This spring in Florida, they are the Golden Arms, the Multi-Media Millionaires, the Aces. They're Dwight Gooden, Bret Saberhagen and John Tudor: the three best pitchers in baseball.
They should have nightmares. In fact, they should be scared to death. Their careers, their wealth and their happiness may be in immediate danger.
If they don't think so (and they surely do not), they should contact Mark Fidrych, J.R. Richard, Vida Blue, Randy Jones, Frank Tanana, John Candelaria, Mike Norris, Steve Stone, LaMarr Hoyt, Mike Flanagan, Bert Blyleven, Pete Vuckovich, John Denny, Mike Boddicker or Rick Sutcliffe.
These are just some of the pitchers who, in the last decade, have come to spring training in the same situation as Gooden, Saberhagen and Tudor: as one of the game's three most celebrated starting pitchers at that moment.
Since 1976, they all either 1) won the Cy Young Award, 2) were the ace and postseason hero of a pennant winner or 3) set such incredible statistical marks at such a young age that the Hall of Fame looked like a logical expectation.
Or all three.
What happened to every one of them? They met baseball catastrophe. And, in every case, their downfall began instantly -- in the next season.
For the lucky ones, that only meant a slump or the lingering regret of unfulfilled promise.
But for more than half of the aces of the last decade, it's taken the form of a career-ending injury, a plunge to mediocrity or severe drug and alcohol abuse.
Their collapses have been so brutal we almost seem to deny how great these pitchers once were. Richard struck out 313 men in a season and was finished the next. At age 21, Blue struck out 301 and Tanana 269; Fidrych had 24 complete games. All of them looked nearly as good as Gooden.
Pitchers always have been fragile of arm and psyche. But, in the free agent era of big money, big pressure, big media and big temptation, the tendency toward an Icarus syndrome has risen radically. Get too close to the sun of total success and you burn.
Lest Gooden, Saberhagen and Tudor scoff, they should be warned that they all have shown symptoms of this trend. As Mets General Manager Frank Cashen says: "We don't have pitching stars anymore. They're more like meteors." Looking at Gooden's offseason, when he missed appointments or was hours late, Cashen says: "Those are bad signs . . . He has incredible talent. But other people have had incredible talent, too -- yeah, like his -- and . . ."
And blown it.
Our horror tales take five shapes. Causes of demise: playing hurt, freak injury, overwork, too much fame and distraction, drug or alcohol abuse.
*1976: Maybe it started with The Bird. Fidrych, 21, led the majors in ERA (2.34) and complete games (24) while winning 19. Next spring, injured. Three premature comebacks later, finished. Won 10 games the rest of his career. In the National League, Jones won the Cy Young (22 wins, 314 innings). Can't hurt your arm throwing that slop, the Padres thought. After 600 innings and 42 wins in '75-'76, Jones' arm went dead in '77 (6-12). Finished as a winner at age 27.
*1977: The Candy Man and The Top Tanana. At 23, the 6-foot-7 Candelaria led the majors in ERA (2.34) and went 20-5. What wouldn't he achieve? Too much fame got him. Only one 15-win season since. Tanana was sadder. At 20, 269 innings. At 22, 23 complete games. After leading the American League in ERA and shutouts in '77, he started slipping. By 25, arm shot, he was a journeyman. At 6-2, 185 pounds, he had Gooden-like physique, repertoire and control.
*1979: J.R. Richard, 6-8, indestructible, struck out 313. Next year, a stroke. Career over. (Last summer he was named in the Pittsburgh trial as a cocaine user during this period). Mike Flanagan, the AL Cy Young winner, won 23, was nicknamed Iron Mike and looked like a 250-game winner; too tough for his own good, he pitched hurt during 157 consecutive turns without missing a start. Hasn't won 17 since.
*1980: Steve Stone won 25 games; next summer, retired. Too many curves trying to win a pennant. His arm resigned its commission. Norris won 22, threw a screwball and was one, too. In a dead heat, his arm and private life soured. Now awaiting a drug trial.
*1981: Remember Steve McCatty? Led AL in wins and ERA. Big guy. Couldn't hurt him with a bazooka. Billy Martinized by too many complete games.
*1982: Vuckovich -- the Cy Young winner -- pitched hurt in the pennant race; won zero the next two years.
