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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: October 30, 2020 6:56 am PDT
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You know what baseball could use to make the game more exciting, more emotional, more fun? More over the top.

More teams like the ‘86 Mets.

More teams who don’t give a damn about the opponent. More teams that say if you don’t like the way we act, too bad. Beat us.

More teams with a manager like Davey Johnson, who talked big and backed it up bigger. That’s what baseball could use. Get off the Nerd Bus and get onto the Rivalry Bus.

A lot has been made about Fernando Tatis Jr.’s grand slam on a 3-0 pitch against the Rangers on Monday during a blowout.

Whether you are part of the Unwritten Rules crowd or the Let’s Have Fun crowd doesn’t matter. It’s time teams started being part of the We Don’t Care What You Think crowd.

If you don’t like it, too bad. Beat us on the field. Did anyone who complained notice that young Tatis went with the pitch – it wasn’t a crazy swing from your heels at bat – it was a good piece of hitting.

Hitting, not launch angle-ing. And as for the soft pitchers who can’t deal with it, learn to command your fastball. Throw strikes. Pitch aggressively.

Like this guy did. To get a better understanding of all this BallNine went to one of the most famous players of those 1986 Mets. A rising star that could not be stopped by anyone — only himself.

A player who has lived through a world of mistakes and has managed to come out the other side. He’s 55 and still alive and will be 56 in November. Which is quite the victory in itself.

The one and only Doc Gooden.

Gooden knew what it felt like to come onto the scene as a pitching comet at the age of 19. To experience nothing but success his first three years in the majors with first the NL Rookie of the Year award In 1984, the runaway NL Cy Young winner in 1985 (24-4, 1.53 ERA) and then winning the World Series with the Mets in ’86.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of Gooden piling up 11 straight wins in 1985. Domination.

Most of all Gooden and his teammates knew what it was like to play the villain. He knew exactly what the other teams thought of the brash Mets.

“They hated us,” Gooden told BallNine.

That’s half the fun of baseball. Or at least it used to be that way. ESPN’s Nick Davis is producing a series, similar to The Last Dance, on the ’86 Mets because of the allure and bravado of that team that is expected to be ready by 2021.

That bravado was evident in Davey Johnson’s words to his team in spring training of 1986 as Jay Horwitz wrote in his book Mr. Met: “We’re not going to win,” Johnson told his players. “We’re going to dominate.”

Back then the only number that mattered was the final score and the Mets dominated with a 108-54 record.

“ They hated us ” – Doc Gooden

The ‘86 Mets. Love ‘em or hate ‘em. All the other teams hated ‘em.

Gooden, even now with all he has been through, with all the mistakes he has made, is still fighting and believes he has finally found the key to personal success by not only counting on the people in his life who are closest to him, but making sure to check in on a daily basis with his family in the most 2020 way possible.

After all the drug counseling, all the failures of that rocky road of drugs and alcohol, there is a certain sweetness of survival to Gooden and how he is managing to get it done now.

A daily group text with his family is his salvation. Imagine that. There is simplicity in survival.

“Every day,” Doc told me, “with my kids and my grandkids, the ones who are older, we have a group chat. Good morning, good night, what’s going on. This week I did a theme where I went kid by kid and asked: ‘What are your plans in three years?’

“We all talk about it, we all give feedback, that’s the way we are all connecting on good positive things and we are accountable.”

As a result of that connection there is less anxiety.

Most of all it is keeping Gooden accountable.

“They don’t know it but it is really helping me,” Gooden said. “We’re connected every day so everybody knows where everybody is at. And for my older kids, everything I put them through, they want to make sure I’m okay every day. They can say, ‘Okay we heard from Dad this morning and tonight so he is fine. Everything is okay.”

That is so important.

“My older kids they’ve seen the rehab before, the jails, now we are communicating every day. Before, if I didn’t talk to them for two or three days because for whatever reason and then they get concerned and say, ‘Dad are you okay?’ Then I get defensive – because they are right – because my past pattern has been if they had not heard from me in a week or so, something is not right.

“So now it’s a way of communicating every day,” he said. “My oldest is 34, that’s Dwight Jr. My youngest is 10. My grandkids, the youngest is 1 and the oldest is 16. That’s amazing.”

Gooden loves having the kids and grandkids around in his New Jersey home. “Last week they were all here and we were laughing and joking, playing board games, it was great.”

His 15-year-old son Dylan is a sophomore wide receiver and linebacker at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Maryland.

“He’s 6-5 and 190, and wears a size-13 shoe,” Gooden said proudly. “Perfect size for a pitcher but I can’t get him on the mound. He says baseball is boring. That’s okay, I support him in whatever he wants to do. He also plays basketball. He’s a great kid academically, too.”

Dylan Gooden speaks for his age group. Perhaps if rivalries were kicked up a notch and teams started playing like they wanted to bury the opponent, did more hit and runs, more stolen bases, more taking advantage of the shift, more 3-0 swings, maybe it wouldn’t be so boring.

“I feel better coming up on 56 than I was at 50,” Gooden told me. And he is not kidding.

When I visited him at his home when Doc turned 50 in 2014, he told me, “I never thought I would make it to 50.”

Looking back now, he said, “I think I’m wiser. Even with what I went through last year, understanding what’s important. I’m still learning. Even in recovery I’m still learning every day. I’m still learning about myself and try to understand you never have this thing beat or conquered. It’s day to day and sometime you break it down to five minutes. Whatever it takes.”

