Before there was Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Kerry Wood or Mark Prior, he had come and gone. Before folks like Tim McCarver and Joe Buck drooled over Roger Clemens, David Cone and Greg Maddox, he was the headliner that caused spittle to fly out of commentators’ mouths. A full quarter-century ago, he was the king of MLB pitching. Who am I talking about? What baseball player could I possibly be referring to? The former Boy Wonder, ’84 NL Rookie of the Year, and ’85 NL Cy Young Winner “Dr. K.,” Dwight Gooden.
He turns fifty years old today. I don’t watch baseball anymore, but thirty years ago, Gooden was the reason I watched. Between a great fastball, sweeping curve and more than average change-up, the nineteen and twenty-year-old Gooden was impossible for most major-leaguers to hit for three years — when’s the last time a pitcher threw for 276 innings but had an ERA of 1.53? — and hard to hit for six of his first seven years. All while on his way to 194 total wins in his career.
But no one talks about what could’ve been with Gooden anymore. The mistakes Davey Johnson, Mel Stottlemyre and the Mets leadership made with his arm were not worth mentioning when describing the lessons unlearned with Kerry Wood, Mark Prior or Stephen Strasburg. I guess wearing out a twenty-year-old arm isn’t comparable to, well, wearing out a twenty-year-old arm. Especially when one arm is Black and the other ones are White.
No one mentions Gooden in the same breath with Clemens or Maddox or Cone or any other dominant pitcher of the ’80s or even early ’90s. His drinking and drug problems, his run-ins with law enforcement. All obviously hurt his productivity as his career progressed. But I guess winning 100 games in just over five years as a major-league pitcher made someone like Gooden about as dominant a pitcher as a piñata about to be beaten by a White lynch mob. Someone baseball writers and commentators everywhere could toss aside as easily as they would throw away a donut wrapper.
This is the major reason why I don’t watch MLB baseball anymore. For all of his substance abuse and psychological problems, the man was as dominant a pitcher as any in the history of the game for his first seven years, and was a serviceable shell of himself for another seven of eight years. Yeah, a shell of himself while pitching a no-hitter for the Yankees in ’96.
And yes, he wrecked his career and life — with a lot of help from teammates and coaches. It’s not like he died after killing everyone at a Hall-of-Fame game. But to not discuss Gooden at all shows that, like the ball, only the mindset is White.