The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Dwight Gooden”

The Demons That Haunt Even Doctors

He arrived at the old brownstone as if ejected from a garbage disposal, dirty, sore and squalid.  The little black girls jumping rope on the sidewalk recognized him, again.  No way he could look them in the eye.  Uh, uh.  Not like this.  No autographs today, kids.  Not here on the Island.

His face was that of a high school kid searching for a way to avoid afternoon English Lit ennui, second-lunch flowing into third, then a furtive sneak out the back door towards the bus stop on 48th Street.  Fuck Fitzgerald and his jazz-age jerk-off friends.  Their type was always hanging out for a handout, flashing fat wads of cash and gold teeth, like so many shark-gypsies.

The Crack House

The Crack House (Photo credit: Hryck.)

The lower floor vacant like the soul of a disposed evangelist, the upper floor tangy with piss-smell and live vermin.  Crawling out of the shadows under cracked, spinal-cord plaster, black teeth like moldy graves on a new-moon night, those who would sooth this jaded specter, spooning out the crack.  Bottles of brandy, vodka and rum, like a Christmas bell-chime chorus, littered and glittered on the floor in the fading, late-afternoon light.

Now an unlikely bonus companion, a working T.V. set, tuned to a parade not all that distant, though another world away.  Ticker tape and NY logos and limos rolling down the canyon avenues, ten miles an hour, kicked a hole in his soul.

He could be there in the enchanted din, flashing that boyish grin, small chin and curly hair, stooping next to the mayor, profiling postponed so a brother could flow while let alone.  Millions of faces, mostly white, gratified now in the land of the Dow, hoping to hold on to the wave, as it tossed back the day, already a ghost under the shade of the elms along 54th.

But not there, instead, smoking and weeping, definitely not sleeping, as the pain lingered just beyond the fringes of the high, too, too many eyes on him all the time.  His effortless grace always one pitch from disgrace, no vanity but all childhood fear and demons now here, and how does a kid bear it night after night, when love bleeds cash, and nowhere to go once the lights are turned down low, and mom’s not aware that her boy’s dream has nightmares of its own in the silent noise of the street?

Better to bury those parts of himself that aren’t the fastball unseen, the curve that buckles the knees, the three strikes and you’re just another sit down now and think about why you even thought you’d ever get a hit off this kid, a 4-0, one-hit shutout, two balls hit to the outfield at all, Dykstra grabbing one on the track, Straw clearing them all with a granny in the eighth.  Sorry-ass Pirates not knowing what just hit them, and what they didn’t hit at all.

Now darkness falls, and he drifts in the lull of a cool, empty night.  Bold newspaper headline screaming “We Clinch” cover his bare feet, keeping his warm heart beating as he lies on the cool, dirty floor, dreaming of locker-room lights, and mom’s hugs so tight, while the flies sing in his ear and a dark clouded  moon shines no light on this room where fear claws at the walls, for those who listen, it always calls, like a banshee at the death of a dream.

Or, in his own words:

“When the party started winding down, for myself, a lot of times I get to a certain point of using drugs, the paranoia sticks in,” said Gooden. “So I end up leaving the party with the team, going to the projects, of all places, on Long Island.  Hang out there.

“Then you know what time you have to be at the ballpark to go into the city for the {1986 World Series} parade, but I’m thinking ‘OK, I’ve got time.’ Then the next thing you know, the parade’s on and I’m watching the parade on TV. … Horrible, horrible feeling.”

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Is This a Hall of Fame Pitcher?

How many outstanding seasons must a pitcher accumulate to become a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate?  This question is more important than ever because, now that the 300-game winner is likely to become all but extinct, it will become  increasingly necessary over the next several years to develop a set of objective criteria which might enable a  broad consensus to form regarding what exactly constitutes a Hall of Fame pitching career.

