When he's done, in 15 years or so, we'll say: "He was the best of his time."
—JIM FREY, manager, Chicago Cubs
Everyone talks of Dwight Gooden's poise, of his coolness under fire last season as he became the most successful 19-year-old pitcher in baseball history. But Jim Frey has it right when he says that a kid like Gooden, now 20, doesn't need poise—not with a 95-mph fastball and a curve that breaks like a barn swallow. Poise is for the guy with an 85-mph heater that has just been deposited against the back of the bullpen wall. What Gooden has is control—of his pitches and of himself. He has always had control, even when he was a child, which is why it seems unlikely he will lose it, and why his future appears so bright.
Indeed, it's the first thing baseball people speak of—not the strikeouts, not the poise but the control. Al Lopez was manager of the Cleveland Indians in 1955 when Herb Score set his rookie strikeout record of 245—a record Gooden broke last year with 276. "The first time I saw Gooden he was pitching against my grandsons in Little League," says Lopez, 76, who, like Gooden, lives in Tampa. "He was real fast and just mowed 'em down, but what surprised me was that even then he had real good control. That's one of the differences between him and Score. Score had great stuff, probably a better curve than Gooden, but he'd scare a manager by walking two or three guys in an inning. This kid won't beat himself. He makes you hit it."
"Eighty percent of the veteran pitchers in the league can't throw a breaking ball for a strike when they're behind in the count," says Milwaukee manager George Bamberger, who skippered the Mets when Gooden was the fifth player taken in the first round of the 1982 draft. "Yet here's a 20-year-old kid who can. There are other young guys with as much ability, but they don't have his command. He's got a 30-year-old head on a 20-year-old body. He should be another Tom Seaver or Jim Palmer."
Seaver and Palmer were 22 and 19, respectively, when they reached the majors, though. In his rookie year, at 19, Gooden went 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA, threw three shutouts (including a one-hitter against the Cubs) and led the majors with those 276 strikeouts, in just 218 innings. That averaged out to 11.39 Ks per nine innings, shattering Sam McDowell's record of 10.71. (Nolan Ryan's top nine-inning average is 10.57; Sandy Koufax's 10.55.) Gooden and Philadelphia's Jerry Koosman were the only men in the National League to pitch more than 200 innings and allow fewer than 10 home runs. Last July Gooden became the youngest player ever to appear in the All-Star Game. He struck out the side in his very first inning.
In September Gooden set a league record by striking out 32 batters in consecutive games: 16 against Pittsburgh, 16 more against Philadelphia. And he didn't walk a man in either game. Against the Pirates, in fact, Gooden never had three balls on a batter, throwing 92 strikes in 120 pitches. "You really can't pitch any better than that," says Mets pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. "One thing that became clear by the end of the year was that teams weren't able to handle his pitches any better the second or third time they saw him than they were the first time. He kept getting better and better and better."
The only pitcher whose accomplishments at 19 even approached Gooden's was Bob Feller, the farm boy with the heater from Van Meter, Iowa. Feller broke in with Cleveland in 1936 at age 17, and at 19 he struck out 240 batters in 277.2 innings en route to a 17-11 record. But Feller also gave up 208 bases on balls. No control. Gooden last season walked just 73 for a strikeout/walk ratio of 3.78 to 1. Putting that in perspective, Seaver's best strikeout/walk ratio was 4.73 to 1; Koufax's was 5.38 to 1; Bob Gibson's was 4.32 to 1. "Dwight doesn't throw as hard as J.R. Richard or Nolan Ryan did, but he's close," says teammate Rusty Staub. "And he may still develop more speed. But that's not important. His curveball is the pitch. It's virtually un-hittable when it's on—an overmatch. And he'll develop a changeup. He has a chance to be as good a pitcher as there is. As long as he keeps working, keeps his mind on the game. That's what's been amazing to me: the way he's handled all the attention. It's a great credit to his family and coaches that he has all of this composure."
