Forty years ago, Mets executives were split over who to take with the fifth overall pick in what turned out to be a remarkable, franchise-altering 1982 draft. Some in the organization wanted Sam Horn, a high-school slugger from San Diego, while others preferred Dwight Gooden, a rocket-armed prep pitcher from Tampa.
Back then, the Mets had their spring training home in St. Petersburg, just across the bay from Tampa, so it was easy to scout Gooden and the Mets “must have had 10 people go see him,” says Joe McIlvaine, the Mets scouting director from 1981-85 and later their GM.
They got perhaps their best look at the state high school All-Star Game in Sebring, two weeks after Gooden’s high school season had finished. Other state stars were there, such as Rafael Palmeiro and Mike Greenwell, and Gooden delivered three dominant innings. “I pretty much stole the show,” Gooden says.
“He was rested and ready and, wow,” McIlvaine recalls. “He blew everyone away.”
It sealed the Mets’ decision. “Guess we made the right choice,” McIlvaine says now, chuckling.
It was the first of many that year. That year, the Mets were so successful at pegging future big leaguers in 1982 that 48% of their picks (14-of-29) eventually reached the Major Leagues. It’s the highest percentage in a single June draft in Mets history, according to data on baseball-reference.com. So far, anyway.
The Mets have reached 25% only four other times. Scouts say if you’re getting 8-10% big leaguers in your draft, you’re doing OK. “The likelihood of reaching MLB if you are drafted, through the whole history of the draft (since 1965), is 13.9%,” says Allan Simpson, the founder of Baseball America, the publication that emphasized draft coverage.
Not all of those 14 picks in ‘82 reached the Majors with the Mets — they took Palmeiro in the eighth round, for instance, but he didn’t sign.
But that draft is one of the most important in Mets’ history, bringing key ‘80s cogs to the Mets — Gooden, Roger McDowell (third round) and Barry Lyons (15th). Their second-round pick, Floyd Youmans, was a vital piece of the Gary Carter trade, which many believe was the finishing flourish for the Mets’ club that won the 1986 World Series.
If the Mets do nearly as well in this year’s MLB Draft, which begins Sunday in Los Angeles, well, look out National League. There certainly is potential for impact, especially near the top, where the Mets pick 11th and 14th in the first round and have two more picks in the second round.
It’ll all be done with fanfare —television coverage, in-person interviews and social media alerts — that did not exist in 1982. In that long-gone era, Gooden and two other Tampa-area prep stars and likely high picks, Rich Monteleone and Lance McCullers Sr., accepted an invitation to follow their baseball fates via newspaper ticker from Tom McEwen of the Tampa Tribune.
“I was supposed to go third out of the three of us,” says Gooden, who had also signed a letter of intent to play at the University of Miami. He was the first of the trio drafted. “We’re watching and we see [Shawon] Dunston go first overall and, a little while later, the Mets picked me. I had Tom McEwen call New York to make sure it was right.
“I was so excited that I couldn’t even drive,” Gooden adds. “My high-school catcher [Eddie Ganzy] had come with me and he had to drive my dad’s car back to my house. When we got there, there was so much media waiting outside, it was like making the big leagues. All the neighbors were watching. They had no idea what was going on.”
At the time, Simpson says, there was some industry surprise that Gooden had been taken that high. “He was known and there was acknowledgment that he’d get into the first round, but that was viewed as an overdraft,” Simpson says.
Gooden eventually signed for an $85,000 bonus, but not before Gooden briefly thought his pro dream was dead. Negotiations stalled and McIlvaine shook Gooden’s hand and said, “Well, sorry we couldn’t get anything done. Good luck in school.”
“I remember my mom blasting my dad and my dad said, ‘He’ll be back,’” Gooden says. “About three days later, my dad said Joe called and we had a deal.”
Gooden, of course, became a phenomenon.
In 1983, his first full pro season, the 18-year-old Gooden struck out 300 batters at Class A Lynchburg. A year later, he was the NL Rookie of the Year. A year after that, he won the 1985 NL Cy Young Award with one of the greatest seasons in pitching history.
Youmans had been Gooden’s teammate at Hillsborough High School until senior year, when Youmans moved to California. When Gooden was a junior, Youmans got in trouble with the high school coach, Gooden says, and Gooden got his rotation spot.