When we look back over the history of baseball regarding what it has meant to be a Hall of Fame-worthy pitcher, the 300-win threshold was not always considered a prerequisite to HOF induction.  Certainly, plenty of exceptions to this relatively modern de facto standard have been  made over the years to recognize the excellence of pitchers such as Dizzy Dean (150 wins), Jack Chesbro (198 wins), Rube Waddell (193 wins), Ed Walsh (195 wins), Addie Joss (160 wins), Dazzy Vance (197 wins), and, of course, Sandy Koufax (165 wins.)

In none of their respective cases did winning fewer than 200 games, let alone 300,  prevent their eventual enshrinement.  Fans and sportswriters alike were apparently of the opinion that greatness did not necessarily equal longevity, or that “only” a few outstanding seasons simply weren’t enough to merit Hall induction.

Yet by the 1970’s — certainly by the 1980’s — it had become de rigour for fans and pundits alike to trumpet the 300-win standard (or something damned close to it) for a pitcher to obtain even a passing glance at Hall immortality.  The irony is that at precisely about the time Hall voters had appeared to come to expect this arbitrary standard of would-be HOF pitchers, the game itself was evolving in ways (increased reliance on team’s bullpens, for example) that would make it less likely that modern pitchers would ever likely become 300-game winners.

There is always a lag time between what is true and what we believe to be true.  That is called learning from experience.  The history of America is the history of what we once believed to be true (slavery was justifiable, women could not compete in the workplace with men, etc.) versus where we are (however imperfectly realized) today.  HOF voters and fans are no different, and represent, perhaps, an even more conservative subculture of the general population.  Once an idea takes root, it is nearly impossible to shake.  Thus the continual, disproportionate attention paid to statistics such as batting average (for hitters) and wins (for pitchers.)

So, keeping in mind actual Hall of Fame history, please allow me to provide you with a series of statistics, and you tell me, (keeping in mind that only about one-third of Hall of Fame pitchers have actually won over 300 games) did this particular pitcher enjoy a HOF-worthy career or not?

Let’s begin with this pitcher’s three best consecutive peak seasons:

58 wins, 19 losses, completed 35 of 99 starts, 13 shutouts, 745 innings, 744 strikeouts, 1.04 WHIP, .187 batting average against, 2.28 ERA, 22.0 WAR, won a Cy Young award, and finished 2nd and 7th in the voting the other two years.  Incidentally, this is not a 19th-century, or early 20th-century dead-ball era pitcher.

At this point, would you agree or disagree that those are Hall of Fame-caliber numbers?

Lest you might think that those three seasons represent the entirety of this pitcher’s productive career, here are his statistics for his seven best consecutive years (he missed about half of one of these seasons):

119 wins, 46 losses, a .721 win-loss percentage, 209 starts, 55 complete games, 20 shutouts, 1,522 innings, 1,391 strikeouts, 1.14 WHIP (the same as Greg Maddux’s career WHIP), .207 batting average against, a 2.83 ERA, and 36 WAR (which includes his very respectable contributions with the bat.)

There was another 4th place as well as a 5th place finish in Cy Young voting during those additional four seasons.  In four of those seven years, he struck out over 200 batters, and he never lost more than nine games in any one of those campaigns.  That 36 WAR, by the way, is about the same as or higher than a few starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame, and we’re not quite done with this pitcher yet.

So, how about now?  Does this seven-year run of success merit HOF attention?  Does he at least belong in the conversation?  Are his numbers, at least at this point, not on a par with the other pitchers I mentioned in an earlier paragraph who won fewer than 200 games, but are in the Hall anyway?

To be eligible to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, a ballplayer needs to have accumulated at least ten seasons of service time at the Major League level.  So let’s look at this pitcher’s best ten-year period, and we’ll evaluate his HOF-worthiness:

154 wins-81 losses, .655 win-loss percentage, 296 starts, 67 complete games, 23 shutouts, 2,128 innings, 1,852 hits, 1,835 strikeouts, 3.03 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, .212 batting average against (he batted .200 over those ten seasons), and 47.0 WAR.