Ringggg. "Can you believe it?" Dan Gooden, 57, asks, hauling himself out of his chair with some difficulty to—ringggg—answer the phone for the fourth time in seven minutes. He walks with a cane, necessitated by an artificial-hip implant four years ago, and picks up the receiver without relish. "Hello.... Nope.... He be back by seven, seven-thirty. He's at practice now.... I'll tell him." He hangs up with a smile. "Them girls; they call Dwight any time of day or night. Three in the mornin', one called. 'He sleeps at this time of night, child,' I told her. I'm gon' get him his own private number and just leave it ring."
The elder Gooden, father of Shea Stadium's renowned Dr. K, sits down again in the darkened living room, the shades drawn against the bright Florida sunshine. Dwight bought this house for his parents in November—three months before he signed his 1985 contract, a one-year, $335,000 deal that could reach $485,000 with incentive bonuses. It's a one-story, four-bedroom house in a racially mixed neighborhood in northeast Tampa. As usual, the television is on; it babbles away from dawn till dark whether anyone is watching or not. The bookcase beside the television set is haphazardly filled with photographs and trophies, and on the wall beside the bookcase hangs the 1984 National League Rookie of the Year award, a plaque with Ford Frick's head in bas-relief. It looks about as glamorous as a souvenir from the 1964 New York World's Fair. "I thought for sure that one would be a great big fancy thing," Dan Gooden says with a shrug. "That don't seem like much at all." He folds his large, smooth hands. A former belt operator at a chemical plant, he retired 11 years ago because of arthritis in his hip. "You seen Dwight's hands? They're that much bigger'n mine," he says, putting an inch of space between his forefinger and thumb. "They pretty much cover up a baseball."
As you might expect, it was Dan Gooden who introduced Dwight to the sport. The coach of a local semipro team, the Tampa Dodgers, he would take Dwight to the games Sunday afternoons when the boy was so young he had to roll the ball instead of throw it. Pretty soon Dwight was playing catch with his father's ballplayers. By the time he joined his first youth team, as an 8-year-old, he was way ahead of the other players his age. "He never could understand why them other kids couldn't play like him," his father recalls. "He got frustrated and quit his teams when he was eight and nine years old. 'What for you quit?' I asked. He'd say, 'Daddy, they sorry. They play sorry.' I told him, 'Well, they'll get better. But if you quit one more time, that's it. No more baseball.' I don't say much, but when I do, I mean it. He figured he should win every game. But he grew out of it.
"You know how he got that name, Dr. K? A friend of mine used to yell to him in Little League, 'Come on, doctor, operate on him.' That's all he ever wanted to do, play baseball. You wouldn't think the Rookie of the Year would come home and gather up kids from the neighborhood to play catch, but that's what he does, out there with his nephews and such. Right now he's down there practicing with the high school team. They have to be there; he don't. He hasn't changed a bit. When Dwight's throwin' a ball, he's doin' somethin' he really loves to do."
Ella Mae Gooden, Dwight's mother, works as an aide in a nursing home. She gets off around four in the afternoon, and today, like most days, she arrives home exhausted. Among other things, she was proposed to this morning by a 92-year-old man while she was giving him his bath. "They're so funny," she says. "He asks me, 'How old're you?' 'I'm 52.' He says, 'That's not too young. Will you be my wife?' I already am somebody's wife.' He says, 'Whoever's got you got a good one.' "
She laughs. Dan chuckles quietly. Ella Mae Gooden is a big-boned woman who has one child by a previous marriage, three more by Dan—two girls and then Dwight, the youngest by 11 years. "I thought it was all over, then up popped Poodney," Mrs. Gooden says. She smiles dreamily. "My baby. He tell you that? We call him Poodney? It don't mean nothin', just what my girls called him. What a shock he was.
"Them girls; they loved him. You never saw a boy surrounded with so much love. He'd cry at night, and they'd fight over who'd get to hold him. 'My turn,' Betty Jean would say. 'No,' Mercedes would say, 'my turn.' I yell, 'I don't care whose turn it is, somebody get him.' But he was a good baby. Quiet. Still is quiet."
