If scientists ever successfully build a time machine (which I think they won’t, because if anyone in the future actually built one, wouldn’t they have traveled back in time to show it off to us by now?), there are several players that I would like to have the opportunity to go back and watch at the peak of their careers. Of course the big names like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Ty Cobb come quickly to mind, but I’d also like to go back and watch a young Dwight “Dr. K” Gooden pitch in the minor leagues. Did you know that at 18 years old, Gooden struck out 300 batters in 191 innings in A+ ball? That must have been amazing to watch. The following year, at the ripe old age of 19, Gooden struck out 276 batters in 218 innings at the major league level for the New York Mets, and as the youngest All-Star ever he struck out all 3 batters he faced in the All-Star game. His 276 strikeouts crushed the record for most strikeouts by a rookie, which was previously set by Herb Score in 1955 with 245 strikeouts. If you consider how major league teams are moving towards restrictive pitch counts and caps on the number of innings pitched by their young pitchers, it’s very likely that Gooden’s strikeout record may never be broken.
At 20 years old, Gooden won 24 games and won the NL Cy Young Award while posting an ERA of just 1.53, and he captured the triple-crown of pitching by leading all pitchers in strikeouts, wins and ERA. New York City became obsessed with their new young ace, and counting his strikeout totals became a city-wide pastime. With all the hype and early success, can you imagine what Gooden’s rookie cards would go for if he was just now coming up through the minors? How about an autographed gold refractor? That would be one sick card.
Since no has invented a time machine yet, and we haven’t had visitors from the future bring us one, I’ll just have to settle for watching YouTube clips of Gooden. One of my favorite clips is his major league debut on April 7, 1984. The first two batters he faced hit weak-sauce grounders to second and the third batter struck out. He works fast and zips pitches right by those poor scrawny saps wearing those puke-awful early-80’s Astros uniforms and after watching just a few pitches, you already get the feeling that Gooden was going to be something special. Another clip shows Gooden returning from a stint in rehab on June 5, 1987 and the first batter he faces is a svelte looking Barry Bonds. Bonds fouls off the first pitch, but then Gooden comes back with a devastating breaking ball that freezes Bonds in the box. The next pitch is a high heater outside that Bonds stays away from, but the fourth pitch is an eye level fast ball that Bonds can’t catch up to and he goes down swinging. Watching those clips is probably as close as I’ll ever get to seeing Doc Gooden pitch in person, and I’m a little upset just thinking about it.
Unfortunately for the Mets, Gooden, and baseball fans all over the world, Gooden underwent a steady decline that stretched into his early-30’s and he never was able to live up to his early career expectations. The 1980’s weren’t kind to many ball players, and Gooden was no exception. He tested positive for cocaine use several times, and was eventually suspended for the entire 1995 season. He continued to struggle with alcohol and cocaine use, and was arrested several times, ultimately spending 7 months in jail in 2006 after he showed up at a meeting with his probation officer under the influence of cocaine. No one can say whether it was the extreme work load he endured early in his career, or it if was the drugs that led to his decline, but I think everyone can agree that the world of baseball was robbed of one of its brightest stars.
Every decade or so there comes along a player that is set apart from the rest, and like a foreordained deity, they rule the world of baseball and everything in it. The ball field is their footstool, the dugout bench their throne, and in their right hand sits a flaming baseball that will forever burn in the minds and memories of those who were blessed enough to worship at their cleated feet. Sometimes the baseball faithful are allowed only a few short seasons with their newest Diamond King, and so they must pass down their stories to their children because he who once was is now gone. If you ever have the chance to witness such a being, grab onto it and cherish every moment. Though you may not know it, you will be in the midst of angels with a trumpet in one hand and a bat in the other, who have come down from heaven to witness the paradisaical event. I missed out on Gooden the first time around, but time machine be damned, there is baseball in heaven, and I’ll go there just to watch him pitch.