*1983: Hoyt won 24 and the Cy Young, was 13-18 in '84 and just got out of a rehab clinic this week for substance dependency. Denny, a late-career "Eureka!" guy (like Tudor), has had arm problems and was traded last winter.
*1984: Sutcliffe was 16-1 for Cubs. Next season: injured and 8-8 because of premature returns. This month, disabled on his first pitch of the spring season. The best AL starter, Boddicker, the ERA and wins (20) champ, slumped to 12-17 last season. Probably too many innings and curves for a fragile build.
Could it be Jim Palmer was smart to nurse injuries, and Tom Seaver to insist on four days' rest and never have a 300-inning season?
Perhaps Gaylord Perry wasn't unlucky to play in obscurity or Steve Carlton to build a cocoon of silence. Was it a break Don Sutton won 20 only once and always played second-banana? Perhaps Phil Niekro was lucky he never had one great arm-wrenching pitch and had to learn the knuckleball.
Maybe Gooden, Saberhagen and Tudor should be more wary.
In St. Petersburg, Fla., last week, Gooden was working on his new changeup. "After three years of practice, I can get it over for strikes every time," he glowed, dreaming of a record better than 24-4 and an ERA lower than 1.53.
After one of the 10 best statistical seasons in the 116-year history of baseball, Gooden wants to get better. Admirable. But nobody could hit "Sudden Sam" McDowell (better at 22 than ever again) until vanity prompted him to learn a change. Hitters prayed for it.
What drives the Mets crazy is Gooden's glut of endorsements. When you pay a 21-year-old $1.32 million, you figure he should be home getting his sleep.
Gooden endorses Diet Pepsi, Nike, Toys 'R' Us, Spalding gloves, Kellogg's Corn Flakes and Polaroid. So far. Gooden's also collaborated on two biographies, appeared in a Bruce Springsteen video of "Glory Days" and applied to copyright his nickname, Dr. K.
Agent Jim Neader thinks Gooden can double his income with deals. "It's a nice feeling to see your name on a lot of things you always dreamed of," Gooden said. You can find Gooden at autograph-signing sessions ($5,000 for two hours). In radio and TV promos. Every reporter on earth wants interviews.
"Some people call it 'The Marketing of Dr. K.' " said a senior Mets official. "But you might also call it, 'The Exploiting of Dwight Gooden.' "
"It's our duty to protect Gooden," said Cashen. "It's been written in blood -- our blood, because we've been crucified for it -- that he will only give interviews on the day after he pitches."
So, wander into the Mets clubhouse and what is Gooden doing on the day before he's due to pitch? He's giving a radio interview. For 20 minutes the young pitcher seems unequipped to break away until, finally, practice begins.
The previous day, Gooden showed up three hours late to shoot a commercial. "He's a young man who's so nice that he cannot bring himself to say no to anybody," said the exasperated Cashen. "Finally, his plate gets so full, that he just has to have time for himself and he misses an appointment . . . Those are bad signs."
Gooden even missed the Man of the Year banquet in his honor in his hometown of Tampa, Fla.
"Dwight has worked harder this year than either of his other two springs," said Manager Dave Johnson. ". . . But it's true that you can crowd your mind to the point where you sour yourself. He doesn't seem to have much 'relax time.' "
Of his obligations, Gooden says he's now at his acceptable limit and is, basically, having a ball.
Cashen runs his hands through his gray hair. "He's such a good kid, so unspoiled, yet . . . But it's just a smorgasbord of vices and temptations waiting outside every clubhouse for these kids. You almost have to be superhuman to resist."
Ironically, other ballplayers see Gooden as the player who has been immune to distractions while Saberhagen has taken naturally to superstardom.
"Dwight is similar to me, a private person," said Tudor. "He's protected from the press. I've been jealous of that. He's done a great job of handling himself. I've never seen him talk trash about another player in the papers.
"Saberhagen seems to be much more open than we are. That really helped him in the World Series. It seemed like he took everything in stride. That's why he's a 'media darling' now."
When you win 20 games at the age of 21, as Saberhagen did, then top it off by being most valuable player of the World Series (including a seventh-game shutout), people tend to get curious about you. Especially when you do it while your wife is past due with your first child. From fatherhood to a visit to the White House to a world championship ring to a $925,000 contract, Saberhagen had a lifetime's worth of experiences in a matter of days.