Admittedly, those are just about the only productive seasons he enjoyed during his career, but they certainly were a productive ten years.  The 154 wins are not that different from the number Koufax, Vance, Dean, and the others won during their entire careers.  And this pitcher’s final career WAR, 53.2, is higher than Hall of Famers Elmer Flick, Burleigh Grimes, Sam Rice, Mickey Cochrane, Bobby Doerr, Kirby Puckett, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Lazzeri, Chief Bender, Bob Lemon, Nellie Fox…and Sandy Koufax.

Mind you, no one’s arguing that this pitcher was necessarily better than any of those players.  But if his career WAR is at least on a  par with those Hall of Famers, would it be ridiculous to ask if he should at least be in the conversation regarding the Hall of Fame?

His final career totals:

194-112, .634 win-loss percentage, 2,800 innings, 2,564 hits, 2,293 strikeouts, a .226 career batting average against, 1.25 WHIP, 3.51 ERA (though just 3.11 over his 12 years in the N.L.) a no-hitter, the aforementioned Cy Young award, a Rookie of the Year award, four trips to the All Star game, a Silver Slugger, and a World Championship ring.

So what’s your final decision as far as the Hall of Fame is concerned?  Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Either way, you’ve just taken a long, hard look at the career of Dwight Gooden.

Gooden spent just one year on the HOF ballot, drew just 3% of the vote, and that was the end of that.

It may very well be that every single member of the BBWAA took the time to seriously consider Gooden’s record before they cast their ballot, but I doubt it.  Players are preceded, smothered and sometimes buried by the narrative that has attached itself to their names, like barnacles under an old ship.  Gooden’s narrative is complex and tragic.

Now, I realize Gooden is far from the only potentially deserving HOF candidate to have been virtually ignored by HOF voters.  But I chose him precisely because so few fans and writers have ever appeared to take his overall career as seriously as his accomplishments suggest that they should.

Not every pitcher who finds success in the Majors is going to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.  I get that.  But the current process does beg the question, short of 300 victories, just what exactly is it that voters want?

Author’s note:  I had written this post in its entirety before learning of the retirement of the great Roy Halladay late yesterday afternoon.  I could just as easily have made my key point about Halladay as about Gooden.  Will Halladay, with just 203 career wins, end up one and done on the Hall ballot like Gooden, or will the BBWAA recall all the great years Halladay enjoyed in his career, and reward him accordingly?  Most importantly, by what objective criteria will they decide?

Matt Harvey: A Baker’s Dozen Starts

You may have noticed that Mets phenom Matt Harvey is off to an incredible start to his career.  The big right-hander has made thirteen major league starts, and, to this point, he has been nothing but dominant.  Relatively small sample size, yes, but his numbers are staggering.  Take a look at his pitching line below:

Innings Pitched: 81, Hits: 48, HR: 6, Strikeouts: 95, Walks: 32, ERA: 2.21, WHIP: 0.984, K’s /9 IP: 10.5

Notice the unbelievably low number of hits surrendered, the high strikeout totals, and the fantastic WHIP.

This got me to wondering about the first 13 starts of several other famous pitchers in MLB history.  Can we draw any valid conclusions to what Harvey has accomplished so far?  Is there historical precedent for such a dominant beginning to a MLB career for a starting pitcher?

I took a look at several pitchers, some active and some retired.  A couple are in the Hall of Fame.  How much success did they enjoy at the beginning of their careers?  Here’s what I discovered.  Which of the following, if any, do you think is the best match for Matt Harvey’s career to this point?

The number in parentheses after the pitcher’s name is his age at the time of his MLB debut.  Matt Harvey, by the way, was 23-years old.

Tom Seaver:  (22)

IP: 101.2,  Hits: 85,  HR: 11, Strikeouts: 59, Walks: 25, ERA: 2.41, WHIP: 1.08, K’s /9 IP: 6.5

It may come as a surprise that Seaver did not immediately begin his career as a big-time strikeout pitcher.  His K rate of just 6 1/2 per nine innings is decent for a young pitcher, but not spectacular.  Certainly, Seaver’s rate is nowhere near as impressive as Harvey’s.  Keep in mind, thought, that a stigma still existed among hitters in those days regarding striking out.  Some batters used to choke up on the bat with two strikes on them.  Does anyone still do that?

