1985, but he was tagged here by Mike Tyson, then in his first year as a pro, as Mets teammate Darryl Strawberry tried to referee.
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Gooden’s delivery followed the natural flow of his body and ended with his signature follow-through, arm sweeping behind him close to his side. “My mechanics were so sound,” says Gooden of his approach in 1985.
Cocaine, diet, age, maturity, injuries, the development of a pitch-count conserving two-seam fastball … all of it conspired to wreck Gooden’s ethereal flow. After 1985 he became a knockoff of himself, like one of those watches for sale on a Manhattan street corner. Gooden trying to do Gooden. Pitching became laborious, especially on the night in 1986 when Gooden left the mound without getting an out in the fifth inning of Game 5 of the World Series against Boston. His worn, worried face was slathered in an oddly expansive pool of sweat on a cool fall night. Four nights later, in the clubhouse immediately after the Mets won the World Series, Gooden dialed his dealer’s telephone number from memory and told him he was on his way to the public housing projects. Gooden got so hammered on coke and booze he missed the ticker tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes. It was only nine months after that first hit at his cousin’s house with those two women.
“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. My mechanics were so sound. I’m not saying it was easy. It wasn’t. I was totally focused. It’s really hard to explain, like Jordan totally locked in hitting his jumpers. It’s almost the same thing—all year.”
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We had no idea we were looking at the apotheosis of a pitcher at age 20 in 1985. Instead of standing on a springboard Gooden was standing on the edge of a cliff, a twist that makes the year all the more unique. Gooden never would be as good and as gifted as he was in 1985, but how many pitchers ever have been in the history of baseball?
“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. Gibson, Koufax, Gooden … legends, true greats. Dwight was in that class. He was so good that year that if he didn’t strike out 10 batters we would joke around, ‘Hey, what’s wrong?’ You expected greatness every start. It was something to see.”
Gooden made his major league debut in Houston the previous year at age 19. He was so young and anxious that many hours before the night game he walked from the team hotel to the Astrodome, found it closed, and 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 the National League Rookie of the Year.
“It was almost surreal, like an out-of-body experience,” says Gooden of his 1985 season. “Every game I felt totally in control. I could put the ball where I wanted it.”
He returned home to Tampa, where he still was living with his parents. The house filled almost every day that winter with people he hardly knew: guys who he had played with in Little League or against in high school; girls who said they were in his third-grade math class; complete strangers who knocked on the door looking for an autograph.
“Nonstop,” Gooden says. “It was unbelievable. It was fun, but it was pretty hectic. My mom, she’d like people to come by and cook for them. She liked the company at the house. She’d say, ‘You’re welcome to come back.’ I don’t think my dad cared so much for it. People I hadn’t seen for years would just pop in and make themselves at home.
“Coming into spring training ’85, I felt like I truly belonged. I was more confident going into my second year. And I knew the league was going to be up for me.”
Gooden had a new catcher in 1985: all-star and future Hall of Famer Gary Carter, then 31 years old and in his prime. The Mets obtained Carter that winter in a trade with Montreal for four players, including their incumbent catcher, 23-year-old Mike Fitzgerald. Carter would catch 31 of Gooden’s 35 starts in 1985.
“Gary and Keith, those guys reminded me in spring training that when hitters face a top pitcher, they get to the ballpark early, they concentrate more in BP … they take the top guys more seriously,” Gooden says. “It was their way of letting me know that I had to be on top of my game.
Future Hall of Famer Gary Carter came to the Mets in 1985. He would catch 31 of Gooden’s 35 starts that season and helped to drive the young pitcher to new heights.
“Throwing to Gary, that was awesome. I remember at the  All-Star Game it was Gary who caught me. I guess he saw I was nervous so he told me, ‘Just relax and throw the ball.’ I remember after I struck out three guys he said to me, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice for us to be able to do this every fifth day?’ He was such a nice guy, but on the field he was so competitive and had this incredible drive. He didn’t care if we were up 10-0. He felt like if I was messing around even a little bit with one pitch he would say something. He wanted you to pitch every game like it was 1-0. And he wanted to totally dominate.”
Gooden started on Opening Day against the Cardinals. He took a 5-2 lead into the seventh inning, but when he gave up singles to the first two hitters, Mets manager Davey Johnson pulled him. (Johnson would take the ball from him on the mound only one more time in 34 starts: with one out in the seventh May 15 at Houston with a one-run lead.) St. Louis would tie the game. Carter won it with a home run in the 10th inning.
