• Sal Maiorana

Dwight Gooden recaptured his former greatness and no-hit the Mariners

NEW YORK (May 14, 1996) – There was a time in the middle of the 1980s when Dwight Gooden looked like he was going to become one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball.

He came up to the New York Mets in 1984 from Class A Lynchburg in the Carolina League straight to Shea Stadium and the National League, skipping Double-A and Triple-A altogether because there simply was no need to waste time there.

And as soon as the 19-year-old flame-throwing phenom took the mound in Queens, his otherworldly talent captivated a baseball city that was once the private domain of the guys from the Bronx.

Seventeen wins and the NL rookie of the year award in 1984 when he became the youngest player ever picked to play in an All-Star Game.

Twenty-four wins, a 1.53 ERA, a second straight season leading the league in strikeouts, and a Cy Young Award in 1985.

And then in 1986 there were 17 more wins, a 2.84 ERA, a third straight All-Star appearance, and most important, the second Mets’ World Series championship in their star-crossed history.

Gooden was a comet flashing across the sky, bold and brilliant, someone you couldn’t take your eyes off when he was on the mound. But it was away from the ballpark where the genesis of his derailment began, a promising career short-circuited by his addiction to alcohol and cocaine that eventually detoured what seemed like a pre-ordained path to Cooperstown.

“I have no regrets on the baseball field,” Gooden said many years later, a statement meant to highlight just now much he regretted most everything off the field.

His substance abuse problems first became public knowledge when he missed the Mets’ celebration parade because he’d been on a drug-binge the night before. “The first call I made after the game was to my dad,” he recalled of the night the Mets defeated the Red Sox to win the title. “The next call was to my drug dealer.”

When he failed a drug test before the 1987 season he spent time in rehab, though he returned to win 15 games that year, then 18 in 1988, and 19 in 1990. But while the Doc was very good, he was never as great as he was, never came close to the highs he achieved his first three years, unless you were talking about the highs from his off-field habits.

It appeared as if he was done when he twice tested positive for cocaine in 1994, resulting in a one-year suspension from the game in 1995, that on top of the shoulder problems he’d dealt with as far back as 1989 siphoning his once overpowering stuff.

But George Steinbrenner, always a sucker for a reclamation project – especially one with a big name who would engender big tabloid headlines – threw Gooden a lifeline.

The Boss saw something in his fellow Tampa resident, and in the never-ending pursuit of a championship Steinbrenner believed the now 31-year-old Gooden could retrieve some of his former glory and help push the Yankees back to the top of baseball.

“I’d say 15 to 20 victories,” Steinbrenner said when asked what he thought Gooden was capable of in 1996. “Fifteen easily on Doc Gooden. I love this kid.”

He ended up earning 11 victories, and one of those came on as magical a night at Yankee Stadium as there was all season, an out-of-nowhere, rub-your-eyes no-hitter against the Seattle Mariners.

Back in March, Gooden had reflected on his self-inflicted obstacle-strewn journey to the Yankees, saying, “It’s a miracle that I’m here talking today. Baseball is going to be the easy part.”

But baseball wasn’t easy for Gooden at all, not at the beginning. He endured a terrible spring, though his 8.88 ERA in Florida looked pretty good next to the gruesome 11.48 he put up in losing his first three regular-season starts.

He was on the brink of being banished to the bullpen when the news broke that David Cone would undergo surgery to remove an aneurysm, so Gooden’s place in the rotation was spared.

He won his first game on May 8, the same day Cone went on the disabled list, striking out eight Tigers in eight innings of a 10-3 victory. Promising as that was, no one could have envisioned what happened his next time out against the Mariners, particularly Gooden who said, “I never lost confidence in my ability, but I couldn’t imagine this.”

With his 68-year-old father, Dan Gooden, in a Tampa hospital awaiting open-heart surgery the next day, Gooden threw 134 pitches in New York’s 2-0 victory. Not all of them were pinpoint as he walked six batters, but none of them were hit safely by a Seattle lineup that included Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriquez, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner and Paul Sorrento, a lineup that was currently leading the majors in home runs.

Perhaps colored by recency bias, Gooden said of his first and only no-hitter, at the time just the ninth in Yankee history, “I think this is the greatest feeling, especially because I did it in New York.”

But it was a comment not meant to devalue his early success with the Mets as much as it was a nod to what he’d overcome to get to this particular moment. “With all I’ve been through and all the stuff that has gone on,” he said, “this is the greatest feeling. I just kept thinking about where I was a year and a half ago, a situation where I didn’t know if I was going to pitch again.”

Joe Torre had no idea what Gooden would give him when the Yankees announced his free agent signing, but like Gooden himself, he certainly wasn’t expecting this. “You’ve seen a guy have a second chance with his career,” Torre said. “It’s so satisfying.”

Gooden walked the first batter he faced, Darren Bragg, then watched A-Rod hit a line shot to center field that looked like trouble. Instead, Gerald Williams – starting for injured Bernie Williams – made a superb running catch to prevent at least a double, then whirled and turned it into a double play as Bragg couldn’t get back to first.

There was a moment of trepidation in the sixth when Bragg reached on what was scored an error by first baseman Tino Martinez, but buoyed by the scoring decision that kept the no-hitter alive Gooden retired A-Rod, Griffey and Edgar Martinez in order.

At that point the game was still scoreless, but in the bottom of the sixth the Yankees gave Gooden all the support he would need. Wade Boggs and Joe Girardi opened with back-to-back singles off former Yankee Sterling Hitchcock. A groundout by Paul O’Neill moved both runners along, and after an intentional walk to Ruben Sierra, Tino drove in the first run with a sacrifice fly and Jim Leyritz delivered the second with a single to left.

Gooden worked easily through the seventh and eighth, then raised the drama in a tense 24-pitch ninth. He walked A-Rod and Edgar, then wild-pitched them to second and third with one out.

Recognizing the situation, Torre stayed with Gooden even though the game was now on the line, and his faith was rewarded when Gooden whiffed Buhner swinging and induced Sorrento to pop out to Derek Jeter in short left field, setting off an explosion of emotion from Gooden, and a prolonged roar from the crowd that had been rooting so hard for history.

The next day Gooden flew to Tampa to be with his father, and Steinbrenner left his office at Legends Field to pay a visit. Asked about the leap of faith he’d taken in signing the Doc, Steinbrenner said, “All I did was sign Dwight to a contract, nothing else. I didn’t think it was right that a young man, who was only 31, wasn’t going to get another chance. I don’t believe in people passing judgment unfairly. I didn’t want Dwight’s career to end that way.”

Of course, Steinbrenner being Steinbrenner, before that day-after comment, in the moments following the celebration of the achievement the Boss phoned Gooden in the clubhouse to offer his congratulations, then said, “Nice job, kid. Now keep it up.”

Ah, the Yankee way in the days of George. Nice win. Now do it again.

NEXT post on April 20: Ruben Sierra calls Joe Torre a liar.