Thursday, March 25, 2010

If Dwight Gooden Had Stayed Clean

Note: The following is a what-if scenario. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to call it an "if-only scenario."

So we Yankee Fans got a little laugh the other day when Dwight Gooden was pulled over for speeding. Hey, it wasn't the worst that could happen.

(While I'm on the subject of "The Worst That Could Happen": Rest in peace, John Mastrangelo, a.k.a. Johnny Maestro, lead singer of the doo-wop group the Crests, of "Sixteen Candles" fame, and the "blue-eyed soul" band the Brooklyn Bridge. Cancer, age 70. I saw him in concert 3 times. Great singer, more importantly a good guy. Sadly, his death actually has happened. I resume the alternate history.)

Remember back in 1984, when Dwight Gooden was just 19 years old, went 17-9, and set a rookie record with 276 strikeouts? Met fans were already saying he was the greatest pitcher ever. It was like Knick fans with Patrick Ewing: It wasn't if he would lead them to championships, it was how many.

The Mets finished 2nd that year, but the next year, 1985, they looked read to make a serious challenge at the World Series. With Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and Keith Hernandez already in place, they added Gary Carter. They came close, chasing the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League Eastern Division Title to the last weekend before falling short. Gooden had one of the best seasons any pitcher has ever had: 24-4, ERA of 1.53, 268 Ks, and a WHIP of 0.965. (Walks and Hits, divided by Innings Pitched. Anything under 1.3 is good. Under 1.2 is excellent. Under 1.0 is ungodly.)

Dwight Gooden, "Doctor K" (eventually just "Doc"), won the Cy Young Award the year after being Rookie of the Year. He had won 41 games before he was old enough to legally drink. His future, and the Mets' seemed limitless.

In 1986, it all came together. True, he went "only" 17-6, and he failed to win either of his World Series starts (but then, he was opposed in both by Roger Clemens, who was every bit as dominating in '86 as Gooden was in '85), but the Mets did win the Series, after winning 108 games in the regular season.

What a rotation: Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Bob Ojeda. A bullpen with Jesse Orosco, Roger McDowell and Randy Myers. An outfield of Kevin Mitchell, the platoon of Mookie Wilson and Lenny Dykstra, and Darryl Strawberry. An infield of Keith Hernandez, Wally Backman, Rafael Santana and Howard Johnson -- and Backman and Johnson could be platooned with Tim Teufel and Ray Knight, respectively, with occasionally "Amazin'" results.

At the City Hall celebration after the ticker-tape parade -- a bigger one than the Yankees had ever recevied, but, then again, then-Mayor Ed Koch was a Met fan (no wonder he went bald: He probably pulled out most of his hair!) -- Mookie told the crowd, "1986: The Year of the Mets! 1987: The Year of the Mets! 1988: The Year of the Mets!"

Big roar. No one doubted him. Yankee Fans feared it would be true, but even we found it hard to doubt it.

But that was when things began to go wrong for the Mets. They traded Mitchell for Kevin McReynolds, who just didn't produce the way Mitchell did the next few years. They released Knight, which became a problem when HoJo kept getting hurt. Hernandez hurt his back and got old in a hurry. They traded Dykstra for Juan Samuel, a great trade for the Phillies but yet another in a long list of bonehead moves for the Mets. Hot prospects Dave Magadan and Gregg Jeffries didn't quite work out.

Through it all, Gooden kept on pitching. In 1987, he went 20-9, as the Mets again finished 2nd to the Cardinals. In 1988, he had another great year, going 18-9, and starting the All-Star Game, as he had in '84. But a little foreshadowing came when he gave up a home run to the weakest hitter in the American League's starting lineup: Terry Steinbach, the catcher for the Oakland Athletics.

The Mets again won the NL East. Gooden shut down the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, and the Mets won that series in 5. This enabled Gooden to start Game 1 of the World Series, but, again, he was victimized by an A's homer, as manager Davey Johnson left him in to pitch a complete game, and in the top of the 9th, Mark McGwire crushed one over the picnic area in Shea Stadium's left-center field, turning a 4-3 Met lead into a 5-4 A's win. The Mets never recovered, and the A's won in 5 games, with Gooden also losing the clincher.

Gooden sustained his first major league injury in 1989, but bounced back to put together a 12-5 season. The Mets again finished 2nd, to the Chicago Cubs as they had in '84, Gooden's first season. In 1990, he was 19-7, but the Mets again finished 2nd, this time to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Another injury in 1991 left Gooden only 13-7, but by now the Mets had collapsed. In 1992, they were so bad that Bob Klapisch, the Mets' beat writer for the New York Daily News, published a book about them, titled The Worst Team Money Could Buy. Gooden fell to 10-13 in '92 and 12-15 in '93 as the Mets lost 103 games.