The Mets took him 33rd overall and gave him $62,500 to sign, the highest bonus in the second round, Simpson says.
“His stuff was crazy,” Lyons says of Youmans.
That’s why the Expos wanted Youmans in the Carter deal, along with the already-established Hubie Brooks, a catcher to replace Carter in Mike Fitzgerald and outfield prospect Herm Winningham. “When you can get Gary Carter, there isn’t much you hold back,” McIlvaine says. “All four of those guys played in the big leagues. But Gary Carter helped us win the World Series. That’s what you’re in business for.”
Before the draft, McDowell, a pitcher at Bowling Green, only had contact with the Mets and the Phillies. He had thrown for legendary Philly scout Tony Lucadello, known for signing Fergie Jenkins and Mike Schmidt, and talked to Bob Wellman, the Mets scout who handled the Ohio area. Wellman’s recommendation cinched the Mets’ choice.
“Bob said he’d be a good pitcher and I went with Bob,” McIlvaine says. Bob was right — McDowell became a crucial Mets reliever. He signed for $32,500 and went to Shelby, North Carolina, to the Mets’ franchise in the South Atlantic League. He recalls that nails hammered into two-by-fours stripped across the clubhouse wall served as hangers. The only furniture was old wooden benches. Spare? Yes. Beautiful, too.
“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” McDowell says. “This was pro ball, what I wanted to do my whole life.”
He initially slept on a cot in an elderly woman’s house for $5 a week, but became roommates with Lenny Dykstra and John Gibbons after another pitcher, known as “The Creature” — McDowell cannot remember his name — got clobbered in a game and moved out in the middle of the night. Moving in with Dykstra meant that McDowell got lifts to the ballpark in Dykstra’s Porsche Boxster.
“It was the only vehicle we had,” McDowell says. “As the new guy, I got the back. I didn’t get to sit so much as lie down back there.”
Speaking of cars, Gooden made an impression with one when he showed up to Instructional League after the ‘82 season driving a new, tricked-out Trans Am. Both Lyons and McDowell were wowed. “That’s what No. 1 picks do,” McDowell says.
Lyons, a bat-first catcher who played for the Mets from 1986-90 among his seven years in the big leagues, got $500 extra to sign from McIlvaine after telling him he had one final semester of college at Delta State to finish. After agreeing over the phone, Lyons began his drive to Shelby and, along the way, met the scout who noticed him at a fast-food joint off the interstate to sign his contract, which came with a $1,500 bonus.
Eight picks from that Mets draft played at least 253 games in the Majors — Palmeiro (2,831), Gerald Young (640), McDowell (620), Tracy Jones (493), Greg Olson (414), Doug Henry (348), Gooden (318) and Lyons (253).
Palmeiro, then an outfielder from Jackson High in Miami, was plucked in the eighth round, but he really wanted to go to college, McIlvaine says, and Palmeiro and the Mets disagreed on the price to keep him from his commitment to join Will Clark at Mississippi State. In 1985, the Cubs drafted him 22nd overall and he hit 569 career homers.
“We took a chance and why not? It just didn’t work. That happens,” McIlvaine says.
Still, the ‘82 draft remains a whopper amid a string of strong drafts for the Mets. In 1980, they took Darryl Strawberry first overall. Dykstra was a 13th-round pick in 1981. From 1980-84, here are the percentage of Mets draftees who played in MLB: 20%, 21%, 48%, 25% and 17%.
Horn, the other player the Mets considered with their first pick, went 16th to Boston and hit 62 home runs over an eight-year career with four clubs.
“The success of ‘86 is directly attributable to the brilliant drafting they did in the early ‘80s,” Simpson says. “Joe is one of the great scouting directors, ever.”
From 1984-90, the Mets had a .588 winning percentage, won 100 or more games twice and at least 90 four other times. Drafting and development were a part of why. Gooden noted several times during an interview how vital the development wing of the organization was, as well as the club’s scouts, and McDowell talked up how winning teams in the minors helped brew winners for the big club.
“I just wish we could’ve won more than one World Series,” McIlvaine says. “We had the talent to really win for a couple years.”