In the mid-1980s, Dwight “Doc” Gooden was the toast of the town in the Big Apple. The 19-year old had burst on to the New York scene in 1984 as the runaway Rookie of the Year in the National League. A year later, he followed it up with one of the most dominant performances in baseball history. A 24-4 (.857) record, 1.53 ERA, 16 complete games, 268 strikeouts in 276.2 innings, and a 12.2 WAR.
Gooden won the 1985 NL Cy Young Award and finished fourth in the senior circuit’s MVP voting.
But, things were beginning to fall apart, emotionally and mentally for the New York Mets’ ace. He helped the Mets win the 1986 World Series with another fabulous year, but missed the team’s championship parade due to cocaine use.
Gooden spiraled out of control with drugs, alcohol, and depression for the next decade. It’s a battle he continues to fight today.
Gooden wore out his welcome with the Mets during the strike-shortened 1994 season. After not playing in 1995, the New York Yankees, at George Steinbrenner’s insistence, signed Gooden to a deal. After his first three starts (0-3, 11.48), it didn’t appear he would be wearing the Pinstripes for very long.
Yet, then something changed. He reeled off three straight tremendous starts. It all led to a matchup with the Seattle Mariners on May 14, 1996. The Mariners lineup featured some of the best hitters in baseball: Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Alex Rodriguez, and Jay Buhner.
Gooden pitched the game with a heavy heart and a lot on his mind. His Dad, Dan, was in a Florida hospital awaiting heart surgery the next morning.
The right-hander was not at his best on that particular night. He walked two batters in the first inning and the Mariners nearly had a hit just two batters into the game.
After Gooden walked leadoff hitter Darren Bragg to start the contest, Rodriguez crushed a line drive to centerfield. Gerald Williams, starting that night in place of Bernie Williams, raced back towards the warning track. “Ice” turned the wrong way, but adjusted to his left and reached up to barely snag the baseball. Not only did Williams make the catch, but he threw to first baseman Tino Martinez for a double play.
Former Yankees left-hander Sterling Hitchcock was the Mariners starter and he matched zeroes with Gooden through the first five innings. The Yankees finally broke through for a pair of runs in the bottom of the sixth inning for a 2-0 lead.
The score would remain that way as the teams entered the ninth inning. The pressure on Gooden and manager Joe Torre was doubled since the lead was so slim. It didn’t get any easier when Gooden walked Rodriguez to start the top of the ninth.
No-hitters always need great defensive plays like Williams’ catch in the 1st inning. Gooden got a second big play in the ninth. Griffey bounced a grounder to the right side that the Bamtino fielded cleanly, but it became immediately apparent that Griffey would beat Gooden to first base.
Seeing the play transpire in front of him, Martinez dove head and glove first and beat Griffey to the bag for the first out.
Things didn’t get any easier as the inning continued. Gooden walked Edgar Martinez to put two aboard and then threw a wild pitch that moved the tying runs into scoring position. The pitch prompted a trip to the mound from pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre to take his pitcher’s pulse as well as to give him a minute to regroup. It seemingly worked.
Gooden came back to strike out Buhner for the second out, leaving things up to Paul Sorrento. With the count 2-1, the left-handed-hitting Sorrento popped up Gooden’s next pitch. Doc’s arms shot in the air, awaiting the celebration.
The ball seemed to hang in the air forever before a backpedaling Derek Jeter settled under it and squeezed it in his glove for the game’s final out.
For one more night, amid a career and life lived in turmoil, Doc Gooden was the king of New York.