The Mets’ Five Greatest Pitchers
Tom Seaver (1967-77, 1983)
After the Mets suffered through five years of atrocious yet loveably adored losing, the right-handed Seaver arrived on the scene in 1967 and immediately let it be known that he would be a new kind of Met who didn’t find defeat “particularly amusing.” With his Rookie of the Year performance, he set the pace for a decade of outstanding pitching in New York that also included Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack and, briefly, a young Nolan Ryan.
The Mets landed Seaver in New York serendipitously. The Fresno, California native originally inked with the Atlanta Braves, but the deal was voided by the commissioner’s office because he had yet to finish his college career at USC. The Mets matched the Braves’ $40,000 offer, as did Cleveland and Philadelphia, but won the rights to Seaver when their name was literally picked out of a hat in a lottery-like drawing.
Seaver’s impact was immediate. He won 16 games in each of his first two years, then towered to big-time heights in 1969 with a Cy Young Award-winning performance in which he won 25 games, including a 10-0 mark and 1.34 earned run average down the stretch; he then threw a ten-inning gem in Game Four of the World Series to elevate the Mets to their famous “miracle” championship.
In his next eight years at New York, Seaver would easily live up to his nickname of Tom Terrific with two more Cy Young awards (in 1973 and 1975) and three National League ERA crowns (including a career-best 1.76 figure in 1971); he would also pace the league five times in strikeouts and win 20-plus games three more times—a figure which certainly would have increased had he not been saddled with an anemic offense during his time in New York. Seaver never threw a no-hitter for the Mets, but did toss five one-hitters; perhaps his most dominant effort with the Mets came on April 22, 1970, when he tied a then-NL record with 19 strikeouts against San Diego—striking out the final ten Padres to set a major league mark that still stands.
Seaver’s tenure in New York came to a bitter end when his calls for Mets owner M. Donald Grant to start spending on free agents was publicly assailed by Grant’s friend in the Gotham press, the New York Daily News’ Dick Young. Seaver was infuriated by Young’s repeated attacks on him by proxy and asked for a trade; he got it, getting shipped to Cincinnati. Mets fans were so infuriated by the move that Grant needed a bodyguard to help him move about Shea Stadium for the rest of the year.
With the Reds, Seaver remained stellar for five years until injuries and age began to finally catch up to him. He received a triumphant welcome back to New York in 1983 when the Mets (under new ownership) brought him back from the Reds. His second tenure lasted only one year (9-15, 3.55 ERA) and finished under mysterious circumstances, as he was “accidentally” left unprotected for the Chicago White Sox to grab him in completing an earlier trade with the Mets. The team claimed it was devastated by the error, while others suspected there was nothing accidental about it. Seaver would go on to win 31 games over the next two years for the White Sox.
A 12-time all-star, Seaver is the Mets’ all-time leader in wins (198), ERA (2.57), complete games (171), shutouts (44) and strikeouts (2,541). His popularity was confirmed when, in 1992, he entered the Hall of Fame with, at the time, the highest-ever percentage of votes at 98.84%; Dick Young, who died five years earlier, could not cast a vote.
Dwight Gooden (1984-94)
Like Darryl Strawberry, his teammate of seven years with the Mets, the right-handed Gooden is a near-tragic case study of greatness lost. Few major leaguers blasted to immediate stardom as impressively as Gooden—and even fewer fell as hard.
Nicknamed both Doc and Dr. K, Gooden earned the 1984 NL Rookie of the Year award at age 19 with a 17-9 record, 2.60 ERA and a rookie record 276 strikeouts—but that was mere prologue for his astounding effort a year later, when he delivered an unbelievable 24-4 mark and 1.53 ERA that’s the lowest recorded in baseball since 1968. It didn’t matter that his fielding skills were poor and the few opponents who reached base were given carte blanche to steal off him; combining a fastball with great movement and a sweeping curve, Gooden was a slam-dunk choice as the youngest recipient of the NL Cy Young Award. He was so good, oddsmakers in Las Vegas refused to place lines on games he started. Some were already penciling him for Cooperstown.
