Dwight Gooden considered all the times when he drew thousands of extra fans, the nights when he kept the keeper of the K corner placards busy, the performances that made him the youngest pitcher ever to win a Cy Young Award. Still, he decided that his greatest moment at Shea Stadium occurred 14 years after his last game as a Met.
It was in September 2008, when he finally put on a Mets jersey again and was given a stirring ovation during the Shea Goodbye ceremony. It moved him that fans hadn't drawn the line between his brief greatness and his enduring flaws.
"I get goose bumps now just thinking about it," said Gooden, who will get more goose bumps Sunday when he is inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame along with his guys - teammate Darryl Strawberry, manager Davey Johnson and general manager Frank Cashen.
You always get the whole complicated package with Gooden - the former phenom and the troubled fellow who went to rehab for drug abuse in 1987; the nice guy who pitched a no-hitter for the Yankees in 1996 and the driver accused of leaving the scene of an accident and driving under the influence this past March.
If you're a Mets fan, you don't care. You know he was as responsible as anyone for making the Mets matter in the 1980s and for doing then what seems unthinkable now: making New York a Mets town. You overlook that he broke your heart when he tested positive for drugs again in 1994 and was let go. You'll never forget what an event it was every time the young Gooden pitched at Shea. Nor will he.
"The Mets have always been No. 1 in my heart," he said yesterday. "Obviously, after '94, I was out. But I always wanted to come back here. So to me, coming back now and being inducted in the Mets Hall of Fame, signing a paper to retire as a Met, is a great ending for me. It made everything full circle."
Getting inducted into any Hall of Fame is a big deal, even for someone who should have shot higher. Strawberry acknowledged that people expected the Mets of the 1980s to win more than one title and that they expected him and Gooden to reach Cooperstown. "Guess what," Strawberry said. "We're going to the Mets Hall of Fame, and that's the most important thing. That's Cooperstown to me."
And it is the world to Gooden, 45. It is one chance for a full circle in a life filled with loose ends. The turbulence isn't over, either. In the past few weeks, there was a report that his estranged wife accused him of abandoning her, their 5-year-old son and their 4-month-old daughter. Gooden declined to get into it, other than to say, "That will take care of itself. Obviously, it's false allegations, but the rest of the stuff . . . I don't want to take anything away from this."
"This" is his day in the Citi Field sun, which feels like home to him. Today is the day to relive the days when opponents mysteriously developed backaches after batting practice so as not to face Gooden. It will be reflection on the times when fans would stand and shout when Gooden ran a two-strike count on a batter. "That worked to my advantage because it put pressure on the hitter, also the umpire," he said.
Today is the occasion to think of how, when Hubie Brooks was dealt to the Expos in the Gary Carter trade, his first thought was, "Damn, I've got to face Dwight." Gooden smiled at that memory, adding, "But he hit me pretty good."
Gooden is and always will be grateful for the way his life got back on track because George Steinbrenner signed him first as a player, then a front-office employee. "I will always be humbled by that, what he meant for my family," Gooden said.
But the Mets are and always will be home. Their fans never gave up on him, even when he no longer had anything to give them. Of the Shea Goodbye ovation, he said, "That let me know I had been away too long and I need to be around and spend time with the fans. That's what I plan to do the rest of my time." Even after his time is done, he always will be a Hall of Famer here.