Passing the Torch
“There’s nothing really significant about my pitching against him,” Tom Seaver said of his first confrontation with Dwight Gooden. “It doesn’t make me flashback at all.” Gooden reacted similarly, “I know there are tips he could give me. But I have no personal relationship with him, so pitching against him today doesn’t mean all that much.” However, despite their protestations, there was of course something genuinely significant in the March 13, 1985 meeting between the 40-year-old Seaver and the 20-year-old Gooden. Seaver, now with the White Sox, had been the man most responsible for transforming the New York Mets from an object of ridicule to a World Series winner. He was the best pitcher in the team’s history, and arguably the best pitcher of his generation. Like all future Mets’ pitchers, Gooden would be judged against the standards Seaver had set.
Comparisons to Seaver had already begun for Gooden in 1984, when he won 17 games, struck out 276 batters to set a rookie strikeout record, and overwhelmingly won the National League’s Rookie-of-the-Year Award. By contrast, Seaver, who entered the season fifth on the all-time list with 3,403 strikeouts, had struck out only 170 as a 22-year-old rookie in 1967.
This generational clash between Seaver, winner of 288 games and three Cy Young awards in his 18 seasons, and Gooden, who many saw as his heir apparent, was the kind of story that people who treasure baseball savor. So much so, that even though it was just a weekday split-squad game, it drew a capacity crowd of 5,180 to Sarasota’s rickety old Payne Park. It also attracted representatives from the national media, a most unusual occurrence for a spring training game. Harry Reasoner, with a film crew from 60 Minutes, and Dick Schaap, from ABC-TV, competed for interviews with two writers for national magazines, reporters from five television stations, and an uncommonly large number of journalists.
“My goodness, look at all the people,” said Gooden, who confessed he had seen Seaver pitch only on television and “would like to meet him sometime and have a conversation.” Seaver too had seen his young opponent only on television, but admitted that he was impressed nonetheless. “He has superb mechanics. His stuff at this stage is better than mine when I came up.” Seaver then went on to praise Gooden’s control. “The one phenomenal thing I saw in Dwight Gooden last year was that he struck out 16 batters in one game and gave no walks. Then he struck out 16 in the next game and gave no walks. That’s incredible. For a power pitcher not to walk anybody in two games, that’s phenomenal.” When Gooden learned what Seaver had said he replied appreciatively, “That means a lot to me to hear Seaver say that. He’s one of the great pitchers.”
Perhaps the large media presence inspired them, or maybe it was just an effort to further impress each other, but both Seaver and Gooden exhibited mid-season form that afternoon. Because this was his first outing of the spring, Mets’ manager Davey Johnson used Gooden for only three innings, while Seaver, making his second start, went five. Neither allowed a run. With both teams being strong pennant contenders, White Sox manager Tony La Russa said that he hoped the two might face each other again in the 1985 World Series.
Gooden walked one and gave up singles to Harold Baines and Carlton Fisk in his three innings. He had only one strikeout, but it was a big one, fanning Daryl Boston for the third out with the bases loaded in the first inning. Spring training is primarily a time for learning and experimentation, so Gooden used this game to work on improving his changeup. He later said that he had thrown five or six this afternoon and was pleased with his progress, which was ominous news for National League hitters.
When asked to assess Gooden’s performance, Seaver answered, “It’s just like I thought. He’s got a terrific arm and good mechanics. I saw a few things wrong but you can see he’s a great pitcher.” A reporter asked Seaver if he would tell Gooden what he had seen that was wrong. Seaver smiled and said, “That’s not my job. Let him find out.”
His own performance had been excellent. He worked five shutout innings, allowing only a single to minor league outfielder Lenny Dykstra. Following his three-inning stint, Gooden had gone out to left field to run some laps, but Seaver, after his five, went down to the White Sox bullpen and threw 12 more pitches. He did so, he said, because he felt that he could have pitched another inning. After Seaver and Gooden departed, they took the excitement with them, as the game, won by Chicago, 6-0, took on the look of a typical mid-March spring training contest.
While La Russa’s hoped-for Seaver-Gooden matchup in the World Series never happened, both pitchers reached personal milestones in 1985. When Seaver started against Milwaukee on opening day, it was the 15th opening-day start of his career, surpassing the record previously held by Walter Johnson. Later, on August 4, Seaver (16-11) became the 17th pitcher in major league history to win 300 games when he six-hit the Yankees, 4-1 before a cheering sellout crowd in Yankee Stadium.
Gooden’s sophomore year ranks very high on any list of great pitching seasons. He led the league in wins (24-4), earned run average (1.53), innings pitched (276.2), complete games (16), and strikeouts (268). Along the way, he compiled a 14-game winning streak and a 31-inning scoreless streak. By leading in wins, ERA and strikeouts, he became the first pitcher since Steve Carlton in 1972 to win the pitchers’ Triple Crown. His eight shutouts broke Seaver’s team record, and he joined Herb Score as the only 20th century pitcher to have more than 200 strikeouts in each of his first two seasons. Gooden unanimously won the Cy Young Award, something only Seaver (with three) had done as a Met.