Willie McGee reveled in the opportunity to share a story, one burning a hole in his pocketful of memories for 35 years now.
“One day, we were in New York playing, and Doc’s pitching, and you know how the crowd is there,” McGee recalled in a recent telephone interview. “He was so electrifying, I would find myself — in between at-bats — almost watching him like a fan: ‘At  years, old this kid’s doing what he’s doing.’ I had to snap myself back to where I was.
“I didn’t get that feeling with anybody else.”
Now would be a good time to mention that McGee, currently an assistant coach with the Cardinals, won the 1985 National League Most Valuable Player award. He actually went a respectable 6-for-16 — all of the hits were singles, tellingly — against Dwight “Doc” Gooden, who unanimously won that season’s NL Cy Young Award. If the man voted as the league’s best everyday player could barely grasp what he was seeing, imagine what it must have been like for everyone else.
Those of you younger than, say, 40 years will have to imagine, for Gooden’s insane ’85 — a 24-4 record, a 1.53 ERA, just 13 home runs allowed and 268 strikeouts against 69 walks in 276 ¹/₃ innings pitched, all in his age-20 season — celebrates its 35th anniversary without quite being matched. Nor had folks witnessed quite as dominant a campaign in the 71 seasons that preceded it. By Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement measure, Gooden’s 1985 ranks as the best major league season by a pitcher in the past 106 years.
Gooden’s 12.2 WAR, as calculated by Baseball-Reference.com, ranks as the fourth-best by a pitcher in modern baseball (since 1901). The top three — Walter Johnson’s 15.1 in 1913, Johnson’s 13.2 in 1912 and Cy Young’s 12.6 in 1901 — all occurred before Babe Ruth made his major league debut in 1914.
“That was by far the most remarkable, dominating season I’ve seen in my lifetime,” said SNY, TBS and MLB Network analyst Ron Darling, Gooden’s Mets starting rotation mate from 1984-91.
“I don’t understand the analytics and the WAR … but that’s something to be proud of,” Gooden acknowledged, upon hearing where he places historically. “Not to brag, but that says a lot.”
There’s a lot to say about Gooden’s ’85, which catapulted the Mets to 98-64, an eight-game improvement over their previous season yet three games short of McGee’s Cardinals in the NL East — a ticket home during those pre-wild-card times. You start by pointing out that Gooden reported to camp as the reigning NL Rookie of the Year, thanks to the 17-9 record, 2.60 ERA and 276 strikeouts, the last of which remains the single-season rookie record, he posted as a 19-year-old in 1984. To note that hype and excitement surrounded Gooden’s second go-round would rank as profound an understatement as “President Trump occasionally tweets.”
“I knew there was going to be more expected of me,” Gooden said.
So he went to work, explaining, “That [1984-85] offseason, I only took a month off. I did a lot of weights to get stronger,” particularly in his lower half.
The Mets went to work that offseason as well, acquiring a new battery mate for Gooden, Darling and the rest of the pitching staff.
“Having Gary Carter was a huge part of it,” Gooden said of the future Hall of Famer, who came over from Montreal in a December 1984 trade. “He was a veteran catcher. He knew the game and he was a great motivator. He wanted me to pitch like we were up 1-0 even if it was 10-0.”
Having a full year of experience in the books factored greatly, too, said Gooden: “In ’84, I don’t think I really took off and felt comfortable until after the All-Star break.”
Stir those ingredients together, then add a kicker.
“I got extra adrenaline from Shea Stadium,” Gooden said. “Any time I had two strikes on the batter, that actually worked to my advantage. I knew if I threw a pitch close, the ump was going to call it, because he didn’t want to get booed. And the hitter would swing at it, because he knew the ump would call anything close.”
Opponents managed a paltry .191/.237/.268 slash line against Gooden in 18 starts at home — though they didn’t really excel on the road, either, going .211/.271/.272 in 17 starts.
“Sometimes, when you’re competing in Little League, there’s that one kid who’s so far and above,” Darling said. “That was Dwight at times. He was making big-league hitters look like Little Leaguers.”
He did so, as any Gooden aficionado knows, with just two pitches, his fastball and curveball.
The fastball “would look like a little mouse running from the mound to the glove,” McGee said. “I stepped out [one time] and shook my head. I looked at Gary, and he looked at me like, ‘I don’t know.’
