Doc sparked a magical era; No. 16 retired Sunday

April 13th, 2024

The most important Met of them all was Tom Seaver, known as The Franchise and honored now with a statue outside Citi Field. He became one of the best pitchers of all time, on his way to the Hall of Fame, Seaver turned the Mets into a real franchise instead of a joke. And more than any of them, he became the face of the Miracle Mets of 1969.

But after Seaver, there was never a more important Met than Dwight Gooden when he was young. People were starting to watch the Mets again when he came along. The one they most wanted to watch was him.

Gooden wasn’t the only Met who made the team into the attraction it was in the 1980s, and even made New York feel like more of a Mets place in those years than a Yankees place. But Gooden was, at his best, just the best of them, especially in 1985, when he was the one who looked like one of the best pitchers of all time.

Gooden will be honored for that time on Sunday, when his number will be retired at Citi Field. This occasion won’t be about his addictions, the litany of mistakes he made off the field and the way he was ultimately gone from the Mets, in 1994, sooner than anybody ever thought he could possibly be. This will be about what it was like at old Shea Stadium when he was the kid throwing fastballs past the world.

“I know not everybody will forgive me for the mistakes I made,” Gooden told me the other day. “But at least I know they haven’t forgotten me, either.”

There have been other great Mets from that time, for sure. Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, when Darryl was young, looked as if they were both going to the Hall of Fame. Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter helped change everything for the Mets of the ‘80s. Mike Piazza came along later and helped put the Mets back in the World Series for the first time since they’d won it all in ’86.

But when the Mets were the attraction they were in the 80s, drawing as many as many as 3 million fans to their home games, more than any New York team had ever drawn, the best attraction was the kid from Tampa, Fla., throwing the fastballs.

“I don’t usually like to say this about sports,” Gooden's teammate Ron Darling once told me, “but with Dwight, you really did have to be there.”

Gooden made his first start for the Mets in 1984, at 19. The first batter he ever struck out, in the Astrodome, was Dickie Thon. He won 17 games that year and finally broke Herb Score’s rookie strikeout record in September. All he did that night was pitch a complete game and strike out 16 batters. His number. Of course.

The next season, in ’85, Gooden went 24-4 and as big a star as there was in baseball. His ERA was 1.53. He pitched 16 complete games -- that number again -- and eight shutouts. Every time there was a home game, Mets fan Dennis Scalzitti and some buddies would be high up in the left-field seats at Shea Stadium, in what came to be known as The K Korner, hanging up Ks every time the kid would strike out somebody else.

“I know we’re a long way from the pitcher’s mound,” Scalzitti said to me one day. “But when Dwight’s pitching, this is the best seat in anybody’s house.”

It was the same for him as it was for all Mets fans. Every start for Gooden became an event you were afraid to miss. If you did, you were afraid you’d miss the no-hitter that Seaver never threw with the Mets, as close as Seaver came once to a perfect game against the Cubs in ‘69 before Jim Qualls broke it up with one out in the ninth. The irony for Gooden is that when he did pitch a no-hitter later, it was for the Yankees in ’96, after Gooden came back from an 18-month drug suspension. That was another time when the kid who had that fastball tried to throw away his career, and his life.

But now Gooden has made it to this day. The teenager who broke the strikeout record is now a grandfather, and a great-grandfather, and is set to turn 60 on Nov. 16. I’ve talked to him a lot over the years, rooting for him to stay clean and sober as hard as I ever did when he had a baseball in his right hand. So, I know how long he’s been thinking about the possibility of his number going up, not high up in the K Korner but high up at the new ballpark across the parking lot from where Shea Stadium was.

“When they retired Keith [Hernandez]’s number last year [July 2022], I heard that something might be in the works,” Gooden said to me last summer.

When Gooden was a kid, he lived in a small apartment in Port Washington, N.Y. From there he would make the drive to Shea Stadium and strike more people out. A lot happened to him after that, good and bad. Now this number retirement happens. A lot of Mets since Seaver. Nobody was ever bigger than Gooden when he was young. Ron Darling is right. You had to be there.