Wednesday, March 24, 2010

On Doctor K

I still recall from memory Dwight Gooden's pitching numbers from the 1985 baseball season: 24 wins, four losses, a 1.53 ERA. I should clarify here: I was not a Mets fan at all. Never have been, never will be. Back then, I pulled for the Phillies, and I saw Mets' games only periodically, on the channel then known as WOR (Channel 9), where Tim McCarver would regularly unveil his self-righteous declarations of certitude while Ralph Kiner would impart his foggy wisdom ("Solo homers usually come with no one on base") before segueing into advertisements for Manufacturer's Hangover.

Even so, those Mets were the most intriguing baseball team of the decade, and largely because of Dwight Gooden. In 1985, he threw 16 complete games. In 1985, he struck out 268 batters. I remember his numbers because at the time they seemed as if they couldn't possibly be real; no pitcher in the brief era during which I'd watched baseball had ever approached Gooden's abilities. Everything about him seemed inherently flawless: The high leg kick, the hat pulled down just so, the BB of a fastball, the curveball that dangled like an overinflated zeppelin before flopping into Gary Carter's mitt. His was the first curveball I ever heard referred to as "Uncle Charlie," and while I still have no idea what this means, it was a pitch that seemed deserving of many nicknames. I remember spending hours of Little League practice attempting to replicate his wind-up and delivery--ball dipping down beneath the hip, arm pushing straight forward, chest bursting toward home plate; there was no hitch, no hesitation, only a steady rhythm that seemed to emanate from someone other than the kid who was hardly more than a few years out of Little League himself, hardly older than the 16 he wore on his jersey. Dwight Gooden in 1985 was the prototype of what I imagined a pitcher to be, and he always will be.

Anyway, Dwight Gooden is in trouble again, and this is terribly sad, but this is not what caught my attention. What caught my attention is that Bill James is now (seemingly) advocating for Dwight Gooden's induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. And I'm not going to fall into a discussion of numbers here, because that's not my territory, but on a sentimental level, I'd obviously like to see this happen. Because for me, Dwight Gooden defined what might be the last truly great era in baseball history. For me, despite the numbers, Dwight Gooden deserves election to the Hall of Fame before Roger Clemens.

It will never happen, of course. And it will never happen because Dwight Gooden was so unbelievably great in 1985 that anything he did afterward could only be seen as a disappointment. Gooden was too good for his own good; even if he hadn't fallen into a decades-long spiral of substance abuse, it would have been virtually impossible for him to live up to what he'd accomplished in the summer of '85. Therefore, Dwight Gooden will not be a Hall of Famer because Dwight Gooden is not as good as we imagine he could have been. We see Dwight Gooden, and we cannot see past the failed potential engendered by 1985; we project an inherent personal weakness onto what is essentially the genetic defect that killed his career.* Dwight Gooden killed Dwight Gooden, we say, and that's the end of it.

Now perhaps this is a perfectly fair way of determining eternal transcendence; but what if it's not? Isn't Dwight Gooden's fall from grace more noble than Roger Clemens' craven determination to erase the ravages of time? Isn't there something more beautiful about a single youthful memory, coated in amber? In some ways, Dwight Gooden represents both the beauty and the tragedy of baseball in the era before steroids and Bud Selig ravaged the game's insides. In some ways, Dwight Gooden in 1985 represents the last purely brilliant moment in baseball history. And if not the Hall of Fame, that ought to be worth something.

*Chuck writes similar things about Ralph Sampson in his book: "His superiority seemed natural and therefore unearned. And while people don't necessarily hate that kind of greatness, they inevitably find it annoying." I'm not sure if there's a direct comparison--Gooden is probably a slightly more sympathetic figure, because of his drug problems--but there are definite parallels.

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