Commentary

Doc and Straw: The untold stories

What was it like to face Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry? Pull up a chair.

Updated: July 30, 2010, 10:19 AM ET
By Mark Simon | ESPNNewYork.com

There are all sorts of stories to tell, plenty good and plenty bad, about the careers of New York Mets Hall of Fame inductees Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry.

They'll have their moment Sunday at Citi Field, along with former manager Davey Johnson and former general manager Frank Cashen.

Those who are old enough to remember the 1980s Mets will remember what it was like to watch those two, forever linked by tremendous potential, overwhelming expectations and unfortunate issues.

Anyone who saw the two play likely will tell a story of being both wowed and disappointed.

We know what it was like to watch them, but what was it like to play against them? We recently asked a few former major leaguers that question. Here are their stories.

• • •

Long before Randy Johnson put the fear of God into JOHN KRUK at the All-Star Game, another player scared him in a different manner.

"You didn't realize the presence of Darryl Strawberry from the outfield, until you played first base," said Kruk, an ESPN "Baseball Tonight" analyst, who played for the Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres. "He hit balls farther than anyone and harder than anyone. You were just praying that your pitcher would pitch him hard inside, or pitch him away and that he'd hit the ball the other way.

"You didn't want Darryl Strawberry hitting the ball close to you, if there was a guy on first base that you were holding on. If the ball was hit near you, it would go by you. But if he hit it at you, it could kill you.

"I would play almost in right field when he'd hit. I knew that he hit the ball so hard that I'd have plenty of time to get an out. I would always tell the second baseman that if he hits it to you, give me an extra second so I can get to the base."

Kruk had a modest amount of success against Gooden, finishing with a .264 batting average and three home runs in 53 at-bats.

"He pitched a two-hitter against us [June 23, 1990]," Kruk said. "I had both hits, but I still don't know how. I knew I could hit his fastball, but if he threw me fastballs off the plate and then threw me breaking balls, I'd look like a fool. He was a complete athlete, too. He could hit and he could run."

• • •

"It was a blur and a sound."

That's how current ESPN baseball analyst and former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher OREL HERSHISER described the experience of facing a Dwight Gooden 95 mph fastball. The only other pitcher for whom Hershiser would say that was Nolan Ryan.

[+] EnlargeDwight Gooden
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/ Getty ImagesGooden was at his most dominant in 1985, when he went 24-4 at age 20.

"He was someone who was an iconic figure," Hershiser said of Gooden, "someone you were jealous of because of his ability. Even when we had his pitches, he was still hard to hit. He was hard to bunt. You didn't know if the ball would stay up towards your face or come back down. It was always quicker to show bunt and then pull off and get out of the way, rather than wait and try to go towards the ball."

"Electric," said Hershiser's former catcher, current Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who hit a famous game-tying home run against Gooden in Game 4 of the 1988 National League Championship Series. "I remember facing him when he first came up. You could see the talent was above and beyond what you would expect not only a 19-year-old kid to have, but what you would expect from a major league staff. They were all tough. He could move that fastball around. Elevate it. Pitch in. That curveball was as good as you're going to see. It was just sharp and big out of the same look as his fastball. It was nasty. If you did a pitch that was in your zone, you just hoped you were going to square it up and hit it hard. He didn't make many mistakes when he was young. He was certainly dominant when he first came up."

Hershiser and Gooden were friendly rivals. Later in Gooden's career, when injuries set in, he and Hershiser talked at length about the recovery process.

"We shared a sympathetic moment, talking about his shoulder problems and what he'd have to go through to come back," Hershiser said. "I remember we spent about 30 minutes talking, and I had a tear in my eye during the conversation."

Hershiser knew Strawberry as both a rival and a teammate, as the two played together when Strawberry signed with the Dodgers prior to the 1991 season. Strawberry hit .282 with one home run in 39 at-bats against him. The thing Hershiser recalled about Strawberry was not just his power, but his ability to battle. In their matchups, Strawberry had as many strikeouts (seven) as he did walks.

"The ball made a different sound coming off his bat," Hershiser said. "He was one of the first real batting practice hitters, who you'd stop and watch, because he'd hit balls to places you'd never see balls hit. The thing I remember is how he was very good at fouling off pitches, making you throw that one extra pitch. He had such long arms, he could reach the pitch away and the breaking ball in the dirt that most hitters couldn't reach."

• • •

It's been 23 years, but current San Francisco Giants broadcaster MIKE KRUKOW remembers the exact landing spots of the two home runs he fed to Strawberry.

"He hit one about halfway up the right-center field scoreboard at Shea, and he went opposite field on the other one."

Krukow was one of the few pitchers who totally owned Strawberry in the early part of his career. Perhaps because those touch-ups were so few, they're easier to recall.

[+] EnlargeDaryl Strawberry
AP Photo/Ron FrehmDarryl Strawberry woke up the Apple with this shot at Shea.

In their first 22 meetings, Strawberry managed just one hit and one walk. The lineage of how Krukow knew how to get Strawberry out dates back to the days of a long ago Giants Hall of Famer.

