Time has a singular way of shaping the stories we tell ourselves about sports, of smoothing over successes or sharpening mistakes, of making heroes of certain players and disappointments of others. And, in the case of Dwight Gooden, doing all of the above.
It’s been 35 years since his stunning sophomore season – the one in which the 20-year-old dominated baseball, brushed off records with relative ease, and ascended to the very height of his profession. And 34 years since the beginning of his slow decline – the struggle with addiction, injury, and the weight of all those expectations, placed squarely on a pair of very young shoulders.
But time, for Gooden, has also provided the gift of clarity, and sometimes peace, and that’s where he is now, looking back on the year in which he went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA, becoming the youngest 20-game winner in baseball history. He has his Cy Young and his demons, and the two have learned to coexist.
“When I was incarcerated, you replay your whole career and you look at times where you say, wow, I could have been in the Hall of Fame,” Gooden told Newsday recently. “But then, I have to say to myself, so I don’t constantly beat myself up, well, I came into the league, I didn’t have any expectations. I just wanted to play a long time, but I got to win three World Series, got every record possible for a pitcher, so I shouldn’t be ashamed of my career. I should be OK with that. That’s what brought me to grips with it. But still, at times, I think of what could have been. I definitely think that, but not as often as I once did.”
For baseball fans and Mets fans in particular, Gooden’s difficulties have been well-documented: The incarceration he’s referring to was in 2006, after meeting his parole officer high on cocaine, but his latest brush with the law came in 2019, when he was arrested twice – the first time in June for possession of cocaine and the second in July for driving while intoxicated.
The list of his drug and alcohol transgressions is long and, for many, painful, because his attempts to get sober are also well-known. By his own account, his struggle with addiction began after that ’85 season, the year when everything was still possible. And so here Gooden is, trying again to regain his life, but also allowing himself a moment to remember what it was like then.
His mythology is well-established – striking out 16 Giants and throwing 143 pitches, the 16 complete games and the 268 total strikeouts. He popularized the K corner and would secretly peek up to see how many he had going.
“Every game was an event,” he said. “It was almost like being a performer in a concert where everybody’s there to see you.”
He is a reminder of a bygone era of Mets baseball – of brash players, domination, swagger and hope.
But his recollections these days seem more dominated by the people around him than even himself. Talk about 1985, and one of the first things he mentions is Gary Carter. Mention the ease with which he pitched, and he brings up Mel Stottlemyre, the Mets pitching coach at the time. Both are gone now, but Gooden remains as a testament to a crystalized moment when they were all at their best.
Gooden was nervous before the ’85 season. He had been reminded time and time again of the sophomore slump and worried he couldn’t reproduce his Rookie of the Year performance. Mets manager Davey Johnson insisted he incorporate a third pitch, a changeup, and the young righty didn’t trust it. Gooden recollected being hit hard in spring training (he wasn’t actually – he had a 1.93 ERA but allowed 27 hits in 28 innings, which is getting “hit hard” only if you’re Dwight Gooden in 1985).
But Carter, “he brought the best out of me,” Gooden said. “We just played to the crowd…Gary, if it was 10-0 out there, he wanted me to pitch like it was 1-0… Each pitch had to have a purpose. I couldn’t have had a better catcher. He would always communicate on how you approach certain hitters. And that’s what we did – every game, every pitch had a purpose behind it, and it felt like I was in the zone the entire year.”
The two were virtuoso performers, while Stottlemyre stayed behind the scenes, helping a young pitcher think through his approach. It wasn’t enough to be physically tired. Stottlemyre wanted Gooden to be mentally tired after a game.
“Between starts he would always challenge me to my next one,” Gooden said. “He didn’t want me to just be complacent with what I was doing.”
Eventually, the pitcher couldn’t wait: “After five or six starts, that's when I knew something really special was happening...The four days between starts started to feel like two weeks.”
He didn’t worry if the Mets scored two runs for him or 20 – it was his job to shut it down, no matter what. He thrived under pressure, but it didn’t mean he didn’t feel it, or that it didn’t affect him.
"It was sellout crowd all the time," he said. "It was a lot of media attention. There was a lot of expectation from the media, from the organization and there was a lot of expectation from myself to do well. I wanted to totally dominate."
But when he got on the mound, Gooden said, a new level emerged. The fans helped fuel it.
“Every time you had two strikes on a batter, the fans were dancing in their seats, clapping because they wanted the strikeout,” he said. “I fed into that and I’d get caught up in the adrenaline.”
He struck out his 16 players on Aug. 20, and got his 20th victory on Aug. 25, a 9-3 win against the Padres. It was, for him, a middling start – six innings, three runs, two earned, and five hits - but it didn’t matter, because it created a legacy.
“That was incredible,” he said. “It was something that, once the season was over, I felt I could share that with my kids, my grandkids.”
And 20-year-old Gooden was right in that respect. Though he did end up having a long career – 15 seasons, which is astounding considering injuries and addiction – this would be the precipice, and the thing he could tell his kids about 35 years later.
“When I was going through it, I don’t think I was able to enjoy it as much as I could have, as much as I should have,” he said. “I felt like I was obligated to perform. It was my job to do and you end up doing your job and living your dream and not thinking about, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m having this type of year. I can’t believe I’m putting up these types of numbers.’”
“You’re not really aware of it as you’re going through it. When the season is over, you look back and say, that was great, and then you kind of expect to do close to that or the same type of performance every year after that. Obviously, that didn’t happen.”
No, and though it can still sting, time has allowed him enough grace to see what 1985 really was: One moment, where one of the best ever was at his very best.
In Dwight Gooden's summer of 1985, he was the Cy Young Award winner, an All-Star and led the National League in these categories:
Complete games: 16
Innings pitched: 276 2/3