Asked to reflect on his historic 1983 season with the Class A Lynchburg Mets, Dwight Gooden reacted with some bewilderment. He was startled by the reminder that it had been 40 years ago, and amazed by the memories that stuck.
That season was, quite simply, one of the best ever by a Minor League pitcher. Gooden, just 18 years old and playing his first full-season professional campaign, finished the year with a 19-4 record, 2.50 ERA and an astonishing 300 strikeouts in just 191 innings. He led the Carolina League in these pitching “Triple Crown” categories, and was named the league’s Pitcher of the Year.
As Gooden spoke, some of the memories from that season came roaring back.
“A lot of times I couldn't even tell you where I stayed,” said Gooden. “But I remember living on Fort Avenue [in Lynchburg].”
That Fort Avenue apartment, shared with teammate Daryl Denby, was where he cooked his own meals and did his own laundry for the first time. They lived on the same street as City Stadium – the fifth-oldest active ballpark in the Minors, now known as Bank of the James Stadium and home to the Guardians’ Carolina League affiliate, the Lynchburg Hillcats.
Gooden’s commute to home games was usually a quick walk through the Spring Hill Cemetery, but on the days he pitched he would drive his car – a silver Trans Am with “Dr. D” illustrated on the side. He couldn’t remember why, despite living right across the street, he wanted to drive. Nor could he recall the name of the “big man of the town” that would sneak him a $100 bill if he won a game.
“The things that stand out most about the '83 season was, I started off that year 0-3. And there was talk about me going down to [short-season ball],” Gooden said, remembering that pitching coach John Cumberland intervened before that could happen. “We just talked about pitching and the philosophy of pitching: reading bat speed, setting up hitters and everything.”
Gooden also remembers drawing some inspiration from a start he made at Shea Stadium in May. The organization hosted a doubleheader in which a game between the Lynchburg Mets and the Padres’ affiliate, the Salem Redbirds, preceded a Major League contest. The fans in Queens got to see Gooden pitch in New York for the first time.
“That was crazy. I was like a kid all over again,” Gooden said. “Playing at that stadium, that definitely gave some extra incentives to shoot for. I think that was like the turning point right there.”
After that outing, Gooden rattled off 15 consecutive victories in dominant fashion and became the fearsome ace of one of the Minors’ best clubs. As Gooden’s season took off, the Mets organization struggled to figure out the proper progression for its budding ace.
“Once I got to maybe 9-3, after every start [farm director Joe McIlvaine] would say, 'One more start, then you're going to Double-A.' It never happened,” Gooden said.
What did happen was a 300-strikeout season, just seven strikeouts shy of the organizational record set in 1966 by Nolan Ryan (whom Gooden lists as a childhood hero, alongside Pete Rose).
“I had no idea about the record,” Gooden said. “First off, 100 was a big number to me. Then I got to 200, and that was a big number. I couldn't imagine I was getting 300. It never really crossed my mind until once I got close.”
Gooden achieved that milestone during Lynchburg’s regular season finale against Hagerstown. He remembers having only seven innings – it was a doubleheader – to collect 14 strikeouts and reach 300.
“I said, 'Man, I'm going to go for it, but it's probably like almost impossible,'” Gooden said.
“Obviously, every hitter I'm going for the strikeout. It was the end of the year, so I was mentally tired. But when you get that close, you got to go for it.
“The last guy I faced, I needed to strike him out. And I did. So that made it really, really that much more special.”
Lynchburg finished the season with 96 wins and a Carolina League championship. Future Major Leaguers Mark Carreon, Dave Cochrane and Randy Milligan each had terrific offensive seasons. But their performance was eclipsed by Lenny Dykstra.
Just 20 years old at the time, Dykstra was the Carolina League Player of the Year, batting .358/.472/.503 with 46 extra-base hits, 81 RBIs and 105 stolen bases.
