One of my earliest Mets’ memories is Game 5 of the 1969 World Series. My second grade home room teacher, Mrs. Goudey, let us watch the game on a clunky old black and white television she wheeled into the classroom on a tall metal cart. When she turned on the game, Jerry Koosman had already let up three runs and Dave McNally was pitching a shutout for the Orioles. Then things started happening. Al Weis. Donn Clendenon. I arrived home twenty minutes later, just as Ron Swoboda hit a line drive down the left-field line. Not long after, Cleon Jones caught a fly ball in Left Field and we were the winners of the World Series.
I was seven. Convinced that the Mets would be winners forever, I eagerly awaited the 1970 season. Nope. The year after that, Gil Hodges died. 1971 and 1972 weren’t much better than 1970. 1973 was awful until the last two months. In 1976, at the dawn of free agency, the Mets won 86 games. They were in the hunt until the last two weeks of the year. But ownership wasn’t willing to invest in the team and then – in 1977 – the Dark Ages began. Rooting for the Mets was really hard. Until 1983.
They were not a good team that year, but you could see – for the first time in forever – the ingredients of a championship. Frank Cashen, the General Manager, traded for Keith Hernandez. There were other good players – Mookie Wilson, Wally Backman, Jessie Orosco and Hubie Brooks. George Foster was still a big name. And we kept hearing about these talented minor leaguers. Ron Darling. Walt Terrell. Billy Beane. And most of all – Darryl Strawberry.
Strawberry joined the team in May. He was a sight to see. He could run and throw. He hit prodigious home runs with the sweetest swing since Ted Williams. Strawberry in the on-deck circle made the crowd buzz with anticipation. In his rookie year (420 AB’s) he hit 26 HR’s; he stole 19 bases and drove in 74 runs. The Mets never had a player like him. A moribund franchise suddenly had a bonafide star the fans could cheer for. He won the National League Rookie of the Year – and it wasn’t close.
Then came 1984 and Dwight Gooden. Before the days of year round baseball coverage, fans relied on sports writers to learn what they could about the players coming up through the system. They compared Gooden to Bob Gibson. In Spring Training, new manager Davey Johnson was evasive in answering questions about Gooden’s future with the team. But Johnson well knew that Gooden was going to make the jump from AA to the majors. Few have ever made the transition in a more spectacular fashion. In his rookie season, he posted a 17-9 record and struck out 276 batters – often making professional hitters look overmatched. Tim McCarver, who caught some of the best pitchers in the game’s history, knew Gooden was special. Early in the 1984 season he renamed Gooden’s curveball – usually called “Uncle Charlie” – “Lord Charles”, in recognition of the dominance of the pitch.
Gooden won the Rookie of the Year – garnering 23 of the 24 first place votes. Juan Samuel finished second – Ron Darling came in fifth. Gooden should have won the Cy Young as well – but in those days, it was all about the W/L record – and the Cubs’ Rick Sutcliffe was 16-1. By every other metric, Gooden was better. His 1985 season was as good as a pitcher can have.
Much like Strawberry, Gooden was must-see baseball. I can remember a warm July night when my younger brother and I – with all of ten dollars between us – drove my parents’ 1972 Plymouth from our home in Somers to Shea Stadium just to see Gooden pitch. We bought general admission tickets and found seats in the third row from the back in the Upper Deck in fair territory in Left Field. Even from there you could hear the pop of a Gooden fastball into Mike Fitzgerald’s glove. When Gooden’s curveball caught a batter looking at a called third strike, the stadium exploded with joy.
It is altogether fitting that Steve Cohen wants to honor these two players in the coming season. Their exploits on the field were a reawakening for a team and a fan base that had for too long been totally depressing. For the next seven years, the Mets were a force in the game. Had there been a Wild Card in those days, the Mets would have been in the playoffs every year from 1984 – 1990. Sustained winning was what that Mets team had. In large measure due to the efforts and talents of Gooden and Strawberry.