Gooden could have been the guy who turned the New York Mets of the mid-'80s into a dynasty. He was one of those prodigies that only come around once in a blue moon, and he lost himself to drugs, depression, and violence.
Gooden was drafted fifth overall in the first round of the 1982 draft, and he immediately made a name for himself. Pitching for the single-A Lynchburg Mets in the Carolina League, Gooden went 19-4 with a 2.50 ERA, and 300 strikeouts in 191 innings. Yes, three hundred!
He didn’t bother playing AA or AAA ball. He jumped effectively from the fourth grade to college.
The first three years of his life in the Major Leagues was something special, indeed. He won Rookie of the Year honors in 1984 with a 17-9 record, a 2.60 ERA, and 276 strikeouts. He had arguably the most dominant season of any pitcher in the modern era in 1985 when he won baseball’s triple crown. He won 24 games (24-4), posted a 1.53 ERA, and struck out 268 batters. 16 of his 35 starts were complete games, and eight of them went for shutouts. He had a WHIP of less than 1.00 (0.97) and he could have have even more wins, but he pitched back-to-back nine-inning shutouts and received no decisions both times.
It would be impossible to repeat this success the following year, but he still went 17-6, helping the Mets to their second world championship, even if he wasn’t at his best in the playoffs. A dynasty was ripe for the picking. The only problem was that nobody told Doc.
It was reported that Gooden missed the Mets victory parade because of a cocaine binge the previous night, and some believe he had slipped further into substance abuse by the time he was arrested that winter for fighting with police in Florida.
He tested positive for cocaine in spring training in 1987 and missed the first two months of the season in rehab, but responded well and still finished with 15 wins.
The 1988 season will be remembered for the NLCS game-tying home run he gave up to the Dodgers Mike Scioscia in the ninth inning of Game 4, and his star power with the Mets started to fade.
A shoulder injury meant he could only start 17 games in 1989, and although he was his brilliant self in 1990, injuries, drug abuse, and a heavy workload were cited for a sub-par 1991 season.
He posted back-to-back losing seasons in 1992 and 1993, and he was suspended for 60 days in 1994 for cocaine use. He had a 3-4 record with a 6.31 ERA at the time.
To make matters worse, he tested positive during his suspension, giving the league office no choice but to ban him for the entire 1995 campaign.
It was reported that Gooden was so distraught by the ban that he sat on his bed with a loaded gun and considered suicide. Only his wife walking into the room may have saved his life.
His career with the Mets was over, although he did return to baseball to pitch for the Yankees, Indians, Astros, and Devil Rays.
Dwight Gooden was one of the brightest young stars to ever play the game. But as brightly as he shone, you can only wonder just how far he could have gone. He burned out before he even entered his prime years, and that’s a tragedy not just for him, but for the game as a whole.