The Doctor Is Back In. At A Mutually Beneficial Time.

Well, at least one really good starting pitcher will be on the mound at Citi Field wearing a Mets uniform this year.

But today, said uniform, more than likely a classic version with racing stripes, large font letters for the nameplate and enough material where underwear lines aren’t visible, will be worn by a man pushing 60, and after today no future Met will ever wear his number 16.

Yes, Dwight Gooden, “Doctor K”, or more succinctly, “Doc”, returns to Flushing to be the latest Met hero to be given a most belated honor that the Wilpon ownership seemed to consider meaningless.  There’s more than a tinge of controversy attached to this one, though, for Gooden was indeed a troubled soul during the majority of his decade with the team.  Starting with his missing the championship parade through the Canyon of Heroes the morning after the Mets won the 1986 World Series, an absence that continued through the first two months of the 1987 season after he announced he was checking into a rehab facility on the eve of opening day.  An injury-plagued 1989 campaign, a teasing rebound in a 1990 season that produced one last pennant run, albeit unsuccessful, before yet another injury began a losing spell that saw the early 90s Mets become an absolute embarrassment, essentially bringing them full circle to where they were when Gooden first joined as a wide-eyed teenager who became new manager Davey Johnson’s secret weapon when he took over the team in 1984 after winning the International League title with the team’s Tidewater Tides AAA team.

And that magical summer 40 years ago was a roller coaster ride I willingly climbed aboard with the urging of an unlikely friendship I forged in, of places, a singles group.

No, it was not with a woman; those that were there hated baseball and what they knew of the Mets only made both Lloyd and I even less desirable than our respective bank accounts did at the time.  Lloyd was more than a decade older and actually still lived at home; he couldn’t afford an apartment of his own, even the basement flat that I was renting at the time.  He was also an only child of a widowed Holocaust survivor, and if you’ve know that kind of dynamic of interdependence it’s almost understandable why he wasn’t even trying to get out on his own.

But he was more than eager to lovingly leave Mom behind every time Doc Gooden pitched that summer, and as he’d explain to me as he urged me to join him in the still $1.50 seats in the top deck of Shea Stadium, “someone like Gooden only comes along once in a generation, and I wasn’t old enough to see Seaver than much.”.  Nor was I.  So we managed to find a way to grab whatever awful seats we could for every Gooden start we could.  And each one became more exciting and monumental than the previous one. Gooden eventually broke Herb Score’s record for strikeouts by a rookie in a season.  Wikipedia rattles off some of what we saw in person, or enthusiastically rushed home to view on Channel 9 when the team was on the road:

Gooden won 17 games, the most by a 19-year-old since Wally Bunker won 19 games in 1964 and the second most for a Mets rookie, after Jerry Koosman‘s 19 wins in 1968. Gooden won eight of his last nine starts; in his final three starts of the 1984 season, he had 41 strikeouts and 1 walk. Gooden led the league in strikeouts, his 276 breaking Herb Score‘s rookie record of 245 in 1955, and also set the record for most strikeouts in three consecutive starts with 43. As a 19-year-old rookie, Gooden set the then-major league record for strikeouts per 9 innings, with 11.39, breaking Sam McDowell‘s record of 10.71 in 1965. He was voted the Rookie of the Year, giving the Mets two consecutive winners of that award (Darryl Strawberry had been the recipient in 1983).

And as the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS’ Mike Lupica recalled yesterday, the follow-up season was even more eventful:

I asked (Gooden) what the best of it was for him in 1985, the year before his Mets won the World Series, when he was 24-4 and every start felt like a compelling as the ones we would get much later when Aaron Judge was trying to break home run records in September of 2022. 

“You know what I remember the best, out of everything?” he said. “I remember what Shea would sound like when I got to two strikes, when they’d get up and ask me for another strikeout.”

He laughed and said, “Or another K, I guess I should say.” 

