The other day I saw a little note that Dwight Gooden had just turned 50. Honestly, I’m a bit surprised he’s still with us considering everything which has occurred in his life. Seeing that note reminded me of two things: the first is that time has flown by and the second is nothing is ever guaranteed in life as the recent passing of Oscar Taveras again proved.
Back in the summer of 1985, everyone who was living in New York, with the possible exception of Tim McCarver who expressed caution, believed 19-year-old Doc was on a direct path to Cooperstown. In that magical summer, Gooden was 24-4 with a microscopic 1.53 ERA and had incredible pitching mechanics.
One of my favorite stories about that summer was during a press conference at the 1985 U.S. Tennis Open, John McEnroe broke up all the writers by asking why a ball scored as a hit during one of Gooden’s starts that summer hadn’t been scored as an error. It would have been Doc’s first no-hitter and the culmination of that incredible season. Of course, Doc did get his no-hitter, but it came more than ten years later and while playing for the Yankees.
At the end of the 1985 season, Gooden’s won-lost record was an astounding 41-13 and he was a star on the 1986 World Series champion Mets. Just about anything with his picture would sell. Heck, even those little boxed sets Topps produced for Woolworth’s that featured the young Dwight, wearing number 64 in spring training, were in big demand.
While the 1985 Gooden card was important, the really key cards at the time were not even official rookie cards. His 1984 Fleer Update rookie card was sizzling and a sure sale if you had them at a show (remember, this was long before the internet). The Beckett terminology for those cards were “XRC” because they were only available in hobby-only Update and Traded sets, so they weren’t considered true rookie cards. It was the fourth edition of a post-season Topps boxed Update/Traded set while Fleer was entering that market for the first time.
Fleer printed to order which caused a hobby shortage because of the demand that came almost immediately. Since the set ended up with two future greats not in the Topps set (Roger Clemens and Kirby Puckett), it also wound up being a long-term success. But in 1985 the real key to that set was Dwight Gooden, the man who was going to smash every pitching record ever created.
Obviously, 30 years or so later, Gooden is a testament to a player having a nice career but not matching the early promise of his start. But whenever one sees a 1984 Topps Traded or 1984 Fleer Update card, they remind us of a time when both Doc and Darryl Strawberry seemed like locks to spend long, productive, championship careers in the Big Apple. While both players ended up playing for a New York championship team in the 1990’s, I don’t think in 1985 anyone would have thought that team would not be the Mets. All those cards just go to show is no matter what the promise is, nothing is guaranteed. But, today, even at the lower price levels, if you have either Gooden 1984 update card, there is usually a buyer. It’s likely some of them were signed when Doc appeared at last year’s National Sports Collectors Convention.
And even if they never became Hall of Famers, both Gooden and Strawberry should be given credit for turning their lives in the right direction and battling back to enjoy late career success. I hope both stay with us for a long time so they can enjoy the rest of their lives and the memories on those earliest cards can continue to bring a smile to collectors who remember the excitement they created when they were just kids.