"I believe he gets that from me," Dan puts in. "Me and him are about the only ones around here that's not talkers."
Mrs. Gooden frowns. "Once Dwight came along it was always him and the boy, him and the boy," she says, waving her arm in the direction of her husband. "He left us three women for the boy. Took him to the games when he was just an arm baby. That's all you ever would hear from them two, baseball, baseball, baseball. My Poodney says to his daddy when he was so little, 'You see them big fellas on the TV? When I grow up, I'm gonna play on TV like them fellas.' And now he does, sure enough.
"We tried to bring him up right. We tried hard. I didn't pick his friends for him, but if they was doin' somethin' wrong, I'd tell him about it. Talked to him like a grown-up. Every time there was a story about drugs in the paper, I made him read it. I told him don't steal. If you need somethin', ask for it. If you steal, I'm gonna let them put you in the reformatory school. But he's good about minding. When I had to spank him, he wouldn't move till I said so, and then he'd go to his room and cry and cry. It hurt him to his heart when his mama spanked him.
"He loves his baseball. He used to get up early in the mornin' by himself and bat his ball around, or a soda can. He'd take that can and crush it and hit it. Sometimes he'd hit it on the roof and I'd hear him walking up there to get it. 'What you doing, child? You crazy?' 'No ma'am. Just gettin' my can.' 'Come down here before you fall through your mama's ceilin'.' A man across the street says one day, that's his alarm clock, Dwight hittin' his can. 'Why didn't you tell me he was botherin' you?' 'He ain't botherin' me. He's the only boy on this street who'll amount to anything.' That was in our old house, 2414 East New Orleans.
"That's all he cared to talk about, his baseball. The day he turned 17, I says to him, 'This is the year for you to decide what you want to be. You can be a drug addict; you can be a drunk; you can be a nice young man and stay in school; you can be a baseball player. You decide.' He says, 'I know that.' A little later he tells me he wants to get a job at the Wendy's and what did I think. I tell him, 'You need money, you ask for it. Don't steal. But you got no time for a job. You got to play ball.'
"Now Dwight asks me, 'Why you still workin', Mama? I take care of you.' I say, 'I like workin'.' Them old folks, they're so funny. They say the funniest things. I been workin' all my life. I don't want to sit down."
If you're interested in baseball, Tampa's quite a spot in which to grow up. Last year, a couple of local sportswriters figured out that 49 players from Hillsborough County were active in organized ball—Class A through the majors—among them Steve Garvey, Wade Boggs and, of course, Gooden.
Gooden was a product of the Belmont Heights Little League program, which was started by four men, Billy Reed, James Hargrett, George Sullivan and Ben Rouse, after the 1967 race riots in Tampa. What began as an effort to keep kids off the streets turned into one of the most successful programs in the country—Belmont Heights has made four appearances in the Little League World Series, most recently in 1981. Reed also coached Gooden at Hillsborough High, where Dwight was observed by about a dozen scouts a game his senior year. "They'd be behind the plate with radar guns and videotape cameras," recalls Reed. "It didn't bother him, or didn't seem to. Nothin' did. Sometimes I kind of wanted to see him get upset, just to know he cared. His concentration was always there. He was always composed."
A month before the Mets' spring training camp opened this year, Gooden began daily workouts with Reed's Hillsborough team, practicing his newly developed changeup, running laps in the outfield, taking and pitching batting practice. The winter had already been about three months too long for him. Two things surprised Gooden about his rookie season with the Mets. Three, if you count his making the team in the first place. He had expected to pitch for the Mets' Class AAA club in Tidewater, but when Seaver was lost to the White Sox in the player compensation pool, an opening was created in the starting rotation, and Gooden won it with a dazzling spring training. Gooden was surprised at how easily major league hitters struck out. In 1983, when Gooden was 19-4 with the Mets' Class A farm club in Lynchburg, Va., he fanned 300 hitters in 191 innings—most of them on high fast-balls. "They kept telling me they'd lay off that pitch in the big leagues," Gooden says. "But they didn't. Power hitters like that high pitch. It looks real good to them up there where they can see it. They like it, but they can't catch up to it."