Gooden’s immortal edge wore off after 1985, yet he remained one of the best pitchers in the game; after his first eight seasons, he had built up a 132-53 record. But the dark side was slowly starting to take hold of Gooden’s game—and his life. He started encountering drug problems as early as 1986, admitting years later that he watched the Mets’ championship parade on TV while drugged out at a crack dealer’s apartment; checked into the Betty Ford Clinic in 1994 to battle problems with alcohol; and when he turned to cocaine shortly thereafter, was suspended for the entire 1995 season. The Mets wanted nothing more to do with Gooden and let him go; he followed Strawberry across town to the Yankees, who turned him into a sentimental reclamation project. He responded by generating one shining moment in 1996 with his only career no-hitter; otherwise, he was a deceiving 11-7 with a more telling 5.01 ERA. After further degrading, Gooden bounced around with numerous teams, finally calling it quits in 2000.
In retirement, Gooden continued to be an active presence on police blotters, with arrests for DUI to battery on a girlfriend. In 2010, he fled the scene of an auto accident under the influence of drugs—leaving behind a child passenger in his back seat. And as for that early sure ticket to Cooperstown? Gooden attracted only 3% of the vote on his first ballot, short of the 5% needed to stay eligible for future votes.
Jerry Koosman (1967-78)
Following on the heels of Seaver, the left-handed Koosman set a then-rookie record with seven shutouts in 1968, winning 19 games overall with a sterling 2.08 ERA and finishing just one vote shy of making it two straight Rookie of the Year trophies for Mets pitchers (Johnny Bench took the honor instead).
Koosman was every bit as terrific as Seaver in his first few years, and even though he wasn’t able to sustain the brilliance of his future Hall-of-Fame teammate, he remained a worthy, occasionally outstanding component of the Mets’ rotation.
Using a solid fastball to go with a sharp breaking curve, Koosman saved some of his best stuff for the postseason. In the Mets’ 1969 World Series triumph, he won both of his starts against Baltimore—no-hitting the Orioles through six innings in Game Two. In New York’s improbable 1973 run to the World Series, he was 2-0 in three playoff starts with a 2.55 ERA.
After posting a 21-10 record in 1976 (his only 20-win effort in a Mets uniform), Koosman collapsed to 11-35 over the next two seasons—despite a respectable 3.62 ERA—and was shipped off to Minnesota, where he won 20 games for the Twins. His career wavered over his final six years, with up-and-down successes for the Twins, White Sox and Phillies.
Jon Matlack (1971-77)
In the year the Mets lost what they never realized they had—dealing Nolan Ryan to California—Matlack came along and eased the pain, winning his first six decisions of the year and becoming the second Mets pitcher (after Seaver) to win Rookie of the Year honors.
Matlack’s 82-81 record in seven years with the Mets was more indicative of poor run support than common .500 output. He had a career 3.03 ERA in New York, twice led the NL in shutouts and was named to three All-Star Games—being named the MVP of the 1975 Mid-Summer Classic by earning the win and throwing two dominant innings. In the 1973 postseason, he pitched 23 straight scoreless innings before finally caving to eventual champion Oakland in the decisive game of the World Series.
A pitcher with good control who, like Koosman, never could take that last step to greatness on the mound, Matlack was traded to Texas as part of a complicated four-team deal following the Mets’ disastrous 1977 campaign.
David Cone (1987-92, 2003)
One of the more curious characters to take the mound in New York, Cone was an interesting mix of talent and turbulence who often found himself in the middle of controversy. His temper famously got the best him during a 1988 game in which he disputed a call at first base while holding the ball, without calling time—unknowingly allowing two baserunners to score. While he was striking out 19 batters to tie a NL record (since broken) in the last game of the 1991 season at Philadelphia, he was being investigated for an alleged charge of rape (which was never proven). And the following year at spring training, news came to light that Cone back in 1989 gratified himself in front of two women in the Shea Stadium bullpen restroom.
Nevertheless, Cone endeared himself to Mets fans who took to wearing “Coneheads” in the stands. He rarely disappointed on the mound—especially in his breakout 1988 campaign when he finished 20-3 with a 2.22 ERA. He would lead the NL in strikeouts in back-to-back seasons (1990-91) and would finish his first New York tenure with an 80-48 mark. After winning his only Cy Young Award in 1994 for Kansas City (where he began his major league career in 1986), he became yet another ex-Mets star to populate the roster of the Yankees of the 1990s with, as with Strawberry and Gooden, extreme highs and lows—with the highs recounted in a 20-7 record in 1998 and a perfect game thrown at Yankee Stadium in 1999.
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