For a while, in '93, they were ahead of their 1962 team's 20th Century record pace of 120 losses, and they were a bunch of juvenile delinquents as well, tossing firecrackers that ended up hurting children, spraying reporters with bleach, threatening reporters (including Bobby Bonilla to Klapisch) with physical harm. In all this, Gooden, now 28, was a beacon of maturity.

But improvement was not on the horizon for a man who seemed, with injuries and a poor supporting cast, to have fallen off the Baseball Hall of Fame's radar. In 1994, with a players' strike shortening the season, and a rotator cuff shortening his own, Gooden finished just 3-5. He bounced back in 1995, going 7-3 in limited action, but the atmosphere in Flushing Meadow was so bad that he wanted out.

That's when Yankee owner George Steinbrenner pounced. In one of the great coups in baseball history, he took the biggest star the Mets had produced since Tom Seaver, and brought him to The Bronx. On May 14, 1996, Dwight Gooden did something neither he, nor any other human being, had done, or still has done, in a Met uniform: He pitched a no-hitter. He blanked the Seattle Mariners as the Yankees won, 4-0. Rejuvenated, he went 13-8, and won Game 4 of the World Series, as the Yankees beat the Atlanta Braves in 6 games.

(Note: Gooden doing the job that Kenny Rogers failed to do erased that 6-0 to 8-6 comeback, which means that Jim Leyritz is mainly known for his rain-strewn walkoff homer in Game 2 of the 1995 ALDS.)

Gooden again pitched well for the Yankees in 1997, going 16-9, helping them beat out the Baltimore Orioles for the AL East title, the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS, the Orioles again in the ALCS, and the upstart Florida Marlins in the World Series.

None of those teams have made the World Series since; in fact, only the Indians have even reached the postseason since, and South Florida doesn't even have a team anymore, after the Marlins were broken up, attendance sank like a stone, and the team was moved to Washington, D.C. Rumors abound that the Montreal Expos, if they can't get a deal for a new ballpark to open by the 2014 season, may move to Miami, but they'd still be stuck in whatever the Miami Dolphins' stadium is being called these days.

Gooden hadn't had a 200-strikeout season since 1990, and only that one since 1986, but it didn't matter, as, like his former Met, now Yankee, teammate David Cone, he became a smarter pitcher with age -- or, if you prefer, a pitcher rather than a thrower. The 1998 Yankees were the greatest team of all time, with a rotation of Cone, Gooden, Andy Pettitte, David Wells, and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, making the '86 Mets look like pikers. Their 117 wins were the most in basball history, including Gooden's 12-9 record. They swept the Texas Rangers in the ALDS, took the Indians in 5 in the ALCS, and swept the San Diego Padres for their 3rd straight World Series.

Gooden finally seemed to slow down in 1999, at age 34, going 12-9 but with an ERA of 4.70. He did not appear in the Yankees' unbelievable 11-1 postseason, the greatest performance since baseball's postseason since the '76 Reds went 7-0 (facing a maximum of 12, as opposed to 19).

An 11-10 season in 2000 showed him the writing on the wall, though it also showed him a 5th straight World Series ring -- something only the 1949-53 Yankees had previously done. He had surgery on his shoulder, allowing him to come back in time for the 2001 stretch drive, going 4-1 in limited action. He managed to shut down the Arizona Diamondbacks in emergency relief of Andy Pettitte in Game 6 of the World Series, and the Yankees claimed their record 6th straight World Championship, their 28th World Series overall.

It was too much for his shoulder, and Gooden sat out the entire 2002 season, in which the Yankees lost to the Anaheim Angels in the ALDS. But he was back in 2003, squeezing out one more solid season, going 15-12, with his first 200-K season in 13 years.

His heroic bullpen work saved the Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS against the Boston Red Sox, leading to Aaron Boone's epic home run to win the Pennant. Doc again pitched in relief to shut down the Chicago Cubs, in their first World Series in 58 years, to win Game 4, allowing the Yankees to beat the Cubs in Game 6 for Title 29.

But the end was near. The pain was too great for much of the 2004 season, and Doc announced it would be his last. He would, after all, be turning 40 shortly after it ended. But Doc did manage to make his last regular-season strikeout the 3,000th of his career. He still had one last procedure to perform.

