John Darnielle released his 17th studio album under his Mountain Goats moniker on Friday — In League With Dragons — and it comes with a theme: a pseudo rock opera inspired by Dungeons & Dragons. When I heard it described like that in the weeks leading up to its release, I wasn’t sure the songs would resonate with me. But it’s not all “dragon noir.” The headline on the Rolling Stone review paints a broader — and more accurate — picture: “Mountain Goats Conjure Sad Wizards and Other Fading Heroes on ‘In League With Dragons.'”
The “Other Fading Heroes” aspect is most apparent on the album’s seventh track: “Doc Gooden.” Darnielle, who grew up a Cubs fan in California, did his homework, putting himself in Dwight Gooden‘s spikes during his final season, 2000. The first two verses have Gooden contemplating his career before a road game:
Wheels down in Seattle
Three years ago, in this town
They sent their best and brightest to me
I sent them all back down
Deluxe coach to the ballpark
There’s champagne on the snack trays
Summon up the spirit of a brighter time
Looked bad last week against the Blue Jays
Pitching for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at the time, Gooden gave up four runs on five hits in 2 1/3 innings against Toronto on May 13, 2000. Six days later, he started in Seattle, allowing the Mariners four runs on 10 hits in five innings. Another five days after that, the A’s tagged him for seven runs (three earned) in four innings at Tropicana Field. The Devil Rays released him the next day, and he signed back on with the Yankees for what would be the final 18 starts of his career (though with a respectable 3.36 ERA, something of a reverse of the 6.63 ERA he put up in eight starts with Tampa Bay).
In a press release announcing the album back in January, Darnielle explained how it developed:
This album began life as a rock opera about a besieged seaside community called Riversend ruled by a benevolent wizard, for which some five to seven songs were written. … [A]s I thought about my wizard, his health failing, the invasion by sea almost certain to wipe out half his people, I thought about what such a person might look like in the real world: watching a country show at a midwestern casino, or tryout pitching for an American League team years after having lit up the marquees.
The chorus has Gooden looking back on those Doctor K days:
When my name was everywhere
None of you were there
When my name was everywhere
That’s a bit of poetic license, because as any Mets fan from the 1980s will tell you, Gooden’s starts at Shea Stadium — at least until his drug addiction started derailing his career — were marquee events. But aside from isolated starts here and there, the Gooden of the ’90s was not the Doctor K phenomenon of his first few seasons in the Major Leagues.
The third verse pulls out the metaphors:
Potholes in the parking lot
You feel the jolts a little harder every year
The bat boy hands out yellow stickers
It never stops raining out here
Old wizards and old athletes are the same: they were once magic and they were everyone’s hero and they could do anything. […] But they sacrifice their entire bodies to what they do – so do wizards. There are actually three real-world ex-wizards on the record: Doc Gooden, Ozzy Osbourne – who’s my personal totemic wizard – and then there’s the guy on “Waylon Jennings Live!”
When he gets to the bridge, Darnielle pulls out what may be only the second use of the term “speedball” in a pop song, after Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days”:
When the speedball would squeal
With the highlight reel
When the headline hype
Was on the front page in extra-large type
It was me, for all the world to see
This may be a direct reference to Gooden’s no-hitter in 1996 — against the Mariners — which could also be the game alluded to in the opening verse: “Three years ago, in this town/They sent their best and brightest to me/I sent them all back down.” Again, Darnielle could be using poetic license here, because if the song is from Gooden’s perspective in 2000, the no-hitter would’ve been four years earlier, and in New York rather than Washington.
Darnielle closes out the song with a nod to LL Cool J:
Don’t call it a comeback
I’ve been here for years
Maximum respect to all the warriors
Who choose to fall down on their spears
The final stretch of Gooden’s career with the Yankees would fit this narrative. The 144 ERA+ he put up in those 18 starts was second only to the full-season 229 he posted in his 1985 NL Cy Young campaign — though his 4.3 K/9, 4.77 FIP and 1.35 WHIP suggest that the ERA+ may be a bit misleading.
Watching a young Doctor K mow down NL batters — 744 strikeouts in his first three seasons! — was like watching a wizard at work, but even wizards have to retire someday.