Gooden had a record-breaking Rookie of the Year season in 1984 after jumping straight to the majors from Lynchburg of the Class-A Carolina League. The Mets’ number-one pick in the June 1982 draft (the fifth player taken) had led the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts in 1983, fanning 300 in 191 innings, and Davey Johnson had sworn that wherever he was managing in 1984, he would have Gooden. But after he was named the Mets’ manager, he discovered that GM Frank Cashen wanted to bring the 19-year-old Gooden along slowly; Cashen remembered the case of Tim Leary, once a hot New York Mets prospect, who blew out his arm in his 1981 debut on a cold, windy day at Wrigley Field after concealing pain.
So Gooden made his debut indoors, on April 7, in the The Houston Astrodome. He went on to set a major league rookie record with 276 strikeouts in only 218 innings. The strikeouts earned him the nickname Doctor K and a rooting section in the upper deck that hung out a red K for each strikeout during his starts. He tied the major league mark for strikeouts in two consecutive games, with 32 in starts on September 12 and 17, which, combined with his September 7 start, gave him a record 43 in three straight games. Going 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA, he instantly became the Mets’ ace and made them overnight contenders. He was the youngest All-Star ever, and he and Fernando Valenzuela combined to strike out six consecutive batters, between them breaking Carl Hubbell‘s record.
Gooden reached new heights in 1985, winning the Cy Young award with the “pitcher’s Triple Crown,” leading the NL in wins (24-4), ERA (1.53), and strikeouts (268). His 16 complete games also led the league, and his rising fastball and snapping curve dominated NL hitters. Curveballs are referred to by ballplayers as “Uncle Charley,” but Gooden’s was called “Lord Charles.” The shy but poised Gooden was the toast of New York; the only fault that could be found with him was that his big motion meant he had trouble holding runners close to first base. But the Mets, trying to protect their young superstar’s future health, gave pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre the assignment of making Gooden less reliant on throwing hard. Perhaps it was that; perhaps it was hitters learning to lay off his rising fastball, which was often above the strike zone.
Whatever it was, Gooden after 1985 was never the totally dominating strikeout king he had been. He went 4-0 in April 1986, but the question in every newspaper’s sports section was “What’s wrong with Gooden?” after he surrendered a home run to the first batter he faced that year, Pittsburgh’s R.J. Reynolds. In contrast to his fine performance in the 1984 All-Star Game, in the 1986 game he gave up a two-run homer to Lou Whitaker and took the loss. No longer overpowering, he finished with 200 strikeouts in 250 innings, a 17-6 record, and a 2.84 ERA.
The Mets won the World Championship, but Gooden went without a postseason win. He took a tough 1-0 loss in the LCS opener as the Astros’ Mike Scott overwhelmed the Mets; the Astros’ run came on a Glenn Davis home run. Gooden pitched masterfully in the Mets’ Game Five victory, surrendering only one run in 10 innings in a matchup against Nolan Ryan; the Mets won in the 12th inning. It was the first time that Davey Johnson had ever let Gooden pitch beyond the ninth inning. Gooden set NLCS records for a seven-game series with 20 strikeouts and eight walks. He pitched less well in the World Series, and lost two games; he has rarely pitched well on three days’ rest.
In 1987, following winter problems in his hometown Tampa that included a police beating of Gooden and his nephew Gary Sheffield, who would later be signed by the Brewers, Gooden went into a drug rehabilitation program just before the start of the season. He went 15-7 with a 3.21 ERA after coming back, but the club blamed his absence in the first two months for the Mets’ narrow division title loss. In 1988 he declared that he wanted to be called “Doc” instead of “Doctor K” now that he was a different kind of pitcher. His 18-9, 3.19 record led the Mets to a division title, but he again lost the All-Star Game, tying the record for lifetime losses in the mid-summer classic. And again he pitched well in the LCS, but not well enough to win. He took no-decisions in the Mets’ Game One victory and their 12th-inning loss in Game Four, giving up a game-tying solo homer to the Dodgers’ Mike Scioscia in the ninth inning of the latter contest.
He suffered his first injury in 1989, going down with a sore shoulder in the middle of the year — exactly the sort of injury the Mets had sought to prevent with their change of his pitching style. At the time, he was 9-4 with a 2.99 ERA and was the only consistently good starter in the Mets’ rotation. His loss doomed the team’s pennant hopes, although he came back briefly in relief at the end of the season.
However, Gooden’s major battles were with his off-season problems, specifically his abuse of hard drugs and alcohol. The Mets of the 1980s had a reputation for partying hard, especially after their World Series victory in ’86, and Gooden may have been the poster child. The Mets’ front office tried to deal with the substance abuse problem, sending the right-hander to a rehabilitation institute, when he first tested positive for cocaine in ’87. But despite the comebacks and smattering of good years between 1987 and 1994, Gooden fell back into the cycle time and again, and was faced with punishment each time. In September 1994, Commissioner Bud Selig suspended him for the rest of 1994, and all of 1995. At what had to be deemed a low point of his life, the day after his ’94 suspension, Doc sat in his bedroom with a nine-millimeter gun shoved next to his head, waiting to pull the trigger.
Perhaps no other ballplayer could understand Gooden’s dire straits as much as one-time and future teammate Darryl Strawberry. They had both quickly accelerated through the Mets’ organization in the go-go ’80’s, young kids in the bright lights of New York, with promises of money, drugs, and women swirling around them. They both were caught up in the fascination of it all, and both took a dive when the fast pace of their lives caught up with them.
But with a year and a half off from organized baseball between 1994 and spring training 1996, Gooden persevered. He finally defeated his inner demons, and was given another chance when New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner signed the former fireballer to join the club in February 1996. Gooden made the most of the opportunity, pitching 170 innings and compiling an 11-7 record. On May 14, 1996, the Doctor was back for one fleeting moment, hurling a no-hitter against the mighty Seattle Mariners, as his fastball once again hit 95 mph on the radar gun. Even though he was left off the 1996 postseason roster, it seemed that Gooden was on the upswing.
Or maybe not. A misdiagnosed hernia in 1997 cost the Doc much of the first half, and he returned for lackluster starts in the remainder of the season. The Yankees didn’t offer Gooden an extension, and he signed on with the Cleveland Indians as a free agent in December 1997. After floundering there, he signed with the Houston Astros as a free agent in January 2000. When he didn’t perform up to standards, the Astros traded him to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in April 2000 for cash. He remained with the Rays only briefly, before the team from his hometown released him. The Yankees decided to take another shot at him, signing him to a minor-league contract halfway through the 2000 season. Gooden was brought up to the bigs towards the end of the season, and performed well, posting a 3.36 ERA over 18 games for the eventual World Series victors. The following spring, joined by fellow ’86-Met Sid Fernandez in the Yanks’ spring training, Gooden posted a 7.90 ERA in just under 14 innings. Opting not to be reassigned to the minors, he retired instead.
Ultimately, Gooden’s career must be thought of as a “what could have been” story. When he was just 25 years old, he had won 100 games, and had his eyes set not on the 300-mark, but 400. Unfortunately, his bouts with substance abuse ruined what would have been a Cooperstown career, and by the mid-1990s, he was battling just to stay in organized baseball.