We did one of these a few months ago, and since Joeadig sent this to me this morning and I wanted to write something about Doc Gooden this week anyway, I am combining this into a Point/Counterpoint. Joe is taking the anti-Doc stance, and I will take the…well, the not-anti-Doc stance.
As longtime readers of this site know, I have a very special place in my toilet for the fallen-from-grace/returned-to-grace former Mets Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. Both men were a huge part of the great Mets teams of the late 1980’s, both had the potential to be among the best players of all time, and both were unable to avoid the temptations that come with being a young celebrity in New York. Thus, both wasted some of their prime years.
In recent years, there has been a movement among the Shea Faithful (what do we call ourselves now?) to forgive Dwight and Darryl for their transgressions. Both men were welcomed back for the closing ceremonies at Shea, and both have had stints as commentators for SNY. Today, there are articles in the NY Post and the Daily News about Gooden signing a piece of the wall at Citi Field, and how Mets brass have agreed to preserve the wall as a tribute to the once-great pitcher. The Post writes:
“We got a lot of calls on this and it was a topic on [sports radio] all day, so we’re going to listen to the fans,” Mets PR chief Jay Horwitz said last night.
This article has prompted me to wonder why I seem to be in the very, very small minority who has not forgiven Doc (or Darryl, but that’s an article for a different day). Why am I unable to get past Gooden’s indiscretions and appreciate him for what he did? Am I that unforgiving?
How great was Dwight Gooden, really? Is he yet another “historical” figure that we have glorified more for the fact that he’s not playing anymore than for anything that he accomplished on the field? So let’s take a look at Dwight’s time with the Mets by the numbers:
- 1984: 2.60 ERA, 17 wins, 31 starts, 218 innings, 7 complete games, 276 K: Rookie of the Year, 2nd in Cy Young voting
- 1985: 1.53 ERA, 24 wins, made 35 starts, 276 innings, 16 complete games, 268 K; wins Cy Young (20 years old)
- 1986: 2.84 ERA, 17 wins, made 33 starts, 250 innings, 12 complete games, 200 K: 7th in Cy Young voting
- 1987: 3.21 ERA, 15 wins, made 25 starts, 179 innings, 7 complete games, 148 K: 5th in Cy Young voting (he didn’t start his season until early June due to his first stint in rehab for cocaine after a positive test in spring training)
- 1988: 3.19 ERA, 18 wins, 34 starts, 248 innings, 10 complete games, 175 K
- 1989: 2.89 ERA, 9 wins, 17 starts, 118 innings, 0 complete games, 101 K (he hurt his shoulder during the season, hence the 17 starts)
- 1990: 3.83 ERA, 19 wins, 34 starts, 232 innings, 2 complete games, 223 K
Let’s start with the positives. Those seven years reflect what is perhaps the best seven-year stretch of any pitcher in my lifetime (i.e., since 1979). Pedro Martinez had a shorter stretch of dominance in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, but Doc did it for longer. He was in the Cy Young race in five of his first seven years and his strike out totals reflect those of the early parts of Nolan Ryan’s and Roger Clemens’s careers. He pitched over 50 complete games in his first five years, and threw more innings than anyone else during that span. That is the definition of a reliable and dominant starting pitcher. At this rate of success, imagine the salary he would command coming onto the free agent market.
At this point in his young career, he’s well on his way to becoming one of the best pitchers of all time. Statistically, his first three seasons are almost unparalleled in baseball history; he had 150 wins by 1993, only eight seasons into his career. There is no reason to think that he would be anything less than a Hall of Fame pitcher.
But then there’s the off-the-field issues:
- 1986: arrested for fighting with police in Tampa, FL
- 1986: misses the World Series championship parade due to what is later revealed to be a cocaine binge
- 1987: 1st positive cocaine test
- 1991: charged with rape (never went to trial)
- 1994: 2nd positive cocaine test
- 1995: 3rd positive cocaine test (his wife would later say that she found him with a gun to his head after he received his season-long suspension)
- 2002: arrested for drunk driving
- 2003: arrested for driving without a license
- 2005: arrested for punching his girlfriend
- 2005: arrested for drunk driving
- 2006: arrested for violating probation by showing up at a hearing high on cocaine
After his first eleven seasons, Gooden was banned from baseball for a year due to drugs, thus missing the entire 1995 season and ending his Mets career. He went on to pitch in various capacities for another five seasons, but accrued less than 50 more wins. Granted, there were many injuries that impacted his career from the early 90’s on, but you have to wonder how many of those injuries were caused or worsened by cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol.
