Dwight Gooden

December 28, 2010

Heaven, the idea of it, creeped me out when I began to really think about it for the first time, which was when I was about the age of the player pictured here. I had recently finished college and was working as a truck loader on the overnight shift in the UPS warehouse in Hell’s Kitchen, and during my ten-minute break every day I read Dante’s Divine Comedy, the third part of which, Paradiso, seemed to me to depict heaven as much more static and frozen than the roiling lower realms. You just kind of hung there forever in bright light, free of suffering and sin but with nothing to do and nowhere to go. A celestial meat locker. Better if heaven were a place where we might be capable of inhabiting our most graceful selves. Beyond disappointment and wanting and blundering and wandering, of losing and getting and losing again, we come back to some moment beyond and before results, when it was all beginning.

The year is just about done, but I want to write about one more card before saying goodbye to 2010. My desk is a mess, like my mind. Most prominent is a pile of baseball cards, all new to me. My wife’s aunt gave them to me a couple of days ago, for Christmas, in a big ziplock bag, and I spent parts of the rest of the day leafing through them with curiosity and hope and excitement. Near the pile of cards on my desk is a smaller pile of bills to pay, and next to that pile is a stack of things I have to get to at some point, or throw away, or file. From all the clutter I’ve pulled free this Dwight Gooden card from 1988, hoping for it to inspire something pure.

I don’t know if “pure” is ever possible. Everything is tangled up with everything else, at least a little. But I like dwelling on the idea of a moment when something is just beginning. This card captures that, a 22-year-old phenom lightly rocking back on his left foot to start his windup, which for a little while seemed like just about the purest physical act a human could ever be capable of: balanced, focused, without the slightest tremor of wasted motion or anxiety or doubt.

My UPS loader shift ended in the morning, and I’d leave the building with my clothes and hands and face covered in a thin film of dark gray dust from handling packages all night, and the sun had just come up, and I started my 40-block walk home through the city that Dwight Gooden briefly but toweringly ruled. It was 1990, so his reign was ending. Nobody rules anyway. Once in a while during my walk home, building the relief of quitting time and my exhaustion and the bright morning light into a faint, shaky euphoria, I’d stop worrying about my life and revel just a little in being a 22-year-old dipshit shambling home, where I planned to conk myself unconscious with a couple of beers and sleep all day. I liked to read the box scores as I drank my morning knockout beer. On the mornings after Doc Gooden had pitched, I’m sure I scrutinized the Mets box score for signs of a miraculous return to grace.


  1. I saw Dwight Gooden and, when I saw you were writing about heaven, I thought he was dead. Then I was surprised by how unsurprised I was about that.

  2. I hope you were still scanning the box scores for purity on 5/15/96!

  3. For a minute, I thought he had died, too. And I had a similar reaction…

    But my real question is, Josh, was that huge mural of Doc within sight of your 40-block walk home every morning?

  4. I know I saw the mural but I can’t remember if I saw it while I was walking home (which I think would have been possible, depending on how I zigged and zagged from Hell’s Kitchen down to the East Village).

  5. Here is a link to a pic of that mural on the side of the former Holland Hotel, in NYC. If you didn’t get to see it in person- It was quite the looming presence in Times Square, 102 feet tall. A picture can only tell part of the story. The “feel” of that huge mural- the sense of immortality it seemed to convey- to have that crumble in front of us… what would happen to us if that could happen to him…..


    Interesting picture too of Gooden, Strawberry and Mike Tyson(the boxer, not the Cubs and Cards infielder) circa 1986.

    None of us could have predicted their futures or hardships. Life is a fragile journey- as the saying goes, youth is wasted on the young.

  6. I was inspired to write about this exact same card a while back:


  7. Wow ! Two of my favorites in the same post: Dante & Doctor K.
    Did you read the Divine Comedy in the original italian or the english transaction ?
    It’s a great reading, I still remember myself on a hot july night with the Inferno in my hands, reading nervously on the stands, among 80.000 people waiting for a big Bob Marley concert to start here in Milan at the San Siro stadium. It was 1980 and, in a few days, I had my final high school year examination (maturity exam is called here in Italy).
    Last week I spent 4 days with my family in Florence to relax ad wander through the Dante’s sites, stunning as usual. I particularly love the small church where Dante first saw and fall in love with Beatrice…
    Back to a more prosaic mode, I clearly remember the summer of 1985; I was in New Jersey and I had the chance to see many of Dwight Gooden’s starts…that year he was untouchable, I was in awe of him and the Straw-man. In 1987 I remember exactly where I was with the USA Today in my hands reading that he tested positive for cocaine, the world just fell on my head. One of the greatest could-have-beens (that always happen to be among my favorites…)

  8. oops, I forgot to say that in Florence I brought the book “Cardboard Gods” with me…almost finished…Dante and Josh Wilker, nice combo 🙂

  9. It was an English translation–my knowledge of Italian is restricted to the Americanized pronunciation of various Italian foodstuffs and a phrase meaning “go [have intercourse with] yourself.” John Ciardi was the translator of the version I read lo these many years ago. I think Robert Pinsky also did a version more recently, but I haven’t read it.

  10. Love your blog Josh. It reminds me of a book I read back in the 70’s. The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book. I love the irreverence and have great respect for your writing. I still work the overnight at UPS, this gives me greater respect. It takes a special person to lift 10 tons of boxes in 3 hours.

  11. That book’s a favorite of mine, too. I had the fun of being able to include a reference to it (and to Sibby Sisti) on the very last page of my book.

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