“I think about what could have been,” Gooden said Friday, on his way to Rochester for an autograph appearance.
Gooden is referring, of course, to the career he had when he was young -- especially in 1985 -- when he looked like a right-handed Sandy Koufax; back when he was the one looking like a future Hall of Famer, with a 24-4 record and a 1.53 earned run average and a fastball you had to see -- and hear -- to believe.
After that was a different career than the one Gooden must have imagined, the one sidetracked by drug and alcohol addictions that put him in a jail cell later in his life.
“I’ve forgiven myself for the things I did because that’s part of my recovery,” Gooden said. “But I’m always going to wonder how things would have turned out for me in baseball if I’d addressed my problems earlier than I did. ...
“I’m not saying I would have had other seasons as good as the one I had in ’85, but I’ll always feel I could have come close.”
Even with the problems Gooden had with substance abuse, ones that caused him to miss all of the 1995 season because of a drug suspension, Gooden ended up with three World Series rings: one with the Mets in 1986 and two more with the Yankees later. He eventually earned 194 wins in the big leagues and even pitched the no-hitter with the Yankees (1996) that he had never achieved for the Mets.
But Gooden was a different pitcher by then, without the fastball he had when he was 19 and 20, when he could throw that fastball past anyone in this world, back when his starts -- especially at Shea Stadium, with his "K Korner" high up there in left field -- were appointment viewing as much as we have gotten from any starting pitcher since, and that even includes another Mets pitcher, Jacob deGrom, when he was at his very best fastball, strikeout best.
“When I was finally locked up it gave me a lot of time to look back over my life," Gooden said. "I got to think a lot about the pitcher I was and the pitcher I thought I was going to be, and what I did to myself after that. When you’re young and you just got to the Majors and even when you feel like you’re on top of the world, you don’t think about the Hall of Fame. Maybe some guys do; I didn’t.
“What I mostly thought about is just the way I could throw a baseball when I was young, and how that was one more thing I threw away.”
I asked Gooden if he’d ever been to Cooperstown.
“Before COVID,” he said. "I used to go there for signings on Hall of Fame weekend. But I’d always leave before the induction ceremony. Because it was just too tough for me to watch.”
Then Gooden was back to talking about watching Ortiz after his election was announced, and how it was the same sort of bittersweet moment for him as always.
“I’m watching after David got the call,” Gooden said, “and my eyes are fixed on Pedro [Martinez], who’s right behind [Ortiz] looking as happy as he did when he got announced. And all I kept thinking was what it would have been like if I’d gotten that call and [if] my cousin Gary [Sheffield] were standing behind me the way Pedro was standing behind David Ortiz, because Gary grew up in the same house I did.
“I pictured it being us.”
Gooden turned 57 in November. He continues with the painstaking work of his recovery, one day at a time. This season it will somehow be 37 years since his magical season of 1985, when he was the young Tom Seaver, when he was the one as unhittable as deGrom was before he got hurt. It wasn’t just Gooden's fastball you had to see and hear in those days. It was the way that old ballpark sounded for him, the way baseball made you feel when he was on the mound with the ball in his right hand.
"It’s not like I walk around full of self-pity,” he said, “because that does me no good. That’s not productive as it relates to my recovery. But all I can say is that the Hall of Fame announcement, every year, makes me sad.
“If I could change everything, I would go back in time and take better care of my problem when I first realized I had a problem. And that’s totally on me, and something I’ll deal with for the rest of my life.”
There was one more pause on his end of the line. He had a plane to catch.
“One thing I will always believe,” Gooden said, “is that if I had taken care of myself, I would have made it to Cooperstown, and not just to sign my name.”