Dwight Gooden:  (19)

IP:  82.2, Hits:  57, HR: 1, Strikeouts:  96, Walks:  35, ERA:  2.61, WHIP:  1.12, K’s /9 IP:  10.6

Doc Gooden’s first thirteen starts do bear a striking resemblance to Matt Harvey’s fledgling career.  In virtually the same number of innings, Gooden’s strikeouts and walks are essentially the same as Harvey’s.  Gooden was unbelievably stingy with the long ball, however, surrendering just one to Harvey’s six.  But Harvey was even tougher to hit than Gooden.  Harvey’s lower WHIP is primarily the result of nine fewer hits surrendered in about one less inning pitched.

Roger Clemens: (21)

IP:  78.2, Hits: 101, HR: 9, Strikeouts:  68, Walks: 17, ERA:  5.13, WHIP:  1.50, K’s / 9 IP:  7.5

Just looking at that bloated ERA suggest Roger wasn’t quite ready to establish himself at the Major League level when he first arrived.  The same is true of his WHIP, though his K rate is promising, and obviously improved as he matured.  Clemens first 13 starts do not match up well with Matt Harvey.

Mark Prior:  (21)

IP:  79,  Hits:  61,  HR: 11, Strikeouts:  96, Walks:  30, ERA:  3.65, WHIP:  1.15, K’s / 9 IP:  10.6

Again, as with Gooden, not entirely dissimilar to Harvey, though the homer rate is considerably higher for Prior.  Prior’s WHIP is impressive, but still not in Matt Harvey territory.  His K rate per nine matches up well with both Gooden and Harvey, though.  And that’s 13 more hits for Prior in two fewer innings pitched than Harvey.

Kerry Wood:  (20)

IP:  79.1, Hits:  56, HR:  5, Strikeouts:  118, Walks:  42, ERA:  3.40, WHIP:  1.24, K’s / 9 IP:  13.1

Holy smoke, look at that K rate per nine innings.  That’s unbelievable.  Respectable WHIP, homer rate, and a decent ERA as well.  Higher walk rate leads to a higher overall WHIP than Harvey.  Harvey has allowed 80 base-runners in 81 innings pitched.  Wood allowed 98 base-runners in 79 innings.  Clearly, aside from the strikeouts, Harvey has been a much more polished pitcher than was Kerry Wood.

Felix Hernandez:  (19)

IP:  89.1, Hits:  63, HR:  5, Strikeouts:  81, Walks:  25, ERA:  2.62, WHIP:  0.98, K’s / 9 IP:  9.0

The first thing that I noticed was the relatively high number of innings pitched over his first 13 starts.  Among the pitchers on this list, only Seaver tossed more innings.  Hernandez, though, appears to have been a pretty efficient pitcher.  His walk rate is low, and while his K rate is very nice, it’s not so high that his strikeout totals are causing him to throw an inordinate number of pitches per batter.  His WHIP is second only to Harvey on this list.  King Felix was a remarkably polished pitcher at age 19, but Harvey’s K rate is better, and his WHIP and ERA are still lower.

Stephen Strasburg:  (21)

IP:  73,  Hits:  58, HR: 5, Strikeouts: 96, Walks: 17, ERA:  2.71, WHIP:  1.02, K’s / 9 IP:  10.6

Fantastic strikeout to walk ratio, and basically the same K’s per nine as Prior, Gooden and Harvey.  His WHIP is close as well.  Harvey is still tougher to hit than is Strasburg, and his ERA is slightly lower as well.  All things considered, through 13 starts, Strasburg is quite close to Harvey, though he’s not better.

Clayton Kershaw:  (20)

IP:  69,  Hits:  74, HR:  6, Strikeouts:  65, Walks:  32, ERA:  4.11, WHIP:  1.53, K’s / 9 IP:  7.2

His numbers are closer to Roger Clemens’ than to anyone else’s on this list.  Kershaw may have come up to the Majors a bit before he was ready, but it hasn’t seemed to have harmed him so far.  As with Clemens, the K rate showed potential for growth, and the K to walk ratio is quite respectable for a 20-year old kid.  The WHIP is high, revealing a hit rate higher than some of the others on this list.  Kershaw’s command wasn’t yet refined, as it was to become a year or so later.