Oddly, he hardly seems to notice it. Is he abnormally mature or just young and oblivious? The notion that staying on top might be tough sledding doesn't seem to register with him. "I'm just going to do everything the same as last year," he said last week. "Take it one step at a time. Can't do too much too fast. I just have a feeling of confidence. Every time you go out there you have to think you're going to win or you won't . . . If I give the best Bret Saberhagen can give, then I'll be happy with it."
Counting postseason, Saberhagen pitched 265 innings in '85 -- about 100 more than his previous high. Has that already taken a toll on the slim, 6-1, 160-pound right-hander? And how many innings will he work from now on?
Saberhagen's great good luck may be that he does not play in media-mad New York. Even the Royals training camp in Fort Myers, Fla., is remote. "I think that once you start considering baseball a job, it's no longer fun and you don't do nearly as well," he said. "I don't know too many ballplayers who consider this a job."
Then Saberhagen obviously doesn't know Tudor, a man for whom the role of celebrity is as welcome as a dental appointment. Some might say that Tudor's fall from grace already has begun. After finishing the '85 regular season on a 20-1 streak, then winning once more in both the playoffs and World Series, Tudor completed his season in disarray.
Weeks of prickling relations with the press culminated in a Series scene where Tudor invited a reporter to slug it out. Then, in the biggest game of his life -- the seventh -- he suffered his earliest knockout of the year. In frustration, he punched an electric fan, slashed his pitching hand and ended up in the hospital for stitches. A week later, Tudor publicly apologized.
To make matters worse, Tudor's St. Louis Cardinals traded Joaquin Andujar over the winter, placing the responsibilities of staff ace on Tudor's shoulders for the first time.
Oddly, Tudor may have been fortunate to see his luck go bad before the offseason. He's had a winter to think, cope and plan for the future.
"I try not to worry about it, but it's still painful. People are still taking shots at me," he said of the nationwide bad press he received. "I can't worry about it, but that's not sayin' I like it."
Unlike Gooden and Saberhagen, Tudor refuses to think of himself as a great pitcher. "I don't consider myself a big star. What I did was a reflection of what the ballclub did. It helps you stay on top to think that way. If I can't throw strikes and let Ozzie [Smith] and Willie [McGee] catch 'em, then I'm beating myself.
"I may never get to that point again," he said of his 22-1 streak. "My control was as good as it's ever been and it just stayed there. Even when I got out of rhythm at the end of one start, I fell right back into it in the next start. The streak just kept going; then, when you figured it was time for it to stop, it just didn't."
If experience is a teacher, Tudor has it. If Gooden or Saberhagen fail, it will be a new trauma. It's old stuff to the twice-traded, 32-year-old Tudor. "When you lose two or three in a row, you doubt yourself. It compounds on you. You just have to hang on until you win, even if it's by luck, then it starts turning around . . .
"Last season was something you'll remember forever. Lotta fun, great team. But the seventh game is the one I'll remember the most," said Tudor on a rainy day in St. Petersburg. "It was the last game, so it's with you all winter. And it was so disastrous in many respects. You can have scars all over your body, but the one you feel is the fresh wound . . .
"I don't think there'll be any lasting damage. I always knew I could be beat. And I've gotten mad 100 times before and taken a swing at something. I just didn't get a solid hit before. If you can't get mad, you're not giving everything you've got . . . Just so long as you don't quit on yourself, you can look in the mirror. But if you do [quit], the mirror can look bad."
What Tudor, Saberhagen and Gooden face is a contemporary exacerbation of the pitcher's traditionally precarious lifestyle.
*More money can mean more chances to play with dangerous, expensive drugs.
*More media exposure means an exhausting succession of interview demands.
*A multi-million-buck contract means you need an agent to negotiate. However, that agent, who may make 10 percent off your contract, will probably get 25 percent of any big endorsement contract he lands. So, unless he's a saint, he may see you as the horse he can ride hard to his own millions.
*Teams that spend big need to win big to stay in the black. So, there's more pressure than ever to pitch hurt and pitch often. Teams think: "Use him up now while you've got him."
*Big contracts make some players feel more responsible to their team and town. They end up millionaire martyrs.
*And, finally, pitching remains what it has always been -- the single most unnatural, injury-prone act in all of American sports. In the dugouts they say: "Your career just hangs by your cords."
For decades we've heard the graybeards of sport say: "The hardest thing isn't getting to the top. It's staying there."
Who dreamed that the hardest task could become so much harder?