It wasn’t just the strikeouts that year. It was all of it, a stat line that even now gives off a beam of light. The earned run average of 1.53. The 16 complete games, a real good number, because it was his. And eight shutouts. This was what Tom Seaver was like when he was young. Doc was that good. And, truly, you didn’t want to miss a start, even if you were just watching on television(.)

By the time all of that unfolded I had moved to the West Coast; Lloyd would regularly call me after each hoem start, which he was now going to alone.  But I did get the chance to be in the stands at Dodger Stadium, in their top deck, when he faced off in a key late-season battle with the Dodgers’ ace Fernando Valenzuela.  They battled each other for ten shutout innings each, the battle going long into the night.  My family was visiting me that week and they were in the stands thrilling to all of this, but fretting every minute that we were staying way too late knowing they were flying back to New York the next morning.   Strawberry was able to lift a two-run blast off the Dodger reliever in the 11th, and Gooden emerged with the win in a game that ended just before midnight.  Sure enough, we all overslept, and they indeed missed their flight.

When Lloyd called me that morning for MY update, he heard the intense screaming and panic from my mom, who had never had to confront having to buy a replacement ticket.  And while I was doing better than I had been in New York, it was still a stretch for me to even offer her and family them.   Turns out Lloyd’s not needing to pay rent had earned him a nice little piggy bank.  He said to me “Say nothing, buy the tickets at the airport, and I will reimburse you.  You got the chance to see history for both of us, and for me it’s worth the investment for your safety and sanity”.   Lloyd knew my mom well.

The singles group we went to disbanded soon after the ’85 season.  And as the Mets deteriorated, we eventually lost touch.  There was little for us to get excited about.  I believe at some point Lloyd’s mom passed, and he never really recovered from that loss himself.

And things got even worse for Gooden off the field. A second bout with cocaine led to his suspension for the balance of 1994 and all of 1995 amidst the strike, and ultimately his inglorious release from the Mets.  His retribution, as well as his only no-hitter and a second World’s Championship, ironically came with the 1996 Yankees.   He managed to stay in the game until 2000 and a second tour of duty with the Yankees and, ironically yet again, I saw his last Shea Stadium (and major league appearance) in a brief relief outing against the Mets in the Subway Series.

After that…things got WAY worse.  More drug issues.  Divorce.  As NBC Sports’ Craig Calcatretta recounted in 2016, when Gooden joined the 30th anniverary reunion of the ’86 championship team:

He was also one of the most infamous members of that Mets team as well, what with his decades long struggle with drug and alcohol abuse which, it’s not unreasonable to say, robbed him of what could have easily been a Hall of Fame career. 

John Harper of the Daily News caught up with Gooden and has a story about his ongoing battles with addiction and a now-five-year commitment to sobriety. Gooden is unflinching in his assessment of himself and where his life has been and in how hard he works to keep his life on the straight and narrow:

“That’s what makes every day so joyous for me right now because I remember the days when I was in houses with people I didn’t know, getting high, not knowing if I was ever going to get my life back together. And at times accepting, ‘maybe this is who I am, maybe I’m going to die like this.’ When I look back at everything I’ve done, even if it’s just everything I did to my body, I never thought I’d live this long”.
He did live.  He did remarry.  He updated Lupica on where is he is today, which is far more peaceful and in control than he once was:

“I’ve got grandkids now,” he said. “I’ve got two great grandkids, if you can believe it. On Sunday, I want my grandkids to experience, even for one day, what I did for a living once.

“But it’s more than that for me. After I cut ties with the Mets in ’94, I felt like I never got the chance to say goodbye to the fans who had been such a big part of my success, the ones who didn’t just cheer me like they did, but stayed with me through all my struggles. This is my chance on Sunday to let them know how thankful I still am to them, and also how sorry I am that I let them down.”

The feeling is mutual, Doc.  I never did thank Lloyd properly for his largesse.

So you bet I’ll be watching, albeit from afar.  I hadn’t thought much about Lloyd in decades until this unlikely day approached.  I sure hope he’s watching, too.

And, for the record, thank you so much, Lloyd.

Courage…

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