This list could go on and on, of course.  But I have a suspicion that you aren’t going to find many debuts as impressive as Harvey’s.  Where his career will go from here is anyone’s guess.  While Prior and Gooden can be viewed as cautionary tales, and Strasburg and Kershaw haven’t been around long enough to draw useful conclusions, Felix Hernandez, now in his ninth season, has had a successful and healthy career thus far.  Let’s hope for the same for Matt Harvey, and enjoy him while we can.

Phil Humber’s Perfect Game: How Perfectly Rare

Phil Humber of the Chicago White Sox has just tossed the 21st perfect game in Major League history, defeating the Seattle Mariners this afternoon, 4-0.

Philip Humber

Philip Humber (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

To put this extremely rare event into perspective, more people have orbited the moon than have thrown a complete perfect game, and no pitcher has ever thrown two of them.

Among the pitchers who never threw a perfect game are Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Lefty Grove, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Carl Hubbell, Bob Feller, Robin Roberts, Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Dwight Gooden, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez.

Twenty perfect games have been pitched during the regular season.  Two perfect games were pitched in the 19th century, 14 were tossed in the entire 20th century, and now five have already been hurled in the 21st century.

Six pitchers who pitched a perfect game are currently in the Hall of Fame:  Montgomery Ward, Cy Young, Addie Joss, Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax and Catfish Hunter.  At least two more pitchers — Randy Johnson and Roy Halladay — will eventually be enshrined as well.

Mark Buehrle takes a sign during his 2009 perf...

Mark Buehrle takes a sign during his 2009 perfect game. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eight of the 21 perfect pitchers were left-handed:  Lee Richmond, Tom Browning, Randy Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Dallas Braden, David Wells, Mark Buehrle, and Kenny Rogers.

The most common score of a perfect game has been 1-0.  This has happened six times.  The greatest amount of run support pitchers have received while tossing perfect games has been six runs.  David Cone won 6-0 in 1999 while pitching for the Yankees, and Jim Bunning received six runs of support in 1964 while pitching against the Mets.

May has been the most common month for perfect games (7), while none have ever been pitched in the month of August.

Thirteen perfect games have been thrown by A.L. pitchers, while only eight N.L. pitchers have ever pitched one.

Here is a complete list of pitchers who have tossed a perfect game prior to Humber’s masterpiece today, as well as the date on which it was thrown, and the score of the game:

Roy Halladay
Philadelphia Phillies at Florida Marlins, 1-0
May 29, 2010

Dallas Braden
Oakland A’s vs. Tampa Bay Rays, 4-0
May 9, 2010

Mark Buehrle
Chicago White Sox vs. Tampa Bay Rays, 5-0
July 23, 2009

Randy Johnson
Arizona Diamondbacks at Atlanta Braves, 2-0
May 18, 2004

David Cone
New York Yankees vs. Montreal Expos, 6-0
July 18, 1999

David Wells
New York Yankees vs. Minnesota Twins, 4-0
May 17, 1998

Kenny Rogers
Texas Rangers vs. California Angels, 4-0
July 28, 1994

Dennis Martinez
Montreal Expos at Los Angeles Dodgers, 2-0
July 28, 1991

Tom Browning
Cincinnati Reds vs. Los Angeles Dodgers, 1-0
Sept. 16, 1988

Mike Witt
California Angels at Texas Rangers, 1-0
Sept. 30, 1984

Len Barker
Cleveland Indians vs. Toronto Blue Jays, 3-0
May 15, 1981

Catfish Hunter
Oakland A’s vs. Minnesota Twins, 4-0
May 8, 1968

Sandy Koufax
Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Chicago Cubs, 1-0
Sept. 9, 1965

Jim Bunning
Philadelphia Phillies at New York Mets, 6-0
June 21, 1964

Don Larsen
New York Yankees vs. Brooklyn Dodgers, 2-0
Oct. 8, 1956
(World Series)