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.
“I’ll never forget, I threw a shutout early in the season,” Gooden says, “and [pitching coach] Mel Stottlemyre asked me, ‘Are you tired?’ I said, ‘No.’ I measured being tired by my shoulder hurting. But that’s not what he was talking about. He said, ‘If you’re not mentally tired, that means you have more to give.’ He was trying to tell me that being mentally tired means you’re into each pitch to each hitter – just totally focused and locked in. Once he explained that to me, it made sense. I got it. I never forgot that.”
“I never got to play behind Bob Gibson or Sandy Koufax, but this was the equivalent,” says Hernandez. “Gibson, Koufax, Gooden … legends, true greats.”
Gooden lost once in the final 134 days of the 1985 season. He went 18-1 with a 1.39 ERA in 200.1 innings in that run. It began May 30, when Gooden beat the Giants, 2-1, with 14 strikeouts. “Astounding,” Carter says about Gooden’s pitches that day.
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 league players, none of whom were yet publically named. Speaking to a group of sports editors in New York, baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth said, “This has not been a bellwether day for me … I want to see how much of baseball is involved.”
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 the age of 20. Gooden, then in high school, was enamored with 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. (Gooden would not lose at home for the rest of the year.)
A rematch took place June 4 at Dodger Stadium in front of 49,386 fans. The 20-year-old Gooden entered with a 1.79 ERA. The 24-year-old Valenzuela entered with a 1.85 mark.
In 1981, at age 20, Fernando Valenzuela won the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards. In ’85, the Dodgers star would bring out Gooden’s best in five classic duels.
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The stars delivered. The score was tied at one entering the bottom of the eighth inning when Steve Sax led off with a single off Gooden. Ken Landreaux followed with a hit-and-run single. Sax took third and Landreaux advanced to second on the throw. Johnson ordered Gooden to intentionally walk Pedro Guerrero, who in the sixth inning had blasted an 0-and-2 fastball for a home run.
Now Gooden faced the bases loaded and no outs in the bottom of the eighth at Dodger Stadium with the knowledge that one run would likely mean defeat. What happened next was legendary. Gooden ended the inning with nine pitches—all of them fastballs and all of them strikes. First he whiffed Greg Brock on three fastballs. Then he handcuffed Mike Scioscia on a first-pitch fastball, getting a foul pop-out to Carter. Then he blew a fastball past Terry Whitfield, who had managed the small triumph of two foul balls before succumbing.
Gooden was clocked at 94 mph in that inning, though the radar gun used at the time typically measured the speed of the pitch as it neared the plate, not as it left the pitcher’s hand, as is commonly done today. His fastball likely would have been clocked at about 99 mph with today’s technology.
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Twice during the nine-pitch sequence Carter had called for curveballs—Gooden’s Uncle Charlie was so good it was known as Lord Charles—only to have the kid shake off the veteran each time.
“I knew I had to try for the strikeout there,” Gooden explained after the game. “I just decided to go with my best, and that’s the best I could be.”
The game still was tied but the Dodgers were defeated. 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, once again serving as his own closer. He finished with 12 strikeouts. The Mets had grown accustomed to his greatness.
“I used to get goosebumps,” Johnson said after the game, “but not any more. Dwight’s like a security blanket for me.”
Johnson approached Gooden in late June with an idea: “How would you like an extra start?”
The Mets wanted to send their ace young to the mound as often as possible. Johnson could arrange his rotation to have Gooden start the last game before the All-Star break and the second game after it, but the plan required Gooden to make a start on short rest in Atlanta on the Fourth of July.
“Yeah, I’ll take it,” Gooden said.
“You’re looking at something special,” said Johnson after Gooden’s 16-K shutout of the Giants. “You probably won’t ever see anybody at his age who dominates so completely.”
The start of the game in Atlanta was delayed 84 minutes by rain. In the bottom of the third, with the game tied at one, another storm swept through. This one caused a delay of 41 minutes. Johnson decided not to bring back Gooden when play resumed. (Technically, it was a third start in which Gooden was removed mid-inning.)
