April 7, 1984
Davey Johnson wanted ideal conditions for the debut of highly-touted prospect Dwight Gooden, so the Mets manager held off Gooden’s first start until the Mets arrived in the pitcher-friendly Astrodome on April 7, 1984. Not only would Gooden be protected from adverse weather factors but the Astros were expected to draw a sparse crowd, easing the pressure on the young flamethrower.
In five steady innings, Gooden gave up one earned run, allowing only three hits and three walks while striking out five to lead the Mets to a 3-2 victory. “He has such a calm demeanor on the mound that he doesn’t intimidate you,” said Astros third baseman Ray Knight of Gooden’s composure during his first start, “but after you’ve faced him once, you respect him immediately.”
Gooden was just nineteen. Two years earlier, he was pitching for his high school team in East Tampa.
As he would throughout the season, Gooden mastered his competition with a blend of talent and confidence that left batters quaking in their boots. If opponents keyed in on Gooden’s fastball, he used a sweeping curve to finish them off. “I couldn’t do something like that until I was in the league for four of five years,” marveled Mets pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.
After one particularly dominating outing later that season against the Cubs, reporters asked Chicago manager Jim Frey what he thought of Gooden’s poise. “The guy has a 93-mile-per-hour fastball and one of the best curves in baseball and you ask me about his poise?” Frey replied. “What the hell does he need poise for?”
Had Mets GM Frank Cashen gotten his way, Gooden’s debut with the Mets wouldn’t have come so quickly. Cashen was reluctant to rush such a talent to the major leagues at so tender an age. But Johnson — who had been hired during the off-season to bring the moribund Mets back to respectability — insisted that his phenom take a place in the Mets rotation at the start of the season. (While managing Dwight at Double-A the previous season, an awed Johnson had declared that Gooden would be his Opening Day starter in 1984.) A string of impressive spring appearances swayed Cashen, and though right-hander Mike Torrez was pegged for the season opener, Gooden made the roster.
After his debut, Gooden quickly established himself as the Mets’ ace, finishing 17-6 in his rookie season. The nickname he had earned while dominating minor-league competition — “Dr. K” — spread quickly through the rafters of Shea Stadium, where fans would record Gooden’s escalating strikeout totals by hanging “K” flags over the railings. During the season he became the youngest player selected to an All-Star team; appearing at the Midsummer Classic at Candlestick Park on July 10, 1984, he struck out Lance Parrish, Chet Lemon, and Alvin Davis in order.
Gooden’s major league-leading 276 strikeouts set a rookie record. He also broke a National League record held by Sandy Koufax by striking out a total of 32 batters in consecutive starts against the Phillies and Pirates. In one of his most stellar performances of the season, Gooden threw a one-hitter in September 1984 against the Chicago Cubs, who won the NL East by six and a half games over the Mets. At the end of the 1984 season, Gooden — already drawing comparisons to Nolan Ryan and Bob Gibson with his dominating performance — was named National League Rookie of the Year.