“Dykstra was my guy,” Gooden said. “He actually told me, 'Next year, you're going to The Show.' And I said, 'What's The Show?' He said, 'The big leagues!' I'm like, 'Nah, man, I'm only 18 [years old]. That's not going to happen.'”
Dykstra’s prediction came true and Gooden famously had one of the best rookie seasons ever in 1984, going 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA and 276 strikeouts. But first, there was the rest of the 1983 campaign to contend with.
The Lynchburg Mets were celebrating the end of their regular season at a local pizzeria when manager Sam Perlozzo informed Gooden that his long-promised promotion was finally happening. Only he wasn’t headed to Double-A but skipping a level and going to Triple-A Tidewater.
“I said, 'Tidewater? I don't want to go there, man. We just won. I've been here the whole year. I want to stay here,” Gooden recalled. “You build great friendships with these guys. So, it was kind of bittersweet. ... we became a family.”
As his former mates won their title, Gooden helped Davey Johnson’s Tidewater club capture the Triple-A World Series crown and usher in the Mets’ multi-level dominance in the early 80’s.
The organization won nine full-season league titles - beginning with a Johnson-managed Double-A Jackson club in 1981 – before their World Series victory in 1986. Gooden, Dykstra, Darryl Strawberry, Ron Darling and Kevin Mitchell each played for Tidewater during one of their three Governors’ Cup-winning seasons. Dykstra even won titles in four consecutive years at four different levels.
“You get started with a winning attitude and you learn how to win early in your career,” Gooden said. “It’s hard to go to the Major Leagues and not experience the winning part, and what it takes and the sacrifices that it takes and the commitments that you're making.”
While in Tidewater, Gooden remembers Johnson telling him that wherever he manages the next season, he’s taking Gooden with him. When Johnson took over the big league club that fall, Gooden jokingly approached the skipper during instructs in St. Petersburg to see if he’d make good on his promise.
“He said, 'Oh yeah. You're coming with me, don't worry about it,’” Gooden recalled. “Then I got an invite to big league camp. And the rest was history.”
Eventually, Gooden’s career would come to be defined as much by missed opportunities as mythical accomplishments. But even with the off-field troubles that hindered his legacy, Gooden still achieved almost everything a pitcher can in the sport.
He played professionally for parts of 18 seasons, was named Rookie of the Year in 1983 and won the Cy Young during a 1984 season in which he became the only pitcher to win the Triple Crown in the ‘80’s. He was a two-time World Series champ and four-time All-Star. He even threw in a Silver Slugger in 1992.
In retirement, Gooden makes an annual pilgrimage to Cooperstown for Hall of Fame weekend. He signs autographs for fans but skips town before the next Hall of Fame class is enshrined on Sunday afternoon. During his Cooperstown trips, people have not been shy about reminding Gooden what could have been. Which isn’t far from his mind as well.
“A while back, I beat myself up about that because everybody said, 'Oh, you should have been in the Hall. You should have done this, you should have done that.'” Gooden said. “But I can't be depressed over that because I accomplished more than I set out to do.”
This year, fellow Tampa native Fred McGriff was enshrined in the Hall years after it seemed his chances had disappeared. McGriff, who played against Gooden in Little League and High School, was finally elected through the Contemporary Era Baseball Committee.
Earlier this month, Gooden joined McGriff in the Negro League Baseball Museum Hall of Game as part of its homage to “Black Aces.”
“I don't think I'll be thinking about Cooperstown anymore. Not with this,” Gooden said. “But at the same time, just like they're doing for that with the committee -- you never know.”
Next season, the Mets will retire Gooden’s No. 16 jersey.
The recognition seems long overdue. But with a complicated legacy, Gooden has learned not to take any of his accomplishments for granted. No matter the level.
“[The 300-strikeout season] means a lot to me, and that's something that very rarely gets talked about,” Gooden said. “Maybe one day it'll be broken, but I don't think anytime I'm alive I'll get to see it be broken. But it means a lot to me.”
Gerard Gilberto is a reporter for MiLB.com.