“I was so hot and pissed off that I didn’t even shower,” Gooden says. “I just got up, walked out, got a cab and went to the hotel. I watched the game on TV for a while, then fell asleep with the TV on. I woke up about three, three-thirty, and I saw the game was on. I thought it was the highlights, actually. The game was still going on.”
The Mets won, 16-13, in 19 innings. Ron Darling threw the last pitch at 3:55 AM. Six minutes later, the Braves began their post-game fireworks show.
New York was a Mets town in 1985. For the first time since the remodeled Yankee Stadium opened in 1976, the Mets drew more fans than the Yankees. The Mets drew 2.7 million fans, an almost unheard-of 50 percent jump from the previous season, and a threshold the Yankees would not reach until 1998. Gooden was the biggest drawing card of all in 1985.
New York City in 1985 belonged to the Mets, who drew 2.7 million fans to Shea Stadium and stayed in the playoff race until the penultimate day of the season. At the very center of all the excitement was Gooden, here being congratulated by his teammates after beating the Cubs 1-0 on June 20 for his 10th victoy.
Signs of the times: The Shea faithful kept track of Dr. K’s strikeouts, posting a letter for every whiff. Here a 14th K goes up during Gooden’s Aug. 20 outing against the Cubs. Those fans would post two more, as Gooden finished with a complete-game 3–0 win and 16 strikeouts.
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Despite his success, Gooden felt little joy through the course of the season, saying he was so “locked in and focused” that he constantly felt drained.
Keith Hernandez helped lead the Mets’ charge all through the 1985 season. He would finish eighth in the NL MVP race (behind Gooden in fourth and Carter in sixth). He would also emerge as a key figure in the Pittsburgh drug trials that brought on baseball’s cocaine scandal.
It’s no stretch to call Gooden’s 1985 season the greatest for any pitcher since the mound was lowered in 1969. He led the majors in wins (24) strikeouts (268) and ERA (1.53), while pitching 16 complete games. He was a unanimous choice for the National League Cy Young Award.
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There was something about the day games in Chicago that he did love: they enabled him to eat at his favorite Japanese steakhouse there. Gooden was a prodigious eater. Raised on fast-food burgers, when he reached the big leagues he fell hard for restaurant quality burgers. He used to eat a cheeseburger after batting practice every day. He ate so many hamburgers as a rookie that his teammates called him “Wimpy,” after the burger-loving cartoon character. At the Japanese steakhouse in Chicago, Gooden would eat their deluxe dinner—“Steak, lobster, shrimp, fried rice, soup, salad, extra shrimp, vegetables …”—and then eat another full deluxe dinner in the same sitting.
Later in his career when he joined the Yankees and visited Chicago for night games at the White Sox’s park, Gooden would shower after batting practice (to save time so he didn’t have to shower after the game) and make sure the clubhouse attendant had a cab waiting for him with the engine running after the last out so he could make it to the steakhouse, which the owners kept open just for him.
“A lot of times I was the only one in there,” Gooden says.
“Looking back, I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as I should have,” says Gooden of ’85. “I was so locked in from the start that I wasn’t truly aware of what was going on.”
On Sept. 26, 1985, Wrigley Field greeted Gooden with a damp, cold, windy afternoon. Only 11,091 people bothered to show up. Gooden struggled. He pitched with 11 runners on base. But he permitted none of them to score. He pitched his fifth complete game win against the Cubs that year. Johnson, despite all the traffic on the bases and the poor weather, didn’t dare trust the game to a reliever.
“He’s fun to watch,” the manager told reporters after the game. “He’s got to the point where you never think of relief for him. He labored a little. He fought himself a little. He showed a little more expression; he’d throw a bad pitch and talk to himself. 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 games to play. Johnson lined up Darling, Gooden and Rick Aguilera to start the three games. When Herzog saw Johnson’s plans, he switched his ace, Tudor, to pitch the first game instead of the second.
Asked to explain the switch, Herzog said, “Avoid your best pitcher pitching against Gooden, especially when you have a three-game lead going in. I’d hate to send Tudor against Gooden and lose, 1-0. I might lose, 1-0, with him in the opener, but that’s the chance I have to take.”
Herzog did lose the opener, 1-0. Tudor pitched 10 shutout innings again, but the Mets won in 11 innings when Darryl Strawberry hit a monster of a home run off reliever Ken Dayley that smacked off a digital scoreboard clock reading 10:44. Hernandez was happy; the Mets had won the game before a Gooden start.