Charles Robertson
Chicago at Detroit (AL), 2-0
April 30, 1922

Addie Joss
Cleveland vs. Chicago (AL), 1-0
Oct. 2, 1908

Cy Young
Boston vs. Philadelphia (AL), 3-0
May 5, 1904

Prior to Modern Era

John Montgomery Ward
Providence vs. Buffalo (NL), 5-0
June 17, 1880

Lee Richmond
Worcester vs. Cleveland (NL), 1-0
June 12, 1880

They say nobody’s perfect, but 21 pitchers can say they have been perfect for a day.  And that’s something no one can ever take away from them.

Pitching WAR Analysis: The First Seven Years

Using my previous post about Roy Oswalt as a jumping off point, I decided to analyze forty semi-random pitchers’ cumulative WAR (Wins Above Replacement) for their first seven consecutive years in the Majors.  Working under the assumption that Roy Oswalt would rate higher than the average Dick Ruthven, Roger Pavlik or John Burkett, I didn’t hesitate to compare Oswalt’s WAR for Seasons 1-7 against many of the best pitchers in history.

In some cases, I decided to skip a particular season for a starting pitcher who made just a handful of starts in an injury abbreviated year, and move on to his next full season.  For a handful of these pitchers, seven consecutive full seasons of pitching was about all they could muster.

As with all lists, it begins with the caveat that we are looking at a snapshot of a player’s career, as measured by just one of many available statistics.  So don’t (and I don’t really think there was a chance that you might have) wave this around as either evidence of my ignorance (which it may very well be) or as proof that could win you a bet in a pub argument (and why wasn’t I invited?)

In order then, from highest WAR to lowest, first seven seasons as a starting pitcher, since 1900, (leaving out about a million relevant pitchers):

English: Portrait of baseball player Christy M...

Image via Wikipedia

1)  Walter Johnson (you were expecting maybe Buzz Capra?) – 57.0

2)  Grover Cleveland Alexander – 54.2

3)  Tom Seaver – 52.0

4)  Lefty Grove – 51.2

5)  Bob Feller – 49.5

6)  Roger Clemens – 46.9

7)  Robin Roberts – 46.3

8)  Ferguson Jenkins – 45.8

9)  Warren Spahn – 44.2

10) Pedro Martinez – 43.4

10) Christy Mathewson – 43.4

12) Rube Waddell – 41.9

13)  Johan Santana – 39.8

14)  Don Drysdale – 38.2

15)  Roy Halladay – 38.1

16) Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown – 37.6

17) Dave Stieb – (Yes, he really was this good) – 36.3

18) Steve Carlton – 36.0

19) Brett Saberhagen – 35.9

20) Dizzy Dean – 35.7

21) Phil Niekro – 35.4

22) Bob Gibson – 35.3

23) Nolan Ryan – 34.7

24) Randy Johnson – 34.6

25) Dwight Gooden – 34.4

26) Ron Guidry – 34.0

26) Sandy Koufax – 34.0

28) Mike Mussina – 32.9

29) Roy Oswalt – 32.7

30) Greg Maddux – 31.6

31) Curt Schilling – 29.2

32) Cliff Lee – 28.7

33) Jim Bunning – 28.4

34) Whitey Ford – 26.6

35) Don Sutton – 25.2

36) Jack Morris – 22.7

37) John Smoltz – 21.0

38) Kevin Brown – 20.8

38) Tom Glavine – 20.8

40) Catfish Hunter – 15.2

Keeping in mind that these numbers do not represent the final WAR totals of each of these pitchers’ respective careers, what does this data tell us?

For one thing, Oswalt’s first seven years measure up pretty well with pitchers like Greg Maddux and Mike Mussina, and are close on the heals of power pitchers like Gooden, Guidry and Koufax.*

*Incidentally, I love the synchronicity of those particular three pitchers, each of whom had a few great years, then burned out rather quickly.

It is also clear that if a pitcher is able to accumulate 40 WAR or better in his first seven years, he is very likely on his way to a Hall of Fame career.  On the other hand, if a pitcher accumulates 30-40 WAR in his first seven years, it is nearly impossible to predict if the rest of his career will buttress, or undermine, his HOF chances.

