Dwight Gooden appears all the way back after troubled '87 season

In less than five years, Dwight Gooden has lived a baseball lifetime. In 1984 the young right-hander was the National League's Rookie of the Year. The next year brought him the Cy Young Award as the league's best pitcher. The year after that, he was a world champion.

His unofficial titles have accumulated just as fast: Dr. K., Baseball's Mozart, Future Hall of Famer.

But Gooden has also seen his golden image tarnished by developments off the field. In the winter after the New York Mets' 1986 World Series victory, he was arrested for a highly publicized run-in with police near his Tampa, Fla., home.

Last season, he underwent a two-month rehabilitation for cocaine dependency, and although he returned to lead the Mets in victories with a 12-8 record, his absence may have cost the team its second consecutive title. He even received a $100,000 pay cut for 1988.

This year, however, he is off to a spectacular 8-0 start that has helped his team take a commanding early lead in the National League East race.

``Is he back?'' says New York catcher Gary Carter. ``He never left.''

Carter should know, having caught most of Gooden's victories, and it's hard to argue with an 81-26 career record and the best winning percentage of any starting pitcher in baseball today. Indeed, Gooden is not only winning this year, he is dominating the opposition. He has already thrown three shutouts, and is striking out batters with the form that earned him his ``Dr. K.'' nickname.

``I'm throwing more fastballs,'' he says. ``Last year I second-guessed myself in certain situations. Now I just go with fastballs in good locations.'' He has also recovered his hard curve, which together with that devastating fastball leaves hitters between a rock and a hard place.

For the Mets, Gooden's performance means another chance for a world championship. For ``Doc,'' as he prefers to be called, it represents another chapter in an already amazing story.

As an 18-year-old, Gooden hinted at future greatness with a 19-4 record and 300 strikeouts in only 191 innings for the Mets' Lynchburg, Va., farm club. The next year he made the unusual leap from the low minor leagues to the majors, where he proved even more of a prodigy by posting a 17-9 record and striking out 276.

His 11.4 strikeouts per nine-innings represented the highest ratio ever achieved by a starting pitcher. And he became the youngest player in league history to be named Rookie of the Year.

Doc's rookie statistics provided only a taste of what was to come in 1985, when he compiled a 24-4 record, a remarkable 1.53 earned-run average, 268 strikeouts, and 8 shutouts. His Cy Young award provided the exclamation point to one of the most spectacular years by a pitcher in recent memory.

In the world championship season of 1986, Gooden was 17-6 and still regarded as the staff's resident superstar, even though fellow starters Ron Darling, Bob Ojeda, and Sid Fern'andez also made sizeable contributions.

More than with his pitching feats, Gooden has impressed observers with his handling of so much success, his recent troubles notwithstanding. ``He's had to mature in the New York spotlight,'' observes Mets general manager Frank Cashen.

That maturity was evident early in Gooden's career, when the extraordinarily composed youngster faced the media crush. ``At the start, it was pretty tough,'' Doc remembers. ``Sometimes I had bad games, but I wouldn't run off. Sitting there is part of the business.''

Talented and oft-troubled Met teammate Darryl Strawberry, who himself was rushed into major league service, is even said to have learned more patience and restraint from observing the younger Gooden's demeanor off the field.

Gooden has received high marks for his return from drug dependency. ``I don't excuse him from using drugs,'' says Cashen, ``but everyone on this ball club has profited from the way he's handled the situation.''

``I think he's come back extremely well,'' Carter chimes in, ``and he's used it as a good tool to prove that drugs is a wrong thing to do.''

Gooden has achieved a healthy perspective on his career, and does not want to be judged by the standards he set in his first two years. ``If people see you're playing other professionals,'' he reasons, ``they'll see you can't get 10 strikeouts a game or pitch a shutout every time.''

He adds that the emergence of other good Mets pitchers has made life easier. ``Every time you take the mound, you don't have to win to keep the team in the race. They'll pick you up,'' he says.

Still, Doc strives to make himself a better all-around player and in particular works on his hitting. Last year he batted .219, better than most pitchers and some shortstops.

``In high school I was always a hitter,'' he recalls with a smile. ``If a scout came and asked me if I'd rather hit or pitch, I'd rather hit.''

But the Mets, of course, are happy with things just the way they are.

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