“I saw him buckle left-handed hitters with his curveball. I had never seen any other right-handed pitcher accomplish something like that, not coming at you. Their knees would buckle, actually.”
He maximized that stuff at the optimal times. If you want the sabermetric explanation for why Gooden put up a higher WAR than so many others who
That remarkable average emanated from Gooden’s brain-melting success with runners in scoring position: In 196 plate appearances in those clutch situations, the right-hander held opponents to a .143/.204/.183 slash line. Twenty-five batters registered hits against Gooden, thusly: two doubles, one triple, one home run and 21 singles.
“I would notice sometimes, when you’d get runners in scoring position on him, he would step back behind the mound, wipe his sweat, take a deep breath, get back on the mound and he’d put a little extra on his fastball,” McGee said. “He would step off, look around the bases, and then, ‘Oop, here it is!’ ”
“I do know I used to always have that extra, like [Justin] Verlander today. His velocity picks up as the game goes,” Gooden said. “I knew with runners in scoring position, I was able to turn it up a notch, throw harder, a better breaking ball up in the zone. You get to the point where you don’t want the run to score no matter what.
“Some guys try to do too much, but I was able to expand the strike zone with the fastball and throw the curveball in every count. I looked at it as an extra challenge.”
His fondest memory of that season, Gooden said, took place on June 4 at Dodger Stadium. He didn’t even throw his breaking ball as he tossed seven shutout innings, the game tied at 1-1. In the eighth, however, the Dodgers loaded the bases with no outs and a trio of lefty hitters — Greg Brock, Mike Scioscia (a future nemesis) and Terry Whitfield — coming up. Mets closer Jesse Orosco, a southpaw, warmed up in the bullpen. Manager Davey Johnson approached the mound.
“When Davey got there, I didn’t say a word,” Gooden said. “Gary said, ‘He’s not coming out. He’s gonna finish this game.’ I was totally just locked in. I felt like I could throw the ball wherever I wanted.”
Johnson deferred to his catcher. Brock struck out. Scioscia fouled out to Carter. Whitfield struck out. The Mets scored three runs in the top of the ninth, with Gooden contributing an RBI single, and Gooden honored his catcher by completing the game.
In his final start of the season, Gooden went the distance to beat the rival Cardinals, drawing the Mets, at 97-61, one game within St. Louis (98-60), and he could have started Game 162 on three days’ rest. Alas, the Mets got eliminated in Game 161, leaving Gooden with the numbers that occupy rare air in both baseball history and the brains of many Mets fans.
The Mets, of course, graduated the subsequent year to 108 regular-season wins and a championship, and Gooden played an important role, tallying 4.3 WAR and excelling in the NL Championship Series before faltering in the World Series. Already, though, at age 21, he had fallen statistically from the great heights he had reached. Though he pitched for another 14 years through 2000, serving a yearlong suspension in 1995 for a failed drug test (one of many drug-related setbacks during and after his career), he never registered so much as half of that 12.2 WAR again.
“Looking back at it, obviously I started having a lot of off-the-field trouble after that,” Gooden said, “Normally, you reach your peak in your fourth or fifth year. … But the fans’ and media’s expectations became my expectations. There was no way possible I was ever going to match (’85). In my mind, I’m only 21 (in ’86), and once you’ve tasted glory of that magnitude, it’s hard to accept anything less than that. I don’t think I ever got to the point when I accepted that until I pitched for the Yankees [in 1996, after his suspension]. … That took some of the fun away.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way, and I enjoyed it. But how do you try to match that or top that? You can’t.”
Gooden didn’t make the Baseball Hall of Fame, an upset to anyone following the game in 1985. Yet his ’85 season affords him entry into countless clubs, among them the Mets Hall of Fame. It allows him to make a living off of his name and past accomplishments at age 55. It even makes him relevant when discussing current Mets matters.
“People ask so many questions about Pete Alonso: ‘Can he back up that great rookie year?’ ” Darling said. “Dwight did as good a job as anyone ever has in his sophomore season.”
Thirty-five years later, we still can get lost in Gooden’s greatness, as McGee did. During these tough, sports-free times, go ahead and linger there a while before snapping back to attention.