The classic sports trope of a “What If” player has many stories and names attached to it. What if Griffey stayed healthy? If Sandy Koufax kept pitching, would he be even more untouchable? What if Dražen Petrović hadn’t gotten in that car? There are one million permutations to find an answer to these questions, but do they really even matter? Is wondering if Albert Pujols would have been better off staying in St. Louis, really worth the time?
Does asking “What If” really mean anything?
I would argue that it does, but not to the fans, or the press, but to the players themselves. No one wants to be a “What If” player. No one tries to leave unanswered questions in their wake. Avoiding a questionable history and retaining a reputation of success? That’s what you want to achieve.
And some players do both.
Dwight Gooden never had it easy. Growing up in Tampa, FL, Gooden was pushed by his father for greatness from a young age. “He never really had the chance to be a kid. It was just ball, ball, ball,” his mother said in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Doc & Darryl. “Baseball was my Dad’s dream,” Gooden added on the documentary. “So, it was my dream.”
On April 7th, 1984, Doc took the mound for the New York Mets as they faced the Houston Astros. Unable to wait for the first pitch, the recent call up from the Triple-A Tidewater Tides showed up to the Astrodome early. Jumping a fence and waiting by the door to the players’ entrance for hours, Gooden simply couldn’t wait for his moment. For his first pitch. For his first career win.
Dwight’s 1984 season was unreal, easily swiping the NL Rookie of the Year honors and narrowly missing the NL Cy Young Award. Seriously. Look at these numbers.
Dwight Gooden’s Rookie Year: 31 starts, 17-9, 7 complete games, 3 shutouts, 218 innings pitched, 276 Ks, 2.60 ERA, 137 ERA+, 1.073 WHIP, 6.6 H/9, 0.3 HR/9, 11.4 K/9, 1.69 FIP, 5.5 WAR.
His Sophomore season? Even better, nabbing him the only Cy Young of his career.
Dwight Gooden’s 1985: 35 starts, 24-4, 16 complete games, 8 shutouts, 276.2 innings pitched, 268 Ks, 1.53 ERA, 229 ERA+, 0.965 WHIP, 6.4 H/9, 0.4 HR/9, 8.7 K/9, 2.13 FIP, 9.8 WAR.
However, after carrying the weight of the city on his shoulders, Dwight returned to Tampa and turned to drugs and alcohol. “I thought alcohol would calm me down,” Gooden told ESPN. “Just drink a little bit, so my drinking started increasing that year. So I started smoking more pot that year, and it just went up, and up and up. I never had a true hobby like the other guys. My hobby was drinking and partying and hanging out with the wrong people.”
That offseason, Dwight Gooden was introduced to cocaine. And according to him, “At that point, it was over.”
The 1986 season was another great season for Dwight, but he lacked consistency. Gooden’s body was breaking down after the insane workload put on his young arm the two prior seasons. Instead of riding high at the top of the league’s leaderboards, Gooden wasn’t even the top Mets pitcher that year.
Cut to the end of the season and the Mets are celebrating on the field, after winning their first World Series title since 1969. With the champagne flowing and the party just beginning, it was the best day of Dwight’s life. However, Dwight’s night of partying, drug use, and drinking continued into the next day and prevented him from attending the ticker-tape parade.
The following offseason, Dwight was arrested and charged with Battery, Resisting an Officer with Violence and Disorderly Conduct, and was visibly intoxicated at the time of the arrest.
As rumors of pervasive drug use floated around the Mets Clubhouse, Gooden tested positive for cocaine, entered a rehab facility, and missed the first third of the 1987 season. However, after coming out of rehab, instead of turning to cocaine Gooden fell harder into his drinking habits than before.
After years of underachieving and sub-par performance, Dwight fell back into drugs. That relapse ended with a 60-game suspension, which eventually turned into the entire 1995 season. The Mets released him, and Dwight was set adrift. At this point, Doc couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, and one night almost made an attempt on his own life.
However, Dwight began to turn things around. After a year of working on his sobriety and getting involved in church groups and meetings, Dwight returned to baseball. This time in a different NYC borough.
