Twenty-five years ago, Dwight Gooden took over New York City like Lex Luthor tried to take over Metropolis. He made the Mets a must-see -- more than anything Sam Malone or Steven Bochco could do. Every five days or so from mid-summer 1984 through the first months of the 1986 season, the Good Doctor would pitch, and even Yankees fans couldn't ignore or deny what he did and the stature he attained.
Gooden's starts were events to a greater degree than those of Pedro Martinez at Shea Stadium, or even those of Roger Clemens, David Wells, Andy Pettitte or CC Sabathia in the Bronx. A Gooden start prompted greater anticipation than a start by Tom Seaver, and exceeded even the wondrous performances Ron Guidry provided in 1978.
Gooden was different from all of them -- younger, seemingly more innocent and as dominating as any player in the game. He pitched at 19 throughout his '84 rookie season and won 41 games before he was 21. And the fact that he was spearheading the rapid ascent of a franchise that had endured seven moribund seasons quickly changed him from Spring Training phenom to bona fide phenomenon.
All of New York embraced Gooden. But it was he who had a hold on the city.
And now it seems likely comparable experiences are coming to the Nationals' fan base, which will swell again Friday night, when Strasburg opposes the White Sox at Nationals Park in his third Major League start. Baseball fans outside of the D.C. area will also be able to join in the hype, as the game will be broadcast nationally on MLB Network and MLB.TV.
It promises to be a different kind of Friday Night Lights.
Gooden on a Friday night at Shea -- regardless of opponent -- was unlike any other regular-season combat except Yankees-Red Sox, occasional Giants-Dodgers series and some Cubs-Cardinals confrontations. If it were Shea and Friday, Gooden vs. Any Team was Lakers-Celtics, Ali-Frazier, Duke-UNC, Tiger-Lefty and anything the domain of Roger Goodell can fathom.
Going in, the quality of the competition hardly mattered. Not that Gooden was sure to win, but he was scheduled to pitch ... and it was his name on the "probables" marquee that was enough to energize the masses.
Loud was louder, frenzy was more frenzied on Friday nights at Shea when Gooden was pitching. He owned Friday nights like Belushi once owned Saturday night. Former Mets teammates still characterize those games as extraordinary -- even before the first pitch. Gooden recalls home Friday nights as "my favorite time to pitch, no doubt."
On those nights, Doctor K did for his letter what Bo Derek had done for No. 10. The K-Korner made its debut on a Friday night and it has stayed far longer than the pitcher who inspired it. What object will be pictured on the row of printouts Strasburg inspires?
The almost instantaneous rise of Strasburg's star can't be compared with Gooden's more gradual emergence. And Strasburg is older -- he turns 22 next month -- than Gooden was when his star began to lose its magnitude. In two starts, Strasburg already has dominated as Gooden didn't in his earliest starts. But, like Gooden, he will be seen as the primary force behind whatever improvement his team achieves this season.
In that regard, Strasburg is different than the other phenom-turned-phenomenon pitchers ... different from Fernando Valenzuela, who burst onto the scene in 1981, three years after the Dodgers had made the second of two straight World Series appearances; different from Vida Blue, who made his first high-profile mark in '71, following two runner-up finishes by the A's. For now, he is Kerry Wood or Mark Fidrych. Neither of them had the staying power the game hopes Strasburg has.
So on Friday, expect those stuck at Murphy Brown's favorite intersection to be listening to Strasburg's starts in their cars. Expect the media hype to continue. Expect non-baseball fans to start rooting for the Nationals. That's how it all starts.
The nature of the game allows a pitcher to dominate to a degree Michael Jordan, Joe Montana and Wayne Gretzky couldn't match in their sports. Each was equal to or greater than what Gooden was at his peak. And they were better longer. But someone had to pass the ball to Jordan, snap the ball to Montana and keep the goons off Gretzky. Gooden needed a catcher only to prevent passed balls and an occasional run.
Strasburg may become that singular, that independent in this team game. At this almost prenatal stage, he seems likely to become more than special. But 25 years haven't eliminated the pitfalls that undid Gooden -- one of them being early success. For now, though, Washington has what it has lacked since the days when Frank Howard was launching baseballs high into the upper deck in center field at RFK Stadium -- a reason to be excited about its baseball team.