There is not a doubt in my mind that Gooden’s career was greatly impacted for the negative by the Mets coaching staff, especially the insanely over-rated Mel Stottlemyre. Doc pitched more innings in the minors in 1993 (191) than anyone else that year, and, according to the Hardball Times, Gooden threw over 10,800 pitches from 1983-85, a period in which he was just 18 to 20 years old. That’s insane! In 1985, he threw 276 innings, which has only been matched twice since then (by Charlie Hough and Roger Clemens, both in 1987).
So was it the workload? Was it the injuries? Was it the drugs? And who the hell am I to judge him? I don’t know what it’s like to feel the pressure of a New York ball player. I don’t know the demons that follow a drug addict. And I don’t know what sort of childhood he must have faced on the streets of Tampa.
The only thing I can safely say is that there have been thousands of baseball players in my lifetime. Thousands of men from all sorts of social situations have gone on to become successful baseball players in the major leagues. And every single one of those men has had pressure, has faced demons of their own, has fought against something difficult. So why have they succeeded where Doc Gooden faile
I don’t hate the man. But I can’t help feeing incredibly disappointed by him, especially looking back at his early career numbers. He was great in every sense, and he could have been greater. He could have been the man to lead the Mets, a team that I follow every day, to a dynasty. But he succumbed to the temptations that other, stronger men have resisted—men who would all trade anything to have the natural, god-given talents that Dwight Gooden had— and for that I am not willing to forgive him.
First, I would like to make something clear; I am not here to defend Doc Gooden’s battles with the law. Like most people, I am saddened and disappointed by his problems handling his demons. It hurts so much to see a player who I looked up to as a child fail so spectacularly as an adult. I aim to make no excuses for Dwight Gooden, the person, and I would like to think that Dwight Gooden wouldn’t make any excuses for himself, either. He had serious problems. It looks like he has overcome a lot of these demons to a degree, for which he deserves praise.
However, can we really blame these demons for his failure to achieve Hall of Fame standards? There is no telling he had Hall of Fame talent in the early 80’s, then he developed a drug problem, and then he failed to achieve Hall of Fame status. Does A lead to B lead to C? I just don’t think so.
Joe touched on this above, but I really don’t think you can discount workload in the Dwight Gooden equation. Make no mistake; the man pitched a LOT of innings. In his first three seasons in the major leagues, that is, his age 19 through 21 seasons, Dwight Gooden pitched 744.2 innings, an average of just over 248 innings per season. Since 1998, there have only been 9 pitchers to go over 248 innings in a season a total of 16 different times (Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, as Arizona teammates, account for six of those seasons). The youngest pitcher to achieve this goal was Roy Halladay, who pitched 266 innings as a 26 year old in 2003 (and then only pitched a total of 274.2 innings over the next two seasons thanks to injuries).
You can say what you want about pitch counts being an ill-advised method of protecting a pitcher, but it’s sure better than burning out a pitcher at a young age. Within the last five years, we saw the promising career of Mark Prior suffer one setback after another thanks to overuse, and he pitched 211 innings as a 22 year old. And while it is also easy to blame Mel Stottlemyre and Davey Johnson for overusing Gooden at a young age, the fact is, the effects of a power pitcher like Gooden throwing so often so young really couldn’t be understood at that time; the information simply wasn’t available, and other pitchers had thrown similar workloads with no issues.
But in light of what we know now, how can we so simply dismiss workload as being one of a number of issues? The human arm can only throw so many hard pitches so many times; the Mets simply didn’t know how to handle the gift of Dwight Gooden and thus drove him into the ground. Doc Gooden’s drug and alcohol problems were terrible, no question, but I have never heard of cocaine causing shoulder issues. In a strange way, the cocaine suspension in 1987 may have helped delay his later injuries since he pitched fewer inniings that season.
I can’t defend Dwight Gooden’s decisions. I do feel sorry for him, as it is unfortunate that he was unable to control his issues with dependency, which led to a lower quality of life for him and his family. But it’s hard for me to blame these problems entirely, or even mostly, for his failure to reach the heights that seemed preordained for him as a young man. I can wish things had turned out better for him, although I cannot even imagine achieving the type of out-of-nowhere stardom at such a young age that he accomplished, and how I could have handled that (prediction: not well).
But that’s the past. That’s his life, of which I have no control. At this point, 20 years later, I see no reason to hold onto any residual bitterness. All I can do is appreciate the great things he brought to this franchise, regret that he did not achieve more, and hope that Dwight Gooden, as a person, can perhaps help the next generation of ballplayers avoid his mistakes. I don’t feel the need to forgive him, or hold onto a grudge, because that’s his life, and I don’t feel he owes me anything. He helped the Mets win a World Series, he gave the fans of this franchise a lot of great memories, and for that I am thankful. I hope he can find happiness, avoid addiction, and live a happy life helping others.