Gooden’s Number Retirement Gives Pause

A week ago, Stephen Strasburg finally got to make official what was determined last August and bungled almost at once: his retirement. A career worth of elbow and shoulder issues, brought to a head and then by thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS).

The former Nationals righthander leaves memories of the number-one draft pick who delivered so-often-brilliant pitching, harsh struggles, a World Series MVP in 2019, and a deadly posteason pitching resumé. (1.46 lifetime postseason ERA; 2.07 lifetime postseason fielding-independent pitching.) He's not the only pitcher with flawed mechanics who succumbed (in his case, the inverted-W arm positioning before delivering), and he won't be the last.

But on Sunday, the Mets did honour to a pitcher for whom the craft came naturally, with mechanics unflawed resembling an elegant young assassin on the mound, but whom the Mets decided inexplicably was the unbroken pitcher who needed to be fixed.

They retired Dwight Gooden's uniform number 16, 40 years after his staggering Rookie of the Year season. It's the eighth team number the Mets have retired. (Jackie Robinson's 42 is retired MLB-wide.) And, other than that of 1969 Miracle Mets manager Gil Hodges, it may contain the saddest story. Hodges's time on the Mets' bridge ended with a fatal heart attack in spring 1972. Gooden was ruined by his own team.

"Had New York's [spring 1986] decision makers been present in 1506 when Leonardo da Vinci was painting the Mona Lisa," wrote Jeff Pearlman in The Bad Guys Won, "they would have insisted on a mustache and larger ears. Here they had Gooden, called 'the most dominant young pitcher since Walter Johnson' by Sports Illustrated, and it wasn't good enough."

That spring, Gooden stood as the National League's defending Cy Young Award winner approaching his third major league season. In his first, he pitched a Rookie of the Year season leading the entire Show with 276 strikeouts (smashing Herb Score's rookie strikeout record in the bargain), a 1.69 fielding-independent pitching rate (FIP), a 1.07 walks/hits per inning pitched rate (WHIP), and an 11.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He saw and raised in his second season: he led the Show with 268 strikeouts, a 229 ERA+, and a 2.13 FIP, while being credited with a Show-leading 24 wins and 1.53 ERA.

And, over those first two seasons, Gooden became a Mets' matineé idol while leaving National League batters (not to mention the American League side he struck out in the 1984 All-Star Game) wondering what became of their lumber: opposing batters hit .201 against the tapered young black man they called Dr. K.

Nobody could hit him. And he threw as though he was born to it. Every movement was both elegant and unforced, from his small windup (lifting his hands to his face) to his high-enough leg kick, his turn to hide the ball behind his right thigh, before throwing almost purely overhand and striding to the plate, in near-perfect timing, as though taking a long, unhurried step over a rain puddle.

He never looked uncomfortable. He never looked as though forcing a pitch. He threw a fastball with more movement than a dance company. He threw a curve ball with such a big trajectory that the pitch normally called Uncle Charlie was called Lord Charles when Gooden threw it. It was the third most voluptuous curve ball I have ever seen, behind only those thrown by Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Bert Blyleven. They were the only pitches Gooden had, the only ones Gooden needed.

"Every game," he'd come to remember about those first two seasons but 1985 in particular, "I could put the ball where I wanted it." Every Gooden game, you could feel Met fans thinking to themselves: Strike out twenty! Win thirty! See you in Cooperstown, Doc!

Much later than that, alas, Gooden would come to look back upon those two seasons and wonder, with no disingenuousness, how he did it at all. He knew he'd set an ionospheric bar for himself. Then, as spring training opened in 1986, someone within the Mets' brain trusts decided, inexplicably, that the evidence meant nothing. The Mona Lisa needed the 'stache and ear job, anyway.

It might have been pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, whom Perlman noted spent all 1985 marveling at Gooden and fantasised about what Gooden might do with another pitch or two: "That's what he set out to do--teach the best pitcher in baseball to be better." On the surface it sounds noble enough. But did Stottlemyre miss the memo saying you can't improve on perfection?

"All through [spring training 1986]," Pearlman wrote, "Stottlemyre had Gooden toy with a changeup and a two-seam fastball, two pitches he did not throw. It was hard to watch. Gooden was a trouper, but the confidence he exuded on his fastball and curve ball never attached itself to the other pitches. He felt awkward and unsure."

"I remember catching him one day in the bullpen and they were working with him on the two-seam," said Mets backup catcher Ed Hearn. "I'm thinking, What the hell is this? He was a power pitcher with tons of movement, and they're trying to teach him movement? What the hell for?"

