I missed one of the most dramatic and unlikely sporting events to hit New York in the 1990’s. I had the chance to see it live and in person. I missed it because of my sense of obligation and commitment to my craft.
I regret it.
To understand the gravity of the event I could have seen live and I missed, you need to understand how big Dwight Gooden was in New York during the 1980’s.
In 1984, New York was in a little bit of a flux in terms of sports. The Giants and Jets were not Super Bowl contenders. The Knicks and Rangers were not winning squat. There was a dynasty happening in sports with a team that called themselves “New York”, but they were the Islanders. They played out in Long Island and while they meant the world for the fans there, they didn’t matter as much in the city.
Baseball wise, the Yankees no longer had Reggie Jackson and seemed to be limping around with Steinbrenner changing managers every season and new stars not quite clicking.
And the Mets? Well they had Darryl Strawberry as the Rookie of the Year in 1983 but the team was not yet a contender. Tom Seaver had returned for one year but by 1984, he had been picked up by the Chicago White Sox.
It was tough to put a finger on who was the face of New York sports.
Then Dwight Gooden showed up. For a region hungry for a superstar to get behind, 19 year old Dwight Gooden was almost too good to be true. The fifth pick in the 1982 draft out of Tampa cut through the Mets farm clubs like a hot knife through butter. He made the leap in 1984 to the big club.
They seemed to use kid gloves with him for his first three starts but in start four on April 25th, 1984, he threw 7 innings, striking out 10 Expos and allowing 2 hits and 1 unearned run. On May 11, he threw a 4 hit shutout, striking out 11 Dodgers. He won 8 games by the All Star break and made the All Star team.
At the All Star Game in San Francisco, Gooden struck out the side, making the most of his national spotlight.
He would lead the league with 276 strikeouts in 218 innings and won 17 to an ERA of 2.60, winning Rookie of the Year.
The Mets contended for much of the year and the combination of Dwight Gooden’s arm and Darryl Strawberry’s bat made Shea Stadium the place to be.
It was a warm up act. Now dubbed “Dr. K” as a play on Julius Irving’s Dr. J, he became “Doc” and turned the 1985 season into his own personal plaything. He won 24 games, completed 16, led the league with his 1.53 ERA, 276 2/3 innings pitched, 268 strikeouts and though nobody knew it then, he had the best ERA+ and FIP.
The coolest and most bad ass player in sports was in New York. He was still a kid and was treating National League batters like they were toys. By 21, he had 3 elite seasons under his belt, a Cy Young award, 3 All Star Games and a World Series ring. He was too good to be true.
He was so huge that a gigantic mural of him pitching was painted near 42nd street. When people got off the bus at Port Authority, the first image they saw was Dwight Gooden in mid pitch.
He was New York of the 1980’s. That meant great things. It also meant excess. It was the decade of The Bonfire of the Vanities. Cocaine scandals and suspensions plus injuries derailed his career and his life. By 1991, his career was in tailspin. By 1994, at age 29, he had a losing record, legal troubles and cocaine issues.
Gooden missed the entire 1995 season from suspensions and his mural was removed from Times Square.
In 1996, he was signed by the Yankees. The main reason seemed to be the fact that George Steinbrenner coveted anything from the 1986 Mets, the team that took the city away from the Yankees. He already pulled the Father Flanagan routine to save Darryl Strawberry. Now he wanted to do the same for Gooden.
The first few games with the Yankees were a disaster and he looked like he was going to be released.
That brings it back to me. I used to have a tradition. I would always go to a baseball game on my birthday. I tended to be in places like New York, the Bay Area or Los Angeles on my birthday where there were two teams, so there was always a choice.
So on May 14, 1996, my 24th birthday, I was going to go to a game at Yankee Stadium. But at the time I was also an aspiring screenwriter. I had signed up for a writing class and that night was the night of my class. I was in the middle of writing a screenplay called Open Mike. It was based upon my struggles as a stand up in New York. In the story, a comic snapped and held a comedy club owner hostage until he got stage time.
It wasn’t a good script.
I wrote a bunch of new pages for my class. I paid a few hundred bucks for the class. And I felt like a REAL artist works on their craft and doesn’t make excuses.
So I spent my birthday at a class in a small room in Midtown Manhattan instead of going to Yankee Stadium to watch the Yankees play the Mariners.
I read the pages, got critiqued. We read other people’s pages, gave critiques. I felt like a writer.
Afterwards, I went back to my apartment and turned on the Yankee game. There I saw Doc Gooden get the final outs of his no hitter.
He never threw one at his peak. But here, with his career on the line, he reached back, threw a no hitter and was carried off the field, once again king of the city.
I missed it. Yeah, I am a Red Sox fan but I am also a human being. I would have been there for that great turnaround and the comeback.
Instead I worked on my script.
Gooden would be solid for about 3/4 of the season before injuries kept him off of the playoff roster. He spent 1997 with the Yankees and 1998 and 1999 with the Indians, making a few post season starts along the way.
In 2000, he bounced between the Astros and the Rays before returning the Yankees. He found new life as a long reliever and made a few appearances in the post season, picking up his third ring.
Of course it wasn’t all “Happily Ever After” for Gooden. He continues to battle addiction and legal problems. For a stretch in the 1980’s he was the greatest star in New York sports. For another stretch in the 1990’s, he was a story of redemption.
The turn around was startling. I could have seen it. Instead I worked on a screenplay that will NEVER see the light of day.
Enjoy the moment that I missed.