The story of Dwight Gooden is well-known. From his beginnings as a 19-year-old phenom who somehow made the lights of the biggest city in the world shine brighter to his sad downfall, Dr. K was the epitome of a shooting star. However in 1984, the man they called Doc was simply the best pitcher on the planet. A teenager dominating a game full of men and for a short spurt late in his rookie season, he turned in one of the greatest—if not the greatest—stretches of pitching in major league history.
Gooden's starts were events in and of themselves throughout 1984, culminating in his appearance in the All-Star Game in San Francisco when he blew away Lance Parrish, Lou Whitaker, and Alvin Davis with his blazing fastball, a memory that lives on.
Armed with 98-mph heat and a curveball so good it earned the name "Lord Charles" as opposed to "Uncle Charlie," Gooden's final numbers were staggering: a rookie-record 276 strikeouts, a 2.60 ERA, a 137 ERA+, a FIP of 169, and the 1984 National League Rookie of the Year Award. According to FanGraphs.com, he faced 879 batters that season. A remarkable 31.4% of the best hitters in the world walked back to the dugout with a strikeout on their ledger courtesy of Dr. K.
Simply put, he was amazing.
Mets fans were already spoiled by Gooden and their club's unexpected success heading into September that year. Though New York would ultimately finish second to the Cubs in the NL East, they would end 1984 with 90 wins, the second-most in franchise history to that point, trailing only the Miracle Mets of 1969 who won 100 games.
Although September would end with an 11th consecutive playoff-less season for New York, it was also the month where Gooden put an emphatic stamp on his burgeoning legacy.
After a rough start to open the month where he allowed four runs in eight innings against the Padres, albeit with 10 strikeouts, Gooden would cement himself as the next great thing and hands-down, the best pitcher in baseball.
Over his final four starts, Doc allowed but three runs (two earned) in 34 innings, good for a 0.54 ERA. He surrendered 18 hits and five walks, holding the opposition to a batting line of .154/.189/.171 while striking out 52 of the 122 batters he faced (42.6%), netting him a tidy 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings ratio in the process.
Sandwiched within those four starts were two consecutive outings that dropped jaws everywhere and can arguably be labeled the best back-to-back outings by a starting pitcher in the modern era.
It began on September 12 against the Pirates, when Gooden hurled his second straight shutout, blanking the Pirates 2-0 while fanning a career-high 16 batters without issuing a walk. In the process, he claimed the rookie record for strikeouts in a season, held previously by from Herb Score who punched out 245 batters for the Indians in 1955.
Amazingly, Dr. K followed up that performance with another start for the record books five days later in Philadelphia. He again struck out 16 without walking anyone over eight innings but suffered the loss as a balk forced home the eventual winning run in a 2-1 defeat to the Phillies. However, his 32 strikeouts in successive starts set a new National League mark and tied the major league record, held jointly by Luis Tiant and Nolan Ryan, all of which meant little to the soft-spoken Gooden at the time.
''I struck out 16? I didn't know it was that many. I didn't know anything about the strikeout records until a couple of guys came in the clubhouse and told me. But I'd give up the records just to win.''
Two starts, 17 innings, 12 hits, two runs (one earned), zero walks, 32 strikeouts, and the adoration of baseball fans everywhere. At the time, Gooden seemed destined not just for greatness, but immortality and a place in Cooperstown. His shy persona only added to his gravitas, which clashed perfectly against the backdrop of the most boisterous city in the world. Baseball had found its next superstar.
Fortunately for Gooden, fans and baseball, the best was yet to come.
Sadly, so was the worst.