Doc Gooden in 1986. Photo: ESPN

Doc is not afraid to open up his soul to me.

“What is still really hard for me is sharing with someone how I really feel, worried about being judged,” he said. “That has always been a struggle. I can’t say now I am 100 percent comfortable doing that but I know I have to do that.

“Part of it is when I was growing up, I was always the better kid playing sports, and you get put on this pedestal, not intentionally but because of your career. Everybody thinks everything is okay and everybody thinks you don’t have crazy thoughts, but I do. I have to understand that some of the thoughts I have, a lot of people who are in recovery have those thoughts. I’m not the only one having these crazy thoughts. So being okay and letting people know how I really truly feel and not worrying about how they judge me, I think it is my own stuff I’m stuck on. I’m finding out the things I didn’t want to talk about are the things that get me in trouble, so just let it all out there and go from there.

“It’s not easy to let it all out there. It’s hard.”

Life is hard. And Gooden has made an effort to help those who are struggling. He visits regularly patients in Hackensack University Medical Center and just last week he led a Zoom call with two different assisted living facilities where residents have not been able to have family or any visitors.

“Man, that’s really hard for those people,” Gooden told me after the call. “I feel for them and they are some of the greatest Mets fans ever. They remember ’86. When I pitched they were pumping me up and the least I could do now is talk to them and tell them how important they were to my career and my team.”

The interaction during the Zoom call was wonderful to see. Gooden was totally engaged in the call as were the fans, who enjoyed every minute of the visit, which was supposed to be a half hour but lasted 45 minutes. Same for his hospital visits.

“I enjoy seeing kids smile,” Gooden said. “enjoy seeing the older people smile because I know what it is like to have pain. I know what that looks like. For someone to cheer you up, it can be one word that makes a difference. It’s very powerful. And you know what, it’s a good feeling for me too and it comes from the heart. At the end of the day we are all just people and we all have different jobs. We are all brothers and sisters and as a kid I was taught that way.”

Those ’86 Mets had each other’s backs and Mets fans backing them up. They were a special group. The Mets haven’t won a World Series since.

Imagine Dwight Gooden, Dr. K in his prime today. He struck out 268 batters in 1985 when players actually shortened up swings and just tried to make contact and were just not flailing away.

I asked him how many complete games he might have if he pitched in seven-inning games like the doubleheaders this season.

“Oh man,” Gooden said with a laugh. “I had 16 in ’85. I probably would have had 30. Seven innings. That’s crazy. That don’t seem fair. When I pitched, if we didn’t go seven innings we didn’t feel it was a quality start. Now, pitchers go four or five innings and they consider it a quality start. I would have been pissed if I only went four or five innings. But that’s the way the game has changed. I don’t blame the pitchers, that’s just the way baseball has changed now.”

Out of 30 teams, 15 teams are hitting .237 or under.

“I would love to pitch now,” said Gooden, who threw a no-hitter with the Yankees in 1996. “Part of that is they are teaching these guys to swing for the fences, launch angle. High fastballs will beat these guys. There is no more hit and run, no more hitting for average, no more hitting the ball the other way, no more stealing bases, just home runs or strikeouts. That’s it.”

Gooden celebrates hurling his no-no with the Yankees in 1996.

“In September and the playoffs, that’s when the little things show up because you are playing teams with top pitchers and these guys can’t do the little things or get the bunt down.”

Gooden not only had an electrifying fastball and curve ball, he threw his breaking ball at different speeds and moved his fastball around. He had command and watched opponents’ swings, he saw where a hitter would set up in the box. He figured it out. He wasn’t a robot like most of today’s pitchers who have to look at a card in their cap.

“Sometimes the analytics can work against you,” Gooden explained, “because they can say, ‘This guy is a great fastball hitter.’ But whose fastball is he hitting? Is the fastball straight? Or they say ‘this guy is a good curve ball hitter’. Well, whose curve is he hitting?

Gooden said today’s pitchers get away from their strengths, fall behind a hitter and “now you got to throw your fastball and they are looking for it. Just locate your fastball. Be aggressive like Jake deGrom and Gerrit Cole.”

“Pitch a guy up and in, get him off the plate, move their feet,” Gooden said.

Gooden then made this final brilliant point.

“As a pitcher, from Little League on you are taught to attack hitters, but with the analytics you are put on the defensive, pitch defensively. You can’t think like that. You have to attack with your best stuff.”

Here’s how Gooden scouted an opponent.

“Say we were going to face the Cardinals in four days,” Gooden said. “I would start looking at the box scores and see who was hot and who was not. I would pick one guy. It might be the No. 7 hitter. It might be the No. 3 hitter, whatever. I would say this guy is hot and he is not going to beat me tonight and if I had to I would walk him four times, so be it. You might have trouble with the No. 7 guy, the guy with the hot bat. I always watched the box scores.

“On the mound I always gave 100 percent,” Gooden added.

“Right now, I want to impact other lives by sharing my experience. I understand the struggle. Whatever the struggle may be and that people are not alone. I want to listen to people and hear them out. Maybe that’s all they need. Just listen. I just want to be accountable to my kids, my family and myself.”

Heading into his 56th year that is the fire that burns within Dwight Gooden.

44+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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