Friday, June 27, 2008

Shea Quest '08: One career saluted, one career started and one about to crash.

I’m going to lay Shea Memory Countdown games No. 3 and 2 side by side here for a reason. I’ll actually start with No. 2 and work backward. It will all make sense in the end.

Shea Memory Countdown No. 2: July 23, 1988, Braves 6, Mets 1

It can be said that we came to Shea that day for the exhibition, not the main event.

That year, July 23 and 24 were dedicated to Tom Seaver, No. 41 was going on the wall for on Sunday, but I was just as excited to head to the Saturday game.

The prior year, 1987, was a tease for the Mets in so many ways, but the one that struck most closely in my household was Seaver’s near return to the Mets after most of the rotation got hurt.

It would have been perfect. We were living in Connecticut at the time and my buddy Rich were frequent attendees at Shea, Fenway or the dump in the Bronx to root for the opposition.

I took Seaver’s 1983 return for granted and didn’t get to see him pitch in person after the Opening Day debacle. That wasn’t going to happen again.

But, as we know, the semi-retired Seaver of 1987 decided he just didn’t have it anymore after a series of simulated games and minor-league warm-ups.

So I wasted no time in snagging tickets for July 23 when it was announced that “Tom Terrific” would make his first appearance at a Mets Old-Timer’s Game.

There was something spectacular about Tom, in a Mets uniform, throwing from the mound at Shea, even if he was just lobbing meatballs out there for the other retired veterans to swat at. One of my friends at my former paper in Connecticut took the action shot from that game.

It was the fitting coda that we were denied in 1987, and a preview of the celebration that was to come the next day.

The official game that day was pretty interesting, too. Bob Ojeda was on the mound for the Mets, and a kid pitcher was making his major-league debut for the Braves.

Ojeda gave up two runs right away, and the Mets got one back in the bottom of the first when the rookie hit Lenny Dyksta -- the first batter he had faced in the majors – and Nails came around on a Dave Magadan double.

Sadly for the Mets, that was the last run they’d score that day. In fact, they’d only get three more hits off the kid. The score was closer than the 6-1 final indicates, because Mets reliever Edwin Nunez coughed up three of those runs in the ninth.

The kid pitcher making his debut? That would be John Smoltz.

In addition to torturing the Mets since that day, Smoltz has piled up 213 wins and 154 saves and some stud-muffin performances in the postseason.

Smoltz is a Michigander, and I’ve met his dad a number of times at baseball card shows when he was selling things for a charity. Nice guy.

His son is probably headed to Cooperstown, which is where I thought Dwight Gooden was destined to be enshrined. Which leads me to:

Shea Memory Countdown No. 3: June 19, 1989, Mets 5, Expos 3

This was Gooden’s 100th win. Even after the drug problems surfaced, I was confident that Doc would have 200 more wins, certainly 150 more.

Instead, it was the last win he’d get that year.

The line score was vintage Doc, with five hits and three runs over seven innings. He had nine strikeouts to go with just two walks.

That brought his record for the season to 9-2, and with three weeks until the All-Star Game it was safe to think that a second 20-win season was in the works.

Instead, he hurt his shoulder, and added only two losses to his stats. It’s safe to say that his midseason departure doomed the Mets chances of defending the division title.

Of course, looking at the box score and seeing “Samuel CF,” I realize Doc doesn’t carry that burden alone.

Gooden had one more great season for the Mets, going 19-7 in 1990 before slipping to 13-7 in 1991, 10-13 in 1992, 12-15 in 1993 and 3-4 in 1994, when he was busted for drugs again and suspended for the rest of that season and all of the next.

Save for one glorious night of no-hit ball with the Skanks, Doc’s magic was gone. He was in the Bronx in 1996 and 1997, then Cleveland in 1998 and 1999 before the disaster of 2000 when he was dumped by the Astros after one game and canned by the Devil Rays – the Devil Rays! – after eight.

He wrapped up the season in the Yankees bullpen, but luckily didn’t appear in the Subway Series. I’m not sure which would have hurt more, to see him pitch well against us, or if we wailed on him.

Gooden finished with 194 career wins and 112 losses, an outstanding .634 winning percentage despite all his issues.

In fact, he’s still among the Mets’ all-time leaders in most pitching categories, including wins, where his 157 trails only Seaver.

Yet when I make my way to the Mets Hall of Fame on Saturday, I won’t find a bust for Gooden. Because as good as we thought he was on that day in 1989, there should have been so much more.

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