With the Red Sox (cough-steroids-cough) having completed baseball's first-ever 3-games-to-0 postseason comeback, manager Joe Torre had a tough choice to make in Game 7. Pettitte had been allowed to leave for Houston. So had Roger Clemens. Mike Mussina wasn't ready. Neither was Jon Lieber. Wells had left. Kevin Brown hadn't been effective. Neither had Javier Vazquez. Neither had Esteban Loaiza. El Duque was hurting. So was Doc.

Doc sucked it up and said, "Skip, gimme that ball."

Joe gave Doc the ball. He sent the Sox down in order in the 1st. In the 3rd, David Ortiz led off. The biggest Yankee-killer of his generation had pummeled them the last 2 seasons, but Gooden stuck a fastball -- "The last good one I ever threw," he would tell the press -- right in Big Papi's fat ribs. Ortiz pointed at the mound, and Gooden, in his best imitation of an English hooligan's "Come on then" style, threw out his arms and accepted the challenge. Both benches cleared, and Ortiz flattened Gooden. Not by punching him, but by falling on him. That would flatten anyone. The umpires threw both men out of the game, thus requiring a new pitcher for the Yankees, but also taking the Sox' biggest threat out.

Vazquez came in, settled things down, and held the Sox off until the 7th. Then the Sox made the mistake of bringing Pedro Martinez in to pitch, and he found out "Who's your Daddy!" The Yankees tallied twice off him to take a 3-0 lead. Mariano Rivera pitched the last 2 innings to give the Yankees their 41st Pennant.

The Curse of the Bambino lived, and still lives. Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon, Mark Bellhorn and Bill Mueller were soon outed as steroid users. Pedro was allowed to leave Boston via free agency, just as they did to Clemens after 1996. The Red Sox still have not won a World Series since 1918.

This past offseason, team owner John Henry, fed up with it all, sold the team to a Russian oil billionaire, who has promised to build a new ballpark on landfill in Boston's North End. "Of course," Yankee Fans are saying. "Landfill for a garbage team." Sure, build a ballpark on landfill. After all, it worked so well for Cleveland Municipal Stadium, right?

Gooden pitched just one inning in the 2004 World Series against the Cardinals, but he said it was sweet revenge for 1985 and '87 with the Mets. The Yankees had their 30th World Championship, and Dwight Gooden walked away from baseball with a 9th World Series ring. Only Yogi Berra then had more (though Rivera, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada have now matched Yogi).

Dwight Gooden retired with a career record of 256-149, for a superb winning percentage of .632. It is somewhat amazing that the man known as Doctor K just barely made it to the 3,000 Strikeout Club, but injuries did somewhat get in his way.

Gooden was caught speeding the other day, on his way to a banquet honoring his recent election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Some say he was the greatest New York pitcher ever. Well, probably not. Not even if you include what he did for the Mets.

Still, Dwight Eugene Gooden is a Yankee hero, and a baseball hero. With his injuries, it could have been a lot worse.

In fact, it could have been even worse than that. Look at his former Met and Yankee teammate Darryl Strawberry. Can you imagine if Gooden had wasted his life on cocaine and alcohol? It could have been not just a shame, but a tragedy.

If only...


Jon Lewin said...

Quite a fanciful account. The clean Gooden must be a true miracle worker if his actions could result in the Cubs making it to the World Series. Looking forward to your sequel, "If M. Donald Grant Were Not a Tightwad," in which the 1977 Mets kept Tom Seaver, signed Reggie Jackson and other free agents, and made it back to the World Series under manager Joe Torre while the Yankees had to settle for their brief appearance in 1976 against the Reds. Torre went on to become a New York institution in his many years of managing the Mets. In the late 90s, George Steinbrenner, desperate for some of that Met magic to rub off on his ringless team, made Bud Harrelson his 22nd manager. It did not go well.

Uncle Mike said...

No chance, Jon. Now, if Lorinda Payson had married a man who had a clue about baseball instead of Vince de Roulet (a Nixon-appointed Ambassador... though Shirley Temple was one, too), and said fictional son-in-law of Joan had told Grant to, in the words of Alvin Dark, "Take a hike, son," it might have been different.

Seriously, what IS Steve Chilcott doing these days?

Then again, Davey Johnson was also a serious candidate to be Yankee manager after Buck Showalter told George he'd rather take a hike than work for him any longer... Give Torre Johnson's team and he would have won more than one title; give Johnson Torre's and we'd be wondering why he had Derek Jeter traded for Who Knows and why he trusted that Rivera kid from Panama with so many starts.

gid831 said...

Jeeze, if only, huh? I forgot that Yankee fans were so long suffering that they needed to dream up fantasies like these...