You know you’re getting old when you remember Doc Gooden’s no-hitter with the Yankees on May 14, 1996. It was now 25 years ago — so long ago that the Mets have gone through multiple waves of promising young pitchers who ultimately disappointed: Pulsipher, Wilson, Isringhausen. Harvey, etc.
It was so long ago, there are sportswriters now who weren’t around to experience the True Gooden. Sorry, Bryan Fonseca, Matt Harvey had a nice run, dated some supermodels and got to a World Series. I’m sure you liked him and had high hopes, but he was no Gooden.
There have been young, hard-throwing phenoms in baseball since the sport evolved into a game where pitchers try to get the batter out, instead of throwing it where they wanted it. Bob Feller made the cover of Time as a high schooler who played in the majors. Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, Kerry Wood. But no one threw that hard, had an unhittable curveball, and had pinpoint control so young like Gooden. He came to the majors at age 19 and was the best pitcher in baseball. He struck out 276 in 218 innings, leading the majors by 1.7 K’s per nine over Nolan Ryan in 1984.
The next year he was better, somehow. Very few pitchers have ever been better, in fact: 24-4, 1.53 ERA. He struck out 268 in 276 innings, numbers that make your arm hurt just thinking about it, considering how light starting pitchers’ workloads are today. He was 20. He was Koufax, Gibson, and Seaver all rolled into one.
Yes, the game has changed.
In 1986, Gooden and the Mets won 108 games and won the World Series in the most dramatic way possible. Gooden was 21, and Darryl Strawberry was 24. They were Queens’ version of Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle. They were going to win so many titles, MVPs, and Cy Young Awards and rule baseball forever.
Tim Teufel said the only thing that could keep them from repeating was “about 25 fucking car crashes.”
Turns out, too much cocaine did the trick. Gooden didn’t attend the ‘Mets’ World Series parade because he was partying. He got suspended for the first part of the 1987 season, and didn’t make his first start until June 5. He still won 15 games, but the Mets finished in second. The Mets won the East in 1988, but lost the NLCS to the Dodgers.
From there, it’s a well-known, tragic story. Drug use, suspensions, trouble with the law, injuries.
The narrative about Gooden is that he destroyed his career, and that’s true. But honestly, he was probably never destined to have a great, long career. Go back and look at those innings totals at age 19 and 20. No starting pitcher, in the live-ball era, has ever had workloads like that at those ages and gone on to a long career.
Bob Feller was a teenager striking out major leaguers, but he, in a way, perhaps benefited from having three-and-a-half years “off” at ages 23-26 while fighting a war — and he still was a very different pitcher after 30, never striking out more than 119 in a season.
Koufax made the majors at 19, but he didn’t pitch 200 innings until he was 25, and he still didn’t make it past 12 seasons.
Roger Clemens pitched in college,which has a shorter season, and injuries kept him from piling up innings until he was 23. Today’s pitchers, by comparison, are placed in bubble wrap.
We’ll never see another Doc Gooden.
Also, something no one talks about: Gooden was still great as late as 1990. The narrative is that he simply declined steadily after his historic 1985 season, but that’s not entirely true. 1990 was a great season, even if it wasn’t recognized at the time.
He went 19-7. He was regularly clocked at 100 mph that year, which was a big deal, not common like it is today. He struck out 223 in 232.2 innings, a similar rate to 1985. He gave up just 10 home runs, similar to his 1985 rates. But he gave up 229 hits. Why?
The Mets’ defense was putrid that year. They had Gregg Jefferies at second and Dave Magadan at first. It’s no wonder they lost the division to the Pirates, whose infield was anchored by the steady Sid Bream at first and Jose Lind at second. New York had Howard Johnson, stretched to play third, play 73 games at shortstop. In the outfield they had guys like Keith Miller and Mark Carreon running around in center half the time. Mackey Sasser behind the plate.
Gooden’s ERA was a mediocre 3.83, but his Fielding Independent ERA was 2.44 that year.
He pitched like a Cy Young winner.
Of course, it must have been INFURIATING to Mets fans to see Gooden and Strawberry end up on the Yankees, being bit players for a Yankee dynasty. They were happy for him, sure, but for Gooden to get a no-hitter for the Yankees, not the Mets, who had, at that point, never had one, was salt in the wound.
I wasn’t even a Mets fan, and I still can’t get over seeing his amazin’ but sad career.