This brings us to May 14th, 1996, when Dwight “Doc” Gooden took the mound at Yankee Stadium to face the Seattle Mariners.
The thirty-one-year-old pitcher was not the same as the phenom he was once touted to be. In what should be the prime of his career, Dwight Gooden is struggling to stay in the game he once dominated.
Dwight wasn’t supposed to pitch this game. However, after being told that his father might not last 24 hours, Dwight called Yankee manager Joe Torre and asked for the ball. Torre told him to fly home to Tampa, but Gooden resisted. “My dad would have wanted me to pitch,” Gooden said. “I’m pitching, I’m pitching, I’m pitching and I’ll fly home the next day.
The Seattle Mariners had the most potent offense in the MLB and the Yankees knew it, having seen them in the 1995 ALDS. With Doc’s ERA ballooned to 5.67, it would appear to those watching this game that Gooden was setting himself up for disaster. Regardless, Gooden stared into Joe Girardi, got the sign, and off he went.
The first at-bat of the night, in hindsight, is the perfect metaphor for Gooden’s career.
Darren Bragg steps into the box and quickly Dwight gets ahead 0-2. The next pitch misses high and outside, the following pitch drops off the table for a ball. The fifth pitch of the at-bat is a breaking ball that just misses, according to home plate umpire Dan Morrison. It’s a tough call that could go either way, and it just doesn’t fall in Doc’s favor. After taking the count full, Gooden delivers a fastball, missing low and inside for ball four. After getting ahead of Bragg 0-2, Dwight misses twice, then doesn’t catch a break, and finally misses completely.
The game is full of twists and turns, and moments where your heart stops beating and the sound of your heartbeat pounds in your ears. It’s tense, full of suspense, it is baseball at its best.
Yet, at the center of all of this, is a man whose life has been full of sound and fury, of rollercoaster ups and downs, and plot twists that would make Steven King proud. And despite all of the sturm und drang swirling over his head, Gooden remains calm, pushing through to the ninth inning.
Gooden would once again face A-Rod, Griffey and Edgar Martinez in the top of the ninth. After walking A-Rod, and getting Griffey to ground out, Doc walked Edgar Martinez. A passed ball would move the runners to second and third as Paul Sorrento stepped into the box looking to rain on the pinstriped parade. Sorrento skies the 2-1 offering, and Derek Jeter hauls it in on the outfield grass.
Dwight Gooden has no-hit the Seattle Mariners.
“I’m just losing it, and I think about my dad. Is he gonna be okay? I’m back in New York. I just pitched a no-hitter with the greatest players to ever play in the history of baseball, I was suspended last year, away from baseball. I remember a time when I couldn’t go a week trying to be clean and sober without a drink, I couldn’t do it. All those different thoughts are going through my head. All those thoughts going through my head.”
As Dwight got up, and the dogpile on the mound cleared, his teammates grabbed him and carried him off the field.
I don’t care if you’re a Red Sox, Mets, or Mariners fan. If you don’t get emotional watching Dwight Gooden be carried off the field, you need to check your heart. For the first time in his career, Dwight had the full support of a team, one that wasn’t expecting him to carry them, but one that was ready to carry him.
After the game, Gooden flew down to Florida to be with his family. When he arrived at the hospital he asked whether or not his dad saw the game. “They told me he stayed up the whole time to watch the game. As the last out was made, he had a tear in his eye. And so, he never made it out of the hospital after that, but the thing that made the no-hitter that much special was it was the last game my dad ever saw me pitch.”
Sometimes baseball transcends the realm of realistic probabilities. Every now and then a moment becomes so surreal, so absolutely inexplicable, that it feels like magic. Some people might even call it Divine Intervention. Whatever you want to believe it to be, Dwight Gooden’s no-hitter is a story of redemption, of reconstruction, and of reclaiming your story.
Baseball often gets romanticized, and I am guilty of leaning into that probably far more often than I should. But when moments like this happen, it’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.
So, what if? What if Doc Gooden hadn’t gone through hell to pitch a no-hitter? Doesn’t matter. Doc Gooden went through hell and still no-hit one of the best offenses in baseball.
And you’ll never take that away from him.
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