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1996 Yankees 20th Anniversary Retrospective: Dwight Gooden

Gooden's career had been left for dead, but a second chance gave him both new life and one of the most memorable 1996 Yankees moments.

Al Bello/Getty Images


Few pitchers in New York sports have ever exhilarated fans quite like Dwight Gooden. The fifth overall pick in the 1982 MLB Draft out of Hillsborough High School in Tampa, he was likely the greatest pitcher drafted by the Mets in franchise history. Gooden came to the Mets gift-wrapped with a right arm capable of spinning off devastating curveballs, which paired nicely with his high-90s fastball to absolutely baffle hitters.

Gooden made mincemeat of the minor leagues and quickly found himself on the Mets' 1984 Opening Day roster at age 19. He was a prodigy from the get-go, leading the National League with 276 strikeouts, a 1.073 WHIP, and a 1.69 FIP, running away with the Rookie of the Year and finishing second in Cy Young Award voting. Nicknamed "Dr. K" or just "Doc" by adoring Mets fans, he posted an all-time great campaign in his age-20 season, leading the NL in ERA (1.53, the best since Bob Gibson's 1.12 ERA in '68), complete games (16), innings (276 2/3), wins (24), and strikeouts (268). This time, he was an easy choice for the Cy Young and even made fourth place in NL MVP voting. Another All-Star season in 1986 helped the Mets team rapidly growing around him win a staggering 108 games and their second World Series.

Take the recent hype about Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, and Steven Matz, roll it all together, and multiply it by 10. Those are tremendous young pitchers, but Gooden was somehow even better. He was so young and yet so talented that the major leagues' best players had no answer for him, even as a teenage rookie in the All-Star Game:

Yet sadly, those years were easily the peak of Gooden's baseball life. He never came close to pitching like that again, as cocaine and alcohol abuse ravaged his career, just as it did to his good friend and teammate, Darryl Strawberry. He missed the championship parade on a cocaine bender. He was convicted of battery on a Tampa police officer and hit with rape allegations later on as well. The ace was in rehab on Opening Day in '87, but the problems did not end there.

Gooden battled his demons in addition to shoulder injuries, likely a result of the roughly 1,200 innings he threw prior to his 24th birthday. The Mets' once-budding dynasty ended up with just two playoff berths for all their talent. Gooden could only manage a 101 ERA+ over his final six Mets seasons. It was sadly fitting that his career in Queens came to an abrupt end in June of 1994, as he was suspended 60 games for cocaine use.

A few months later amid the players' strike, Gooden was hit again with a suspension, this time for the entire 1995 season. Having just turned 30, it seemed like Gooden's baseball career was suddenly all over.

1996 Performance

Results: 29 GS, 170.2 IP, 5.01 ERA, 126 K, 4.85 ERA, 2.1 fWAR

Gooden followed the urging of his friend and adviser, Ray Negron, and attended Narcotics Anonymous in Tampa in an attempt to have one last shot at glory in the big leagues. Negron had connections to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who loved giving people like Gooden second chances. He worked out for a few teams, but ultimately it was Steinbrenner who signed him to a three-year deal eventually worth $3 million, reuniting him with old Mets pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre..

Critics panned the move as just another attempt for Steinbrenner to grab headlines, and for awhile, it seemed like their claims were validated. Early on, the 31-year-old Gooden looked completely washed up, as he just barely made the Opening Day rotation due to other pitchers' injuries, and he was rocked to the tune of an 11.47 ERA through three starts, briefly getting bumped from the rotation. He finally began to rebound late in April, pitching 20 innings of three-run ball against the Twins, White Sox, and Tigers.

That set the stage for May 14, 1996. It wasn't even certain that Gooden would start, as Dan Gooden, his pitching mentor and father, was undergoing open-heart surgery the next day and manager Joe Torre told him that it would be fine to fly to Tampa to be with him. Gooden appreciated the gesture, but told Torre that his father would want him on the mound against the Mariners at Yankee Stadium. Their lineup was menacing with Hall of Fame talents like Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, and up-and-coming superstar Alex Rodriguez. What happened next was unbelievable:

It took 134 pitches of guile with six walks, terrific plays, a few reliever sightings in the bullpen, and countless trips by Gooden to the dugout runway sobbing about his father, but he completed his no-hitter, the ninth in Yankees history. He was carried off the field by his adoring teammates to the roar of the crowd after the start; no one could have ever seen it coming.

Gooden was quite steady for several months in '96, notching a 3.16 ERA, 82 strikeouts, and a .648 OPS against for three and a half months from May until mid-August.  There was even another complete game-like start in there too, as Gooden twirled four-hit shutout ball through nine on August 2nd in Kansas City before the team lost in extras. With his old Mets rotationmate David Cone on the shelf recovering from his aneurysm, the Yankees badly needed stability; "Doc" provided. Strawberry joined the Yankees as well and mashed, adding another layer of '86 Mets glory helping the '96 squad.

By the middle of August though, Gooden had pitched far more than he had in any season since 1993 and began to wear down. In his last seven starts, he was rocked like he was early in the season, and an unsightly 10.55 ERA made his final pitching line look worse than he actually seemed. Thanking Gooden for his efforts in the regular season, Torre decided to leave him off the playoff roster. Although he was a competitor, Gooden understood and played cheerleader for the team in the postseason as they won the World Series title. Ten years later, Doc was a champion again, and this time, he would not miss the parade for anything.

What did he do after?

Following Gooden's inspirational run in '96, the Yankees brought him back for another season. He was decent but nothing spectacular as he finished with a 4.91 ERA in 106 1/3 innings. Gooden did make the playoff roster this time and capably filled in for Cone after the righty was injured in Game 1, tossing 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball with five strikeouts against the Indians in Game 4. It set the Yankees up for an ALDS win, but Mariano Rivera uncharacteristically blew the save, and their season ended the next day.

The Yankees let Gooden go after '97 when he had an opportunity to make their rotation after it became clear that the '98 Yankees wouldn't have room in theirs. He started against the Yankees in the ALCS that year, but he was no match for that juggernaut offense. After slipping for Cleveland in '99, he bounced around to the Astros and Devil Rays in 2000 before getting cut by cellar-dwelling Tampa Bay in May. Again, it seemed like Gooden's career was over, but he had one more act in him.

Looking for rotation help, the Yankees picked him up again, and his first start came on July 8th in the afternoon opener of a day/night cross-city doubleheader against the Mets. Gooden had not pitched at Shea Stadium since 1994, and in his only career start against the Mets, he pitched five innings of two-run ball for the victory:

Gooden remained on the Yankees for the rest of the year, mostly out of the bullpen in 18 games. His last career appearance was Game 5 of the ALCS against the same team he no-hit four years prior, the Mariners, and he tossed 2 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out Jay Buhner for his final punch-out. He earned his third World Series ring that year and retired following a brief appearance in 2001 spring training.

Since leaving the game, Gooden helped his nephew, slugger Gary Sheffield, sign with the Yankees in 2004, but he has continued his personal battles, dealing with a couple DWIs and cocaine-related arrests, as well as domestic violence. He spent almost a year in prison in 2006, but he seems to have gotten his life back together since a 2010 DWI. He's active with foundations and happily close to his family once again.