Sunday, September 12, 2010

September 12, 1984: Doctor K

QUEENS, N.Y. - For the tall, lanky 19-year-old on the mound, the future seemed limitless. There was nothing that the young man from Tampa couldn't accomplish on the pitching mound. The way the Pirates were being mowed down, Mets fans had every reason to believe that the National League had no chance over the next decade. Nothing could stop Dwight Gooden.

Nothing, except Gooden himself.

Already a national phenomenon as a rookie in 1984, Dwight Gooden officially made a name for himself with his 16-strikeout, no-walk performance on September 12 against Pittsburgh. In beating the Pirates 2-0, Gooden soared past the rookie single-game strikeout record, ending the game with 251 for the season. The five-hitter was his second straight shutout and seventh straight victory. So complete was his domination that of 120 pitches he threw, only 28 were called balls.

That start was the peak of Gooden's incredible rookie season, during which he earned the nickname Doctor K, later shortened to just Doc for the rest of his career. He went 17-9 on the year, with a 2.60 ERA and a league-leading 276 strikeouts and finished one vote shy of a unanimous Rookie of the Year award.

The next year, Gooden was even better, going 24-4 with a shocking 1.53 ERA, the best pitching season of the 80s. When the Mets won the World Series in 1986 with Gooden anchoring the staff, Cooperstown seemed the only plausible resting stop for his career.

But as happens far too often with phenoms, something got in the way. Gooden's comet shined brightly for a few years, but faded quickly. So often, it's injuries that derail careers, and Gooden had his fair share. But what started the downfall of his career was cocaine; after being arrested in the winter of 1986, Gooden entered rehab in April 1987 for a cocaine habit. Missing the first two months of the 1987 season, Gooden still returned in time to win 15 games for the Mets. He pitched in the postseason again in 1988, losing twice to drop his career postseason record to 0-4.

And then the injuries. Gooden suffered two separate shoulder injuries within three years in the late 80s and early 90s, putting the halt to a great career. He would bounce back between shoulder problems to produce great seasons, but he never recaptured the magic of his first two seasons in the league.

A lot of reasons have been proposed for why Gooden's career fizzled out. The cocaine is an obvious one, as was Gooden's problems with alcohol; he has been arrested at least five times since his retirement, mostly for drug and alcohol-related offenses. But the injuries also played a toll, and it's likely that the heavy workload from the early days of his career also had a lot to do with his later troubles.

In 1984, though, all that was the last thing on Mets fans' minds. They were far too wrapped up in Gooden mania, too optimistic about their budding dynasty, to ever consider that Gooden's comet would flare out so soon.

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