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Marty Noble

Thirty years ago, Gooden became 'Doctor K'

Sequence of starts late in rookie year led to phenomenal second season in 1985

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NEW YORK -- Few of us recall the rookie season of Dwight Gooden as clearly as we think we do. Even those folks who witnessed every fifth day of it have flawed memories of the Doctor's stunning 1984. We tend to overlook the valleys and remember only the peaks. Now, 30 years later, it seems to us -- and to him -- that he steamrolled National League hitters from the beginning of his first season and then extended his run of dominance into 1985 when he produced a season for the ages.

It didn't happen quite that way, though.

Indeed, Monday is the 30th anniversary of the first game of a sequence of nine starts during which the Doctor made a nickname for himself, essentially secured the National League Rookie of the Year Award and put himself on the threshold of a Cy Young Award-winning season.

Thirty years ago, Gooden carried a 9-8 record and 3.42 ERA into his 23rd start and defeated the Pirates at Shea Stadium.

"9-8? Nah," Gooden said a few weeks ago. "I was that close to being .500? I don't remember that."

Few of the superlatives prompted by his subsequent eight starts that summer were spoken that night at Shea. Compared to the performance level he established in the next eight games, Gooden's work against the Pirates was altogether pedestrian -- seven innings, five hits, one run, one walk and 10 strikeouts. But then ...

Gooden still was more than two months shy of his 20th birthday, and the fledgling Mets had demonstrated some weaknesses and fallen from contention in the first week of August. Gooden had wowed them at the All-Star game, pitching two scoreless innings and striking out his first three batters. But he then lost three of four decisions in a five-start sequence that began July 15, a decline that suggested he was merely human after all.

Doubts and questions surfaced. Had the league cracked Gooden's code? Had he thrown more innings than his teenage arm could withstand? Was his medical degree fraudulent?

Before the questions could gain momentum, however, Gooden rediscovered the level of dominance that had electrified the Big City and, for that matter, all of baseball. Gooden crushed the Giants in San Francisco on Aug. 17, allowing five hits and a walk and striking out 12 in nine innings in what was a 2-0, 10-inning victory for the Mets.

It was during the postmortems of his team's loss that Chili Davis declared, "He ain't God, man." Davis had two of the five hits and was a strikeout victim only once. But from that point forward, Gooden was a lowercase deity.

Gooden pitched complete-game victories -- two were shutouts -- in four of his five ensuing starts. One of them was a one-hitter at Shea against the eventual division-champion Cubs. In those five games, extraordinary starts, covering 44 innings, Gooden allowed 20 hits and 10 walks and struck out 58. His ERA, 0.82 during that sequence, put his overall ERA at 2.72.

"That's when he made his mark," manager Davey Johnson said the following spring. "He had finished so strong [in Class A in 1983], so we kind of expected something, but no one expected him to be that dominant against big league hitters. He amazed everyone. Mel [Stottlemyre, the pitching coach] kept expecting that run to end. But the only thing that interrupted it was the end of the season."

But in his second to last start of the season, Gooden lost.

The greatness of a pitcher sometimes can be measured most accurately by the uncommon means necessary to beat him. The Phillies defeated the Mets and the Doctor, 2-1, in Philadelphia on Sept. 17. Their first run came about in the sixth inning: Jeff Stone struck out but reached first on a passed ball. He then stole second. Stone was picked off second, but advanced to third on an error by Gooden. After Juan Samuel struck out, third baseman Ray Knight dropped a foul pop fly hit by Von Hayes for an error. Hayes then singled, scoring Stone.

The decisive run, scored in the eighth, was tainted as well: After Al Oliver struck out, Shane Rawley singled, Gooden threw a wild pitch and Rawley advanced to second. Stone singled and Rawley moved to third. Stone then stole second. Gooden balked, scoring Rawley.

"I deserved to lose, I made the mistakes," Gooden said afterward. "I pitched great, but I made those mistakes."

As a pitcher he had been all but unhittable. Gooden faced 30 batters in all, allowed seven hits, all singles, walked none and struck out 16, producing his second straight 16-strikeout game. All that in merely eight innings.

"As dominating as any performance I've ever seen," his shortstop, Hubie Brooks, said. "Somehow we lost. I have no idea how. We play a crazy game, don't we? There should be a rule ... when you pitch that great you shouldn't be allowed to lose."

Gooden's recent take on that remarkable loss was not quite so matter of fact as his reaction that night. "I never should have lost that game," he said. "So many things got in the way. I still can't believe it."

Six days later, Gooden won his final start of the year, pitching eight innings against the Expos at Shea. He allowed a run, five hits and a walk and struck out nine -- disappointing numbers for those who had gathered with the anticipation of a third straight phenomenal start. Gooden ended his season with a 17-9 record and 2.60 ERA in 31 starts and a league-leading and rookie-record 276 strikeouts in merely 218 innings.

Johnson, Stottlemyre and the Mets players thought they had exhausted the supply of superlatives, never imagining Gooden would dominate to a greater degree -- and for most of 35 starts -- in 1985.

Yet, the most remarkable aspect of what he accomplished that year didn't happen until the season was seven weeks gone. Gooden turned 20 on Nov. 16.

* * * * *

At some point after the time of Peter Stuyvesant, someone -- probably a Madison Avenue guy -- characterized New York City as the "Greatest City in the World." And the folks living in and around the mighty burg reveled in that identity. It was then, no doubt, that the citizenry began to embrace almost any superlative applied to the city -- biggest, baddest, meanest, hottest, coolest, liveliest, fun-est and, as Old Blue Eyes suggested, least sleepy.

Gooden's emergence in 1984 enabled New York to use two superlatives repeatedly -- youngest and best. The market appreciated the opportunity to double up, and it did whenever possible. For half of the 1984 baseball season, Gooden was described merely as the youngest everything -- youngest pitcher, youngster phenom, youngest All-Star. He was 19. And by the end of the season, he was universally identified as the best pitcher, regardless of age.

All of which leads us to this unsettling -- no, disturbing -- fact: Dwight Eugene Gooden turns 50 in 97 days. Impossible, you say? But, yes, Gooden is on the threshold of honest-to-goodness middle age. How can that be?

The Mets' 1969 miracle seems far more plausible than Gooden turning 50. But Willie Mays turned 83 in May. Burt Ward -- Batman's Boy Wonder buddy -- turned 68 in July. And "I Want to Hold Your Hand" grabbed us more than a half-century ago. Time has passed at a speed greater than Doc's best heater.

"I'm going to be an old man," Gooden said with a cackle in May. "Yeah, there were times when I wasn't sure I'd get to 45. I had some rough times. But I'm closing in on 50 now. Nineteen is a long time ago. But some of it seems like it just happened. I remember how good it was, how much fun it was. It was great. I'll always remember that."

Marty Noble is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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