I remember the first time I laid eyes on Dwight Gooden. It was 1985 and he was on the cover of one of my dad’s Sports Illustrated magazines. It’s a wonderful photo, depicting a man in mid-form of his perfected craft.

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Gooden had been an excellent pitcher for the New York Mets back then. In 1984, his first season, he won Rookie of the Year honors, but it was this 1985 season that vaulted him into instant-legend status. Although I first became acquainted with Gooden in 1985, it took a few years for me to really understand how dominant he was that year when it was brought to my attention by the numerous italicized stats (denoting that he led the league) on the back of his Topps baseball cards. For the uninitiated, here’s a quick summary of what he did:

24-4; 1.53 ERA; 229 ERA+; 2.13 FIP; 0.965 WHIP; 268 strikeouts; a staggering 276.2 innings pitched; 16 complete games; eight shutouts; and 33 “quality starts” (out of 35).

Gooden ran away with the Cy Young Award and finished fourth in the MVP voting behind Willie McGee, Dave Parker, and Pedro Guerrero, in that order. However, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a universe where those three guys were more valuable to their team. And the most impressive thing about Dwight Gooden in 1985? He wasn’t even 21-years old. Simply put, he was the baddest dude in baseball.

Gooden would remain a solid-to-very-good pitcher for the Mets over the next eight seasons, but he would never return to the heights that he reached in 1985. A career many earmarked for the Hall of Fame turned into a “what if.” And if we’re being truly honest with ourselves, no one really knows what the “what if” is. Gooden had likely been overused. Between 1984 and 1986, he pitched a combined 744.2 innings. Maybe batters also learned to lay off his high-in-the-zone fastball. Of course, as is widely known, Gooden abused cocaine and alcohol, and it seems likely that he self-destructed. Beginning in 1986, his rap sheet became littered with the type of arrests that often follow someone who struggles with addiction.[1] He also failed several drug tests which resulted in suspensions.

Following the strike-shortened 1994 season, in which he only pitched 41 innings and posted a 6.31 ERA, Gooden tested positive for cocaine use, just as he had in 1987, and was suspended for the entire 1995 season. Being a free agent at the time, the Mets presumably saw an opportunity to make a clean break and he was not re-signed.

That same year, a decade after I was first introduced to Gooden, Sports Illustrated featured him and his perceived partner-in-crime, Darryl Strawberry, on another cover. This one was not as flattering.

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By age 20 Dwight Gooden was a legend; by age 30 he was seemingly gone.

Enter George Steinbrenner. In 1996, the New York Yankees took a flyer on Gooden, who, because of the 1994 strike and his 1995 suspension, hadn’t pitched in a major league game in nearly two years. It showed. April did not go well. He had a short demotion to the bullpen and was nearly released. He earned his way back into the starting lineup and on May 14, 1996, was penciled in to start a game vs. the Seattle Mariners. That night, Gooden would pitch a no-hitter. It would be the only one of his career.[2]

Like Gooden’s 1985 season, I didn’t learn of his no-hitter in real time but from SportsCenter highlights later that evening. I love sports, and I certainly love baseball, but neither move me to tears very often, and if they do, it’s usually because of something horrible. But seeing Gooden carried off the field by his teammates, while pumping his fist into the air, stopped me dead in my tracks and got the joyful tears flowing. It still does, and I’m not entirely sure why. I just know whenever I’m in need of a quick feel-good fix, that clip is always there.

GOODEN RETIREMENT

It wasn’t the prettiest or most dominant no-hitter on record. A scan of the box score reveals that it took a lot of pitches to get those 27 outs – 134, in fact. He struck out five batters and walked six. If Twitter had been around back then, Brian Kenny, who I love, probably would have shouted down anyone who was glowing in the excitement. I don’t care. The Mariners – a lineup that included Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez, and Jay Buhner – had 33 opportunities to get a hit that night and they couldn’t do it. Gooden wouldn’t allow it. A man who most of baseball, teams and fans alike, had long ago given up on or just plain forgotten about, wouldn’t allow it.

I have no idea what Gooden was thinking when rookie shortstop Derek Jeter squeezed his glove to secure the final out – maybe he was reflecting on all he had been through and maybe he somehow knew that tough times were still ahead – but at that very moment he epitomized more than just redemption and happiness: He epitomized excellence. And I think that’s why it still gets to me.

There was a point in time when Dwight Gooden was much more than just very good – he was the best. A decade later, if only for a night, he got to be the best again.

[1] He was most recently arrested on March 24, 2010, in a disturbing scene of DWI with a child passenger in tow, leaving the scene of an accident, and several other motor vehicle violations. He pled guilty and was sentenced to five years probation. He is now reportedly sober.

[2] Between 1993 and 1999, the Yankees not only won three World Series titles, but they also gobbled up all of the feel-good and amazing on-field pitching performances in baseball. During this span, along with Gooden’s no-hitter, Jim Abbott, who is famously missing his right hand, no-hit the Cleveland Indians; David Wells threw a perfect game vs. the Minnesota Twins – and then later clumsily stated that he did it while nursing a hangover, as if trying to co-opt some of Dock Ellis’ fame; and David Cone pitched a perfect game vs. the Montreal Expos on “Yogi Berra Day.”

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