"I was having a lot of problems with a hitter on the Astros -- Jose Cruz," Krukow said. "We had a rookie who said, 'Cruz has a high leg kick. You've just gotta pitch him down and in to get him out.'

"Willie Mays was in our clubhouse at the time, and I said to Willie, 'Can you believe this rookie telling me how to pitch to Jose Cruz?' And Willie said to me, 'That's the same way they pitched to Hall of Famer Mel Ott.'

"So when I saw Strawberry, and I heard all this talk about how the Mets had a hot-shot right fielder, I noticed he had a high leg kick. So that's why I always pitched him down and in. Any time I'd go away, he'd hit a rocket.

"I liked [Strawberry and Gooden] because they were respectful of the game. They were two guys that really loved the game of baseball."

• • •

KEN DAYLEY was drafted two picks after Darryl Strawberry, by the Braves in 1980, as the No. 3 overall pick and the first pitcher taken. Even in the pre-Internet age, Strawberry had been hyped to the point that everyone knew about him.

"I knew he was a long, lanky high school kid with a lot of talent who didn't look the smoothest," Dayley said. "But I wasn't a scout. They turned out to be right about him."

Their paths would cross during a memorable meeting in St. Louis in October 1985, when Strawberry broke a scoreless 11th-inning tie with a mammoth home run off the scoreboard clock in right-center field at Busch Stadium.

"A hanging curveball that didn't work out the way I planned," remembered Dayley, who now owns a decorative finishings business in St. Louis. "The majority of the time, I was pretty successful at getting him out [Strawberry went 5-for-22 against him]. But that's the one everyone talks about. If you got behind in the count, he'd sit on the fastball and he'd be in charge of the at-bat."

As a fellow pitcher, Dayley's respect for Gooden was very high. The strength behind Gooden's pitches was captivating, even for a rival, and Dayley got a close-up look at the power behind Gooden's heat.

"When you're in spring training, you're right up there on the field and you can see everything," Dayley said. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, his ball hops all over the place.' He hit Clint Hurdle in the head, in the front of the helmet. The impact was so great it blew all the lacquer off the back of the helmet."

• • •

DOUG GLANVILLE was a Phillies fan, but growing up in Teaneck, N.J., he made plenty of trips to see the Mets play at Shea. On May 6, 1983, he and his brother went to see the debut of a young Mets right fielder. They stayed for all six plate appearances and 13 innings.

Strawberry struck out three times that day, but that wasn't what Glanville remembered.

"He hit a mammoth foul home run down the right-field line, and we were sitting in the mezzanine on the third-base side, so we had a great view of it," Glanville said. "So much power!

"Years later, I would play against him in Puerto Rico when he was making one of his many comebacks. He lasted only a brief time, mostly because he hit something like six home runs in eight games, including one which was of legend. They told me where it landed at his home stadium in San Juan, and when I walked [out] to see how far it was, it made no sense. I would have had to hit the ball three times to hit it that far."

In Glanville's recently published book, "The Game From Where I Stand," he lists all the pitchers against whom he homered and acknowledges Gooden with a significant amount of respect.

"I know I saw him pitch against the Phillies at Shea and no one could touch him," Glanville said. "I had a couple of personal moments with him. One was in his later years as he was slowly trying to regain his form, he pitched in Puerto Rico and I got a chance to face him. When I got two hits, to me, it was a clear sign that I had arrived in the big leagues. ... A hit off Doc Gooden. Years later, I would hit a home run against him when he was pitching for Houston. He wasn't the dominant pitcher of the '80s, but it was still one of the most memorable hits of my career."

• • •

Former shortstop SHAWON DUNSTON was drafted four spots ahead of Gooden in June 1982, although he knows that if a re-do was conducted 28 years later, the order probably would change.

Dunston got a single against Gooden in their first meeting, then went hitless in his next 13 at-bats against him. For his career, Dunston hit .156 with 16 strikeouts in 47 at-bats against Gooden.

"Dwight had two pitches -- no, three pitches," said Dunston, now a special assistant with the Giants. "He had a fastball, he had a curveball that fell off the table and he had a fast fastball. You had no chance against that fastball. I always talk about Dwight Gooden with young pitchers who are just coming up, even Tim Lincecum. I tell them, 'You've got nothing on Dwight Gooden.' I'd put the first three years of his career against anyone's.

"That whole Mets pitching staff made you uncomfortable. The first at-bat of a series, [Mets catcher] Gary Carter would always talk to you and ask you how you were feeling. I would always say, 'I'm not feeling well because I have to face Gooden, Cone, Darling and Ojeda.'"

Dunston and Strawberry shared the distinction of being No. 1 overall picks two years apart.

"Darryl had all five tools," Dunston said. "He was better than Barry Bonds was at a young age. What separated them was that Darryl had a really good arm early in his career. He was awesome. Dwight was awesome. I just wish they could have done more."

Both fans and rivals share that thought.

Mark Simon is a researcher for "Baseball Tonight" and a frequent contributor to ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @msimonespn or e-mail him at WebGemScoreboard@gmail.com.

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