This list, which, let me remind you, is not meant to be comprehensive, also reminds us that our perceptions of baseball players are largely formed early in their careers, and that’s how we tend to remember them regardless of what they do for the rest of their careers.

Thus, some players like Kevin Brown never seem to get their due as excellent pitchers because the initial years of their careers were not terribly impressive.  Meanwhile, many, perhaps most baseball fans, are aware of the early greatness of Gooden, Guidry, Dizzy Dean, and others who didn’t last terribly long.

Finally, let this list be a cautionary tale that it is awfully difficult to accurately and objectively evaluate a pitcher’s career while it is still in progress.  It is not until he has tossed his final pitch and walked off the mound for the last time that we can begin to appreciate his contribution to baseball, and his place among the immortals.

Gary Carter, and a Season of Hope

As a Mets fan, the first time Gary Carter came across my radar screen was in December 1984, when the Mets traded third baseman Hubie Brooks and three other “prospects” for the 30-year old catcher from Montreal.

Sure, I generally knew who Carter was; I collected baseball fans and had seen “The Kid” play against my Mets a few times.  But it was out of the realm of what I thought possible at the time that this All-Star catcher would ever play for my lowly Mets.  After all, as a Mets fan since 1975, I’d only experienced two winning seasons out of nine, through 1983.

Gary Carter

Gary Carter (Photo credit: AxsDeny)

Yes, the arrival of Keith Hernandez in mid-season, 1983, gave me some hope (and Keith, not Gary, became my favorite Met of the ’80’s), but after seven consecutive terrible seasons (1977-83) I knew that they would need a lot more than one excellent player to turn this franchise around.

Yes, the young kids Gooden and Strawberry had each just arrived, but there was one missing piece to the puzzle.

Enter Gary Carter.

Carter quickly announced, not with his mouth, but with his bat, that things were going to be different at Shea Stadium when, on Opening Day, 1985, in the 10th inning, he hit a walk-off home run.  It was now clear to all Mets fans that HOPE had truly arrived.

The enthusiasm of the player they called “The Kid” was infectious.  The Mets hadn’t really had a player who contained these personal and professional qualities since Tom Seaver had been unceremoniously dumped (for “prospects”, there’s that word again) in mid-’77.

In his first season as a Met, Carter hit a career high 32 home runs, drove in 100, hit .281, made the All-Star team, won a Silver Slugger, and finished 6th in N.L. MVP voting.

The ’85 Mets enjoyed their finest season in many years, finishing with a record of 98-74, but they just couldn’t quite catch Tommy Herr’s Cardinals.  Gooden and Strawberry each had fantastic seasons, as did Keith Hernandez.

Most importantly to me was that the Mets were simply fun to watch again.  Every day, you knew they had an excellent chance to win, and the players assembled on that team (which also included Mookie, Dykstra, Darling, and El Sid) had a rare chemistry.  I hadn’t enjoyed a Mets team this much since the days of Seaver, Koosman, Matlack, Staub, Harrelson, Grote, and Cleon Jones.

And even though Keith Hernandez was my favorite player, I was aware that my friend James was right.  Carter was the player that made all of this success possible.  He was the glue that held this disparate, passionate, often profane group of guys together.

But what success?  The Mets still hadn’t won anything yet.

Enter the 1986 season.  Not only did Mets fans like myself expect the Mets to win lots of games that year, we knew this would be OUR YEAR, the year a Championship would finally come back to Queens.  Unlike our rivals over in a certain ballpark in the Bronx (whose box-seats were always full of rich, yuppie suburbanites from Manhattan or Connecticut), the denizens of Queens were primarily working class, and understood that it took a lot of losing to truly appreciate winning.

The ’86 Mets did not disappoint.  They won 108 games against just 54 losses, led the N.L. in both pitching and hitting, and went on to defeat the Astros of Nolan Ryan and Mike Scott in the greatest league-championship series ever played.  (Game Six of that series was the greatest game I’ve still ever seen in my life.)

