Editor’s note: Readers of Amazin’ Avenue may remember Brian’s time writing for the site, and we’re happy to share this excerpt from his book.
The year was 1984. Fans who once dreaded going to Shea Stadium were now coming in droves. Those who occupied a section in the left-field corner hung “K” signs with each strikeout he racked up. And there were a lot of them. He kept everyone in his purview enthralled—fans, teammates, and those unlucky enough to face him. When the young man they called “Dr. K” was at his best, it was hard to envision anyone better.
There is a direct correlation between the Tom Seaver trade in June 1977 and the moment when Shea, for all intents and purposes, went dark. While Keith Hernandez and Darryl Strawberry brought attitude and power, respectively, when they arrived in 1983, it was Gooden—at a mere 19 years old—who brought the electricity back.
Shea was a baseball mortuary for seven long years, as fan support diminished and victories became even scarcer. Now it was host to must-see off-Broadway theater. The lead performer was a captivating pitching wunderkind. Not just the most exciting teenager in the big leagues but arguably the top pitcher in baseball.
The every-fifth-day prescription Doc doled out to his elders was comprised of a whistling high-90s fastball countered with a drop-off-the-table curveball so effective that it carried the reverent moniker of “Lord Charles.” Helpless opponents were given the grim choice of being overpowered by heat or fooled by his breaking pitch.
The end results for 1984 were remarkable. Gooden’s 276 strikeouts (11.4 every nine innings) is a rookie record that still stands. Of the 879 batters he faced, 31.4 percent ended with a K. If Gooden at age 19 was a revelation, Gooden at age 20 was nothing short of extraordinary: 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA and 268 punchouts—the best season this pitching-rich franchise has ever seen.
He would go on to win 157 times and record 1,875 K’s over his 11 seasons, placing Gooden on the short list of best Mets arms. If you were devising a Mount Rushmore of Mets, Gooden could easily be among that quartet. You could even make a case that his No. 16 should be retired. But the story of Gooden will forever be told as a cautionary tale—one in which outside influences and internal demons stunted his astonishing talents and prevented him from achieving even greater accomplishments.
His career is as much about what could have been as what was. Gooden’s meteoric rise to stardom began in the spring of 1983, when the first-round pick of the year before started the season in Double-A. By September, he was pitching the Davey Johnson–led Triple-A club through the minor-league playoffs.
General manager Frank Cashen insisted Gooden remain in the minors to start 1984. Johnson, who was promoted to Mets manager, insisted Doc was major-league ready. Davey won that argument. Soon enough, there was no questioning the decision.
Within three months, Gooden was a local and national sensation, leading the league in strikeouts while barely old enough to vote. His starts at Shea became akin to rock concerts. Fans wanted to watch the teenage pitching sensation as much as they wanted to watch the Mets. A national audience got to see what everyone in New York was buzzing about. Gooden became the youngest All-Star selection ever and proved he wasn’t fazed by the added spotlight. Doc struck out three American Leaguers in succession and went two scoreless innings.
The rookie phenomenon reached his peak in early September against the Cubs, who were leading the NL East by seven games over New York. Gooden, who would end ’84 with a 2.60 ERA and a 17-9 record, unleashed a heavy dosage of his bewildering arsenal. He struck out 11, allowing just one hit and four walks, in a complete game shutout. That night was a preview to an awe-inspiring Cy Young exhibition in 1985.
Gooden dispensed with any sophomore slump in the same manner he continued to cast aside National League hitters who hadn’t caught up with him. “Every game I was feeling locked in,” he said. “It just felt like every game I was going to win.” By August 25, he had as many victories as life years, becoming the youngest to reach that 20-win plateau.
His 24th and final victory came against the Cardinals in a must-win contest, with hopes fading for a division title. The Mets finished second, but Gooden was first in just about every notable pitching category.
His lofty win total, ultra-low ERA, and high strikeout count were enough to give him the pitching equivalent of the Triple Crown. A Rookie of the Year award followed by a Cy Young plaque earned Gooden effusive praise from former All-Stars and Hall of Famers alike. When asked to describe Doc, ex–Oakland A’s lefty Vida Blue succinctly said: “bona fide.” Dodgers immortal Sandy Koufax took it a step further: “I’d trade my past for his future.” His potential seemed limitless.
For the remainder of the decade, while he stayed the ace of the staff and made four All-Star teams (twice as the starter), Gooden’s glow began to fade a bit. Some seasons were more humbling than others. As special as 1986 was for the Mets, it was the year in which the initial cracks in Gooden’s seemingly impenetrable facade began to surface.
Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre instructed Gooden to incorporate a changeup to complement his blistering fastball and 12-to-6 curve. Doc didn’t fan batters as frequently, but he still became the first pitcher to strike out at least 200 in each of his first three seasons. He was 17-6 with a 2.84 ERA, a pedestrian stat line in comparison to the previous year—but just about anything would have been.
Surrounded by a rotation and lineup with few holes, the Mets sailed to the division title—one which Doc clinched on September 17 with a complete game effort against Chicago.