Dwight Gooden arrived at the Houston Astrodome long before his scheduled start — so early that he had to jump a fence to get into the ballpark. That’s what happens when you’re a teenager (19) on the day of your MLB debut.
Gooden wasn’t the only one excited about his first start. Davey Johnson was anxious too. From the first time he laid eyes on Gooden, at age 17 in Kingsport, Johnson was struck by his control and poise.
“I worked with Doc for about three weeks when he first broke in at Kingsport,” Johnson told Peter Golenbeck in Amazin‘. “He was firing bullets, his curve broke about three feet, and every pitch was a strike or close to it … I had to have him. You didn’t have to be a genius to see that this kid was going to be a star in the big leagues.”
The Mets had selected Gooden from Hillsborough High School in Tampa, Fla. as their No. 1 pick, and fifth overall pick, in the June 1982 amateur draft. In his first summer as a professional, he struck out 84 batters in 79 innings. The following year, 1983, Gooden pitched in the Carolina League and recorded 19 wins (including 15 consecutive wins). He struck out 300 batters in 191 innings. The Mets promoted Gooden to Triple-A Tidewater where he helped pitch the team to a minor league title.
From the moment he first took the mound as a professional, Gooden wowed everyone in sight. His fastball was explosive and it didn’t take long for the comparisons to start: Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Bob Feller, Steve Dalkowski. Wait, who?
Steve Dalkowski, that’s D-A-L-K-O-W-S-K-I.
Hall of Famer and Mets broadcaster Ralph Kiner called Dalkowski the hardest thrower he ever saw (who never made it to the big leagues).
Dalkowski pitched in the Baltimore Orioles system and, according to the late Earl Weaver, he could throw hard and wild. ”He struck out 10 of the first 12 batters he faced,” Weaver told the New York Times in 1983:
“He walked the other two, and then picked them off. He once threw three wild pitches that went through the screen behind home plate. One night, he threw 280 pitches in a game, and lost no velocity on his fastball. He struck out 16 and walked 17. In the final 57 innings he pitched in 1962, he struck out 110 batters, walked only 11 and gave up one earned run. The following spring, he hurt his arm.”
Not Gooden. He was in complete control from the beginning.
“I was his first manager in the Rookie League,” Johnson told the New York Times. “One day I asked him: ‘How do you throw your fastball?’ He said: ‘I hold the ball across the seams when I want it to rise, and along the seams when I want it to sink or break.’ He was 17 then. Most guys that age don’t even know how to grip the ball. But here he was, going into a 15-minute lecture on the different ways he throws his hard one.”
Gooden can’t remember a time when he didn’t throw hard.
“I could always throw fast,” he told Golenbeck. “I grew up around older guys and was always playing against older guys. I guess I was 12 when I realized I could throw really hard. I was in the Little League and was overpowering them, striking out 12 or 13 guys in a six-inning game. In high school, I was still striking out guys.”
In 1984, Gooden arrived in St. Petersburg, Florida for spring camp. He had a flair for drawing attention on and off the field.
“The first time I saw Dwight Gooden he drove up in his Camaro with “Dr. D” stenciled on the door. It was classic,” said former Mets pitcher Craig Swan. “When Doc threw I noticed his great fastball but a better curveball … I thought, ‘God, if I could have that curveball I could have really won some games.’ He was awesome.”
“Doc was awesome,” added Wally Backman. “That’s the only word you could use for Dwight when he first came up. He was flat-out awesome.”
Johnson had spent most of spring training trying to convince general manager Frank Cashen to keep an open mind. He pitched well throughout spring despite injuries including back spasms and a torn fingernail. Gooden was still hanging around as camp was about to close when Johnson asked Cashen, well, what do you think?
“I’ll leave it up to you,” said Cashen.
Johnson answered that question two years earlier when he first saw Gooden throw a baseball.
Gooden made his major league debut on April 7, 1984 against the Houston Astros. The date and location are not a coincidence, but a strategy designed by Johnson and the Mets brass. The Mets chose the Astrodome because of its controlled environment. Gooden would not be exposed to the elements that often accompany April baseball: no heat, wind or rain. The Dome was a perfect 72 degrees.
The move paid off. Gooden pitched five strong innings (81 pitches) in his debut, allowing one run, three hits and striking out five batters. The Mets defeated Houston, 3-2, and Gooden recorded his first major league win.
“He’s got the most live arm I’ve seen in a long time,” said Astros third baseman Ray Knight after the game. “His fastball explodes just like Nolan Ryan’s.”
Gooden finished his rookie season with a 17-9 record, a 2.60 ERA and led the league in strikeouts (276). He made the 1984 National League All-STar team and went on to win the Rookie of the Year Award.