Carter hit just .148 in that series, and it was clear that at age 32, he was finally slowing down just a bit.  True, he had driven in 100 runs again in ’86, but the wear and tear of, at that point, a dozen seasons as a catcher had begun to take their toll.  It was unclear how effective he would be, in the Mets first World Series since 1973, against Rocket Roger Clemens’ Red Sox.

Led me begin by saying that I did not hate the Red Sox.  After all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and it was the Yankees that I truly couldn’t stand (although I always respected certain players like Randolph, Munson, and later Mattingly.)  My brother was a Red Sox fan, so we had a fun, natural rivalry as well.

Through the first five games of the Series, the Mets looked alternately flat and dominating.  Their had been some heroics and some botched opportunities.  And the Mets suddenly found themselves down 3 games to 2 going into Game Six.  Although it was clear that the Mets Could come back and win, it was far from certain that they Would.

The Mets had lost the first two games of the World Series at Shea Stadium, then had taken two of three at Fenway Park (Carter hit two home runs in Game Four.)  So home-field “advantage” had not been an advantage so far in this Series.

Dwight Gooden had already been beaten twice, and Ron Darling once, so it fell to the Mets underrated third ace, Bobby Ojeda (ironically obtained in an off-season trade from the Red Sox) to even the Series three games apiece.

Paid attendance at Shea on this October night topped 55,000, and all of New York (and Boston, of course) was glued to their T.V. sets.  The Red Sox took an early 2-0 lead off of Ojeda.  The Mets got two back to tie the game in the fifth inning.  The Sox chipped another run in the seventh.  The Mets responded with a run of their own in the eight inning.

Neither team scored in the ninth, and we had extra innings.

I can’t imagine how exhausted Gary Carter must have been.  He had caught every game of the Series, and now here he was entering the tenth inning still behind the plate for the Mets.  I was tense, nervous and exhausted just watching the damned game.

In fact, writing this post is the first time I’ve allowed myself to virtually relive this game, more or less in its entirety, in a quarter of a century.

After the top of the tenth inning, it looked all over for the Mets.  The Sox had scored two in the top of the tenth, and how much Mets Magic could be left in the tank?  There are some miracles you just don’t dare ask for.

The Mets were quickly down two outs in the bottom of the tenth.  I looked over at my brother and said, “Congratulations, Mark, it looks like your boys are finally going to win a World Series.”  He responded, “Nope.  It’s not over yet.  They’ll probably find a way to blow it.”

But the Mets were down two runs, and were down to their last out.

Then Gary Carter strode to the plate.  It had to be Carter.  This moment could be reserved for no one else.

Quickly, though, he was down two strikes.  The Mets were down to their last out.  Their last strike.  Just one more pitch.  I couldn’t watch.

In my mind’s eye, I seem to remember Carter fighting off a pitch or two, but I could be wrong.

Then, it happened.  Gary Carter lined a clean single, and the floodgates were opened.  I looked over at my brother.  He had a look of pure doom on his face.

There is no reason to go any further with the play-by-play.  There can’t be a baseball fan over 30-years old anywhere that doesn’t know how the rest of that game, and that Series, turned out.

But I can’t help wondering how different it would have turned out if Carter had not come to the plate in that tenth inning at bat.  How did he do it?  He must have been running on pure adrenaline.  And, of course, he came back the next day and caught Game Seven.  He finished the Series with a pair of home runs, a .276 batting average, and a team-leading nine RBI.

No Met player had come to the plate more often than Carter’s 29 official at bats in this Series, and no player on either team had come up with a bigger hit when it mattered most.

Carter played a total of just five seasons with the Mets, but he solidified not only his Hall of Fame credentials, but his permanent place in the hearts of all Mets fans during his short stay.

Now, at age 57, Gary Carter has passed away, a short stay in a world he made better with his generosity, enthusiasm and dignity, taking a piece of my youth with him.

But what he has left in its place is a profoundly grateful fan’s memories of how Hope is always just around the corner, if you dare to believe in it.

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