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August 24 - The Sad Case of Dwight Gooden

I was 15 in the summer of 1984. And like many New Yorkers, I was mesmerized that year by a young
pitching phenom by the name of Dwight Gooden.

1984 wasn’t exactly a rough time to be a sports fan on Long Island. The Islanders had now been to
the Stanley Cup Finals in every year of the 80s, with 1984 the first time they actually lost. The Mets
began showing life in 1983, following the acquisition of Keith Hernandez the previous season and the
arrival of another talented stud, outfielder Darryl Strawberry, that year.

But Gooden was the star. His arrival was very much mirrored by his pitching
arsenal. It exploded like his fastball. And then, for kicks, it froze you in your tracks
like his knee-bending curveball. You couldn’t stop watching him. And that is what
makes this week’s news so sad.

When Dwight Gooden fled from police officers earlier this week, it made me think
back to a much more innocent time in both his life and mine (at least, that is the
way I choose to look at him then). We were both teenagers when that magical
rookie season began, although Dr. K – his soon-to-be nickname, not Doc, as he
is known now – left his teenage years behind just days into the season. I
remember how New York would stop every time he took the mound. He was an
icon. A hero to thousands of teenage boys like me, who were conditioned to worship their idols and
turn a deaf ear to any outside demons that might rear their ugly heads.

His exploits on the field his first two seasons were unmatched and may always remain that way. His
17-9 record, 276 strikeouts and 2.60 ERA as a rookie were just an appetizer. His near no-hitter
against Chicago was surely just a sampling of what would be one of the most incredible careers ever
by any player in any sport to ever don a New York jersey. And in 1985, he didn’t just top his Rookie of
the Year campaign, he blew it away. 24-4. 268 Ks. An ERA of 1.53. These were numbers that were
superhuman. And he was barely 21. This wasn’t just a great season, it was one of the greatest ever.

Of course, the bloom started coming off the rose in 1986. We didn’t know it at the time, since it was
being overshadowed by a legendary team season. The ’86 Mets have written their legacy in many
ways, but the one that keeps coming to the forefront is the haunting one. What should have been a
dynasty, a team loaded with stars both veteran and young, with Strawberry and Gooden just coming
into their primes, became a one year wonder. And the first piece to prove fallible was Gooden.

I still remember the day he checked into Smithers for treatment of a now
public cocaine addiction. It made some of the events from late ’86 fall into
place – the struggles during the World Series, missing the parade after
winning the Series. But as a 17 year old, it showed me the perils of so much
success at such a young age. In retrospect, much of the innocence with
which I viewed sports came to an end that day. It really hasn’t been the
same since. Neither has Dr. K. A career that should have ended with a
plaque in Cooperstown instead wound up featuring mug shots, lost in a
drug induced haze that was never able to be controlled.

A couple months ago, I bought a few packs of baseball cards and inside
one was a card autographed by Gooden. As I looked at the card, I thought back to all the fond
moments he provided me as a teenager. But I also sat and wondered about what could have been.
He wasn’t the only one on that team to fall into the trap. Strawberry’s woes are legendary, when it
should have been his career that carried that tag. And Gooden’s life has now followed that path in the
worst way possible. Their personal lives continue down parallel paths, rife with both legal issues and
drug usage. It wasn't too long ago that Strawberry was the one that fled from police and went missing.
Now, the player with whom he will be forever linked as examples of unfulfilled potential is the one
missing.

I took the card and, as I do with all of my cards, I filed it away as part of my collection. It is a collection
full of memories, both new and old. And the memories of Gooden are among the most vivid from my
youth. Strawberry eventually turned up and, even though he has been in and out of trouble, is still with
us. Let’s hope the same fate lies ahead for Dwight Gooden.

The memories are still too fresh to be replaced by an obituary.


Postscript: Gooden turned himself into authorities Thursday afternoon and is being held without bail
until his trial in October.