There is one special memory from his wonder years that Dwight Gooden carries around like a black-and-white photograph tucked in a wallet. An image, until now, not for public display but for his own quiet comfort. "Do you want to know what it was like?" he asks, recalling the years in the mid-'80s when he was known as Dr. K. "If I had a one-run lead in the third or fourth inning and we were batting, I would sit there in the dugout and say to myself, 'Hurry up and make an out.' I mean, I wasn't exactly rooting against my teammates. But I was so pumped up that I couldn't wait to get back out there on the mound. That's what it was like. That was the feeling."
He laughs gently and tucks away the thought. "Now," he says, "it's like, Damn, three outs already?"
In sports, except for Olympic gymnasts and Filipino Little Leaguers, has age 28 ever seemed so ancient as it does for Gooden? Wasn't that another decade, another era—another pitcher—when he was great? He is starting his 10th season with the New York Mets. Among the current National Leaguers who have played for a single team, only Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres and Orel Hershiser of the Los Angeles Dodgers have been with their team longer than Gooden has been with the Mets.
If it seems long ago that Gooden became the first pitcher to strike out 200 batters in each of his first three seasons, that's because he reached that threshold only once in the six years that followed. And if his 24-4 Cy Young season of 1985 seems to have fossilized, that's because he has never again won 20 games. It is no surprise then to find Gooden at the Mets' camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla., as hittable as Jose DeLeon and as hopeful as Ponce: He is in Florida looking for his youth.
Before reporting to spring training, he shaved his head and requested that he be temporarily given uniform number 64—the same numeral he was issued, at age 19, at his first big-league camp in 1984, the year he went on to win 17 games and strike out a rookie-record 276 batters. "I'm sound physically, my shoulder's fine, so I said, 'Let's go upstairs,' " he says. "You know, be sound mentally, too. I thought about my first camp, when I was just trying to make the team. Just get back to basics. Keep it simple and have fun."
But Gooden is as much an uncertainty to the Mets as any scrub, the kind of player who would normally be assigned a number more often found on a pulling guard or a speeding ticket. He is coming off the first losing season of his career, a 10-13 clunker made slightly more palatable by his having worked 206 innings in the year after he underwent arthroscopic surgery to his pitching shoulder.
The Mets aren't sure what they have in Gooden anymore, though he continues to be the emotional cornerstone of the franchise, a player revered in his own clubhouse and unfailingly respected in others'. "There is an almost universal affection for him," Met general manager Al Harazin says. "For us, he represents the best of the '80s, a symbol of that success."
On the mound, though, the Mets can be sure only of what he is not. The organization has finally let go of the notion that Gooden is the dominating pitcher he was in his first three major league seasons. It has come to grips with the fact that Gooden, even when healthy, has not been that pitcher for several years. "I think the fans have accepted it, too," Harazin says.
Gooden's earned run average over the past three seasons is 3.71—more than a run higher than his 2.64 mark over his first six years. His career ERA has risen for seven consecutive seasons, starting at 2.00 after the 1985 season and climbing to its current 2.99. He has pitched just two shutouts in his past 109 starts, or one fewer than he had as a teenager in 1984. After racking up 52 complete games in his first five seasons, he has completed just eight starts in the four years since.
"I don't see him getting back to where he was early in his career," says Gerry Hunsicker, the Mets' assistant vice-president of baseball operations. "I don't see him dominating hitters like he once did. I think this year you'll get a look at the future. You'll get a lot of clues as to what to expect from him. It's been a year since he had surgery. He's 100 percent. He's entering a new phase in his career, and this is the year it will begin to take shape."