Next, he was surprised that runners were able to steal bases off him at will—47 out of 50 on the year. Over the winter he has worked to speed up his delivery, practicing with his former minor league pitching coach, John Cumberland, who noticed that the problem was not with Gooden's high leg kick—as had been thought—but with the placement of his hands in the stretch. He held them too far away from his body. Gooden is keeping his hands closer now, and that should reduce the time it takes him to deliver the ball to the plate from two seconds to under 1.5. "Holding base runners was something he never had to work on before," says Reed. "There were so few who ever got on."
At Hillsborough the late-afternoon sun hits Gooden full in the face as he does his half-hour stint throwing batting practice. No clowning, no showing off—just strike after strike at three-quarter speed to high schoolers in baggy sweats. His delivery is so smooth and seemingly effortless that it comes as a surprise to see sweat beaded on his forehead as he jogs off the mound. "Feels good to throw some BP," he says.
Gooden puts on his nylon warmup jacket—the one with DOC sewn on the back—and jogs into the outfield to do his sprints. It's almost dark when practice breaks up. "You should see it on Saturdays," Gooden says. "We used to practice two hours, play a seven-inning game, then practice what we messed up in the game another two hours." He calls across the field on his way to his car: "Thanks, Coach Reed. See you tomorrow."
"O.K. We be live tomorrow," Reed answers.
"It feels like the season's already been over for a couple of years," Gooden says. "I'm so impatient for it to start again. I want to see if last year was a dream or if I'm for real." His eyes are smiling as he says it. He knows.
Oh, he's for real, all right. In his first start this spring, on March 13 in Sarasota, Fla., Gooden faced Seaver himself, a pairing of historic moment between Mets stars past and present. Gooden allowed the White Sox two hits in three scoreless innings, striking out one; Seaver gave up just one hit in five shutout innings, striking out three, After seeing Gooden in person for the first time, Seaver got right to the heart of the matter. "What impressed me about him were his mechanics and control," he said. Power pitchers come and go, but power pitchers with mechanics and control stay in the game long after their fastball has left them, as has been the case with Seaver. "I wouldn't mind having his curveball either," Seaver said.
Gooden is often asked if he worries about the sophomore jinx—he doesn't, predictably—but the question seems irrelevant in his case. Gooden never seemed much like a rookie in the first place. Also, there was none of the rookie phenom's braggadocio or false modesty, none of the diamond swagger carrying into the streets. "He's basically been the same ever since I first got to know him, back when he was 17," says Mets manager Dave Johnson. "He's always been way ahead of his years. That's what poise is. That's maturity. It's part of his pitching repertoire."
Mets players sense little change in Gooden, despite the mountain of attention he received over the winter—celebrity he suffers more than enjoys. "He's looser now that he feels part of the ball club," says Jesse Orosco, the Mets' premier reliever. "And he's eating more in the clubhouse. We call him Wimpy, he puts away so many hamburgers. But he's still pretty quiet, not loud or cocky or anything like that. Dwight's pretty much himself."
Gooden's agent, Jim Neader of St. Petersburg, talks about Gooden having "million-dollar potential in the endorsement field." Adds Neader: "He's the guy-next-door type. Clean-cut. 'Refreshing' is the word we keep hearing." But for a guy next door, Gooden is more than shy. He is uncomfortable around strangers, be they autograph seekers, the press or bystanders. He isn't impolite—just not friendly. There is someplace else he'd rather be.
Pitching. The greater part of himself, for now anyway, Gooden leaves out there on the mound—the part that humps up with intensity and takes control. He channels his energies along a very narrow track, so that he is either pitching or waiting to pitch. That sort of focus makes for long winters. But it also makes for long careers, and the great surprise to baseball folk will not be if Gooden succeeds in becoming the "best of his time," as Frey predicted last year, but if he fails. He seems to have things that much under control.