“I like a look of Agony, because I know it’s true.”
— Emily Dickinson
NEW YORK — His eyes were vacant, as if someone had sucked out any hint of anger or disappointment. Maybe he never felt those things to begin with. The last glimpse of Dwight Gooden in the 1986 World Series was clean and sanitized: dressed in street clothes, dipping to the mike for a few questions, then heading to the airport.
“Whose fault?” the reporters had wanted to know Thursday. “Why did the Mets lose?”
“We had some bad breaks,” he had answered. “What can you do? A couple of breaks the other way, and we would have won.”
Beware the man who blames the breaks, especially one with the breaks in his hands. You want the tale of this Series — regardless of outcome? Right here, in this vacant look. More than any pitching story in this pitching-dominated affair, Dwight Gooden’s failure to produce is the biggest. And perhaps the least discussed.
The talk going into Game 6 was all Roger Clemens — much of it by the Red Sox. “He’s our ace, our gun.” Know this: Dwight Gooden was to the Mets all that Clemens was to Boston when this Series began. But that was a long time ago.
“You gotta feel for the guy,” said Wally Backman, after Gooden lost Game 5 in Boston, his second Series defeat.
“Hey, he’s not God,” added Mets pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.
These were the words for Gooden Friday. Sorrow. Remorse. Sympathy. And then the Mets stopped talking about him altogether and tried to do that which they never imagined — win four Series games without Gooden figuring in any.
No. He is not God. Nor is he the icon we made him out to be, the cover of Time magazine, the best pitcher in New York, the kind some people claimed
“comes along once every 10 years.”
No. That kind of pitcher thrives on pressure, eats it up, can’t wait. Especially in the World Series — a cold shower after a season in a warm tub. World Series pitching is a psychological battle, soul pitching, leadership and ferocity and atonement for any bad breaks. Batting averages tend to drop during the Fall Classic, mostly because hitters are pressing, trying too hard. The best pitchers smell this, seize it.
Dwight Gooden never did.
You can study his numbers to see this (nine World Series innings, 17 hits, 10 runs). But numbers. Well. You know their limitations. Look instead in the creases of the tapestry. Look for times invincibility called and Gooden did not answer.
Look, for example, in Game 2, third inning. Spike Owen walked and Roger Clemens bunted — but the throw was wild and both runners wound up safe. In such situations, the pitcher has to take control, crunch his molars and say,
“All right. No more breaks for these guys.”
Instead, Gooden gave up a double to Wade Boggs, the next batter, and then a single to Marty Barrett and another to Bill Buckner. Then, once significant damage had been done, Gooden bore down and struck out Dwight Evans and Rich Gedman, ending the inning.
Then he strikes them out?
Wrong time. Wrong batters. It followed Gooden into Game 5, the last in Fenway. Second inning: A misplayed liner allowed Dave Henderson to stretch a double into a one-out triple. Again, the moment a great pitcher must bear down. “No long balls. No way that run comes in.”
Instead, Gooden surrendered a sacrifice fly to Spike Owen. Spike Owen? The No. 9 batter? Exactly the kind of guy you have to strike out. The Boston run scored. Fenway came unglued. The game would be lost.
What was it Reggie Jackson — a master of post-season pressure — once said of being a Series leader? “Can’t lose your edge. Can’t be on edge.”
Gooden failed on both counts. He wore a dazed look throughout most of the Series, and rarely spoke with the media, not a surprising reaction for a 21-year-old. It’s just that people expected so much more. Perhaps that was the mistake.
Could we have too quickly overlooked Gooden’s 17-6 record this year, after a 24-4 season the year before? Nothing shabby about 17-6. But for a pitcher with Gooden’s credentials, in a year when his team was much better, the drop-off should have been a tip-off.
Where would the Mets be now if he had won both Series games? He pitched excellently in the playoffs, no question (without a win). But remember, that was against Houston, a team he faces in the regular season. Under the alien glare of the World Series, his pitches were fast but not turning over, not often well- placed, and too often predictable. He left the Fall Classic in a fifth inning, looking very young, as if his Series performance had never registered.
“I like a look of Agony, because I know it’s true.” But there was no agony in the eyes of Dwight Gooden. It was deeper than that. He had not choked on the pressure. He had swallowed it.