"I always thought they should have left Doc alone," said Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter, who came to the Mets in 1985 and caught all but three of Gooden's games. "Mel thought teaching him a third pitch would be to his advantage. But he didn't need it. He needed someone to say, 'Hey, you've been successful. Just keep going at it.' But they didn't'. I also think it hurt his shoulder. The pitches didn't feel natural to Doc, and pitching was so natural to him. It just wasn't smart."

Emphasis added, because indeed Gooden did develop serious shoulder issues over the next several years.

The Mets' general manager, Frank Cashen, also urged Gooden to shorten his leg kick the better to keep baserunners from taking off on him. Oh. You think a man against whom the league hits a whopping .201 has that much to worry about with baserunners? Assistant GM Joe McIlvaine went Cashen one worse: he told manager Davey Johnson, "If we can reduce Doc's pitches, we can save his arm. He doesn't need 200 strikeouts to succeed."

Two hundred strikeouts is exactly what Gooden would deliver in 1986. He also delivered a 2.84 ERA but a 3.06 FIP, and the opposing on-base percentage jumped 24 points higher than in 1985. He'd pitch respectably in the 1986 National League Championship Series against the Astros; he'd get thumped twice by the Red Sox in the '86 World Series. That year, Gooden no longer resembled the complete dominator he'd been in 1984-85.

Gooden did have an unconscionable workload for that young a pitcher: he may have thrown over 10,800 pitches in 1984-85, according to some reports, and that's not including warmups before his starts or what he threw on his between-starts throwing days. Still. Look again at the comments of Hearn and Carter. That's how a guy to whom pitching came that naturally, without apparent body stress other than the normal effects of pitching almost five hundred innings in the Show at ages 19-20, got compromised as badly as Gooden was.

There was one way where you could assign Gooden any blame for his reduction from off-the-charts great to merely good. He was known to be so pliant and accommodating, with his manager and coaches, and with the public (he was the no-questions-asked most popular Met on a team with several stars including Carter, Keith Hernandez, and Darryl Strawberry), that he left himself open to the wrong advice as well.

"In the pursuit of excellence," Pearlman wrote, "Gooden made a tremendous mistake. He listened to everyone."

Thus a young man who resembled a scientifically-sculpted model for effortless, untaxing pitching was sent from Hall of Fame-great his first two seasons to merely a good pitcher who might brush up against greatness again now and then — for the rest of his 16-year major league career. He'd lead his league in only two categories ever again (FIP, 2.44; homers per nine, 0.4; both in 1989); he'd throw a no-hitter later in his career (as a Yankee).

From 1984-86, Gooden's FIP was 2.31 and his ERA was 2.28. For the rest of his career: 3.95 ERA, 3.69 FIP. From '84-'86: 9.0 K/9; 3.4 K/BB. The rest of his career: 6.8 K/9; 2.1 K/BB.

Gooden's too-well-chronicled battles with substance abuse (which got him into rehab in early 1987, delaying his season's beginning, and got him suspended for all 1995, in between which other disgraces emerged) have obscured the true reasons why he was knocked down from a perch that pointed him to the Hall of Fame. Baseball Reference ranks him the number 87 starting pitcher ever. Being inside the top hundred is remarkable enough, considering what was done to him and what he began doing to himself, of course. And in that order.

Several of Gooden's old Mets teammates came to do him honour Sunday afternoon, including a surprising Strawberry, who'd suffered a heart attack a month earlier and may not have been expected to make it. ("I had to be here for Doc," Strawberry told a reporter. His own Mets number 18 will be retired in June.) Hernandez and Ron Darling, now two-thirds of the Mets' respected television broadcast team, were there. So were relief pitchers Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco, outfielder Mookie Wilson, and outfielder/pinch hitter Lee Mazzilli, among others. So was Carter's widow, Sandra.

Gooden walked out to the field on a blue carpet, lined with people holding up K placards such as those hanging from the old Shea Stadium railing in the deep outfield seats, the old K Korner that tracked every Gooden strikeout during every Gooden game.

He thanked Citi Field fans and Mets owner Steve Cohen Sunday afternoon, the fans for standing by him through everything great, good, and bad, and Cohen — who's been as enthusiastic about acknowledging Mets legends as the Wilpons were reluctant, previously — for enabling him to retire officially as a Met ... almost a quarter century after he threw his last major league pitch.

Then, he threw a ceremonial first pitch to his grandson, Kaden.

Several times, Gooden's big smile made him look once more like the child prodigy who owned baseball for two transdimensional seasons, the one whom the younger Denzel Washington might have portrayed on film with astonishing physical accuracy. The smile must have grown exponentially when the Mets did him further honour by beating the Royals, 2-1, in the Sunday afternoon game to follow.

But it also made me remember what the very regime that took the chance on Gooden so young did to him when they decided perfection was insufficient.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site