Dwight Gooden, the Mets' 19-year-old rookie righthander, was scheduled to pitch against Montreal last Friday night, and the excitement mounted all day in New York. Offices buzzed with talk of his strikeouts. Radio stations led their sports reports with his name. People stampeded the Shea Stadium ticket windows, swelling the crowd to 39,586. Then, as Gooden built up two-strike leads against Montreal batters, the fans went bananas, clapping, screaming, whistling and waving "K" signs.
Gooden didn't disappoint them. He mowed down Andre Dawson. He whiffed Gary Carter. He fanned Pete Rose. In all, Gooden struck out 11 Expos, getting four of them twice, the decibel level increasing with each K. He allowed only five hits. He walked but one batter. It was an occasion, an event, a spectacle, and not even Gooden's only mistake—a high fastball Dawson lined over the fence in the fourth inning for a 2-1 Montreal victory—could ruin the show. Though the Mets lost, they actually extended their lead in the National League East to a full game because second-place Philadelphia dropped a doubleheader to Pittsburgh. Thus, Gooden's performance could be enjoyed for the near-masterpiece it was. He's a happening in New York, just as Mark Fidrych and Fernando Valenzuela were in their rookie years in Detroit and L.A.
For that matter, the '84 Mets have been as amazin' as the 1969 and 1973 Met teams that won National League championships. At week's end they had a 37-29 record and led the NL East by percentage points. More shocking, perhaps, was the fact they had reached first place on the arms of babes.
Gooden (6-4) was No. 2 in the league with 107 strikeouts, and his 2.55 earned run average was fourth among starters. "I'm going out on a limb," says Chicago outfielder Gary Matthews. "He's already my rookie of the year."
But Gooden's not the whole show for the pitching-rich Mets. Among the other starters, Ed Lynch, 28, was 7-3 with a 3.13 ERA; Ron Darling, 23, was 7-3 and 3.69, and Walt Terrell, 26, was 5-6 and 3.24. For relievers, the Mets have Doug Sisk, 26, who owned a 1-1 record with an 0.55 ERA and 10 saves, and Jesse Orosco, 27, whose numbers were 5-2, 2.06 and 13. The bottom line was that the Mets had won 17 of 29 games through last Sunday, including five shutouts, three in succession, and had a team ERA of 2.16.
They're an infectious bunch, too. On June 15 the Mets traded three minor-leaguers to Cincinnati for Bruce Berenyi, a pitcher with great promise but little in the way of past performance. On Saturday, however, Berenyi whipped the league's winningest (11-4) pitcher, the Expos' Charlie Lea, 2-0, getting two innings of relief from Sisk. "I'm really impressed with how the young pitchers adjust to pressure here," said Berenyi, the staff's senior citizen at 29. "I was watching Dwight last night, and I said to myself, 'There's no reason I shouldn't have that kind of control.' I guess it's rubbing off."
After finishing in last place in 1983, the Mets were ready to renovate their pitching. Tom Seaver, 39, was left unprotected in the free-agent compensation pool and was lost to the White Sox. Then the Mets released Craig Swan, 33, Dick Tidrow, 37, and Mike Torrez, 37, to make way for the ducklings. Everybody expected the Mets to be improved in 1984, but few expected them to be in first place so late in the season.
An exception was their rookie manager, Davey Johnson, himself an executive babe at 41. "What we did was all very logical and simple," says Johnson. "We'd finished sixth with some older pitchers, and I wanted to establish at least three young arms. I figured that even if they fell flat, we'd be better off in 1985, although we'd probably have made a managerial change by then. I knew Terrell, Darling and Gooden because I'd managed them last year at [AAA] Tidewater, and I knew Lynch had pitched well for the Mets. We're talking about a fine-tuning, not an overhaul. Originally, I was prepared to get one good outing and two bad ones at a time from each of them; I was tickled to death when I got 50 percent good ones in April and May. By June 1 they had gone around the league, and now they've become more confident. When you play behind pitchers you believe in, you can compete with anyone."
What makes Gooden so good? Some say his pitching style, same say his poise. He has a praying-mantis motion—all arms and legs—and a see-if-you-can-hit-it look on his follow-through. "His fastball rises like Sandy Koufax's," says Expo first baseman Pete Rose, the only man alive who has faced both. Others have likened Gooden to a young Bob Gibson or Seaver or J.R. Richard. "You know how the curve is called an Uncle Charlie?" says Lynch. "Dwight's is so good we call it a Lord Charles."
"I don't ever doubt myself," says Gooden, who has doe eyes, a gold-framed upper tooth and a controlled cockiness. "I don't feel any pressure. Of course, I hear the crowds; I just try to stay calm, follow my game plan and not overthrow."