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. The Cardinals put 14 runners on against him, including at least one in every inning. 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: walk, walk, single, single. 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. Second baseman Wally Backman reached over his head to snare it for the final out. Gooden had thrown 136 pitches.
“Nice going,” Backman joked to Gooden, after the Mets’ elimination. “You lost four games. We would have been in the playoffs if it wasn’t for your four losses.”
“I threw a hanging breaking ball to Tommy Herr,” Gooden says. “I was so competitive, that even though guys were high-fiving, we won the game, I was so pissed off after the game because of that pitch.”
The Mets were one game out with four to play. The Cardinals, though, rebounded the next night behind Danny Cox and four relievers to win, 4-3. St. Louis clinched the division two days later on the penultimate day of the season with a win over the Cubs while the Mets lost to the Expos. Until then, Gooden was prepared to pitch game 162 on three days of rest. 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 which is older than his youngest child. He earns a modest living making public appearances.
In 2006, Gooden was sentenced to jail in Florida for using cocaine in violation of an earlier probation. He would serve seven months.
“I’m a little worried about Doc,” says one of his former Mets teammates. “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. “It was the Saturday after Christmas. 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 age 69 after years of heart and kidney issues.
“It was horrible,” Gooden says of the effect on him of his mother’s illness. “I started feeling vulnerable. I felt like drinking and taking drugs, but that’s messed up. I went back to therapy for about eight months.
“I’m still medicated,” says Gooden. “It’s tricky. If I miss a day for whatever reason, if I don’t take it, I still occasionally get down and depressed for no reason.”
“She’s doing better now. She’s 84. She’s definitely a warrior.”
Asked how he was doing, Gooden replies, “Okay. I’m still medicated. It’s tricky. If I miss a day for whatever reason, if I don’t take it, I still occasionally get down and depressed for no reason. My brain is like chemically dependent. If I don’t take it, I get depressed. Now I’ve got to commit to taking it for the rest of my life.
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“It’s like this: my mom had a bad day at the hospital, I left the hospital, and the next day I didn’t take my medicine, and then the depression came. Depression is tricky. I don’t know how to compare it to addictions like drugs and alcohol. I can’t say it’s worse. But it’s almost like … say if your sister is getting married, and you might say, ‘She’s getting married but I don’t want to go.’ People don’t understand that.
“That football player who talked about it, Brandon Marshall, watching his career and seeing some of the things he did all didn’t make sense. I would go, ‘Man, this guy’s crazy.’ But now I’m going through it, and I can totally relate.”
Gooden did not break Cy Young’s record of 511 wins, but he did pitch until he was 35 years old. He finished his career in 2000 with a record of 194-112. He was placed on the 2006 Hall of Fame ballot and received 3.3 percent of the vote – below the five percent threshold to remain eligible. Five months after the vote was announced, Gooden reported to Gainesville (Fla.) Correctional Institute to serve a sentence of one year and one day for using cocaine in violation of his probation. (He was released after serving seven months.) It was three years and one month after Strawberry left the same prison for the same offense.
“When I went in,” Gooden says, “for some strange reason I didn’t think I would come out. I thought I would be killed or die in there or something.
“Then as I was in there I began to think, if I can make it out of here my life will change for the better. In there, you have nothing but time. I thought about my career, my life, my mistakes. I had a long look back on my career.
Wherever Gooden goes people remind him of 1985. Shea Stadium may be gone, but the joy and wonder that welled within its walls when Gooden was the show still echos.
“I used to beat myself up about it. Looking back, 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. My own expectation was to try to stay healthy and play a long time. I never thought about awards, and then things started happening pretty fast.
“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 on 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 Gibson’s. Gibson’s 1.12 ERA in 1968 and Gooden’s 1.53 ERA in 1985 are the two lowest ERAs in the 95 years of the live ball era. Gibson walked 62 batters and struck out 268 in 1968; Gooden walked 69 batters and also struck out 268 in 1985.
Gooden was never again as good as he was in that 1985 season. He would go on to throw a no-hitter for the Yankees and finish his career with 194 wins. But the image that remains clearest is of that virtually untouchable 20-year-old dominating from the mound at Shea.
Jerry Wachter for Sports Illustrated