He nearly cried between innings. Sometimes, as Dwight Gooden passed the time in the narrow, concrete tunnel between the New York Yankees dugout and the clubhouse, the tears would well in his eyes. Once, when Gooden sat on the bench in the fifth inning of the game against the Seattle Mariners, teammate Kenny Rogers saw such a fog enshrouding him that he asked, "Man, are you all right?"
Dwight Gooden, all right? The question has been repeated for years, as haunting as an echo in some dark cavern. Sometimes it pertained to his right arm, which once made him the greatest pitching prodigy in baseball history. Sometimes the question applied to his sobriety, broken too many times by too many beers and too many hits of cocaine.
"Yeah, I'm fine," Gooden replied. "Just having trouble focusing."
Last year at this time Gooden was in Tampa, coaching the North Seminole Little League Marlins. He had been suspended from baseball for repeated violations of the major leagues' substance-abuse policy. Now, on the cool night of May 14 at Yankee Stadium, he was pitching a no-hitter against the Mariners, the most prolific home run hitting club in the majors, while trying not to cry. Gooden's 64-year-old father, Dan, a man weakened over the past six years by chronic kidney, hip and circulatory ailments, was to undergo open-heart surgery the next morning in Tampa. It was Dan who used to hit grounders to Dwight in the backyard, Dan who watched nearly all of his Little League games and Dan who taught him how to pitch. When Gooden won the 1985 Cy Young Award after a 24-4 season, he gripped his curveball just as his father had taught him when he was nine years old.
May 26, 1996
As Gooden had made the 25-minute drive from his Long Island town house to Yankee Stadium before the game against Seattle, he'd thought about not pitching at all. Maybe he should have been heading to Tampa instead. "I decided," Gooden said last Thursday, "that knowing my father, he would have wanted me to pitch this game, especially after missing last year."
In his previous start Gooden had beaten the Detroit Tigers, throwing hitless ball over his last seven innings. His unhittable streak continued against Seattle, and he entered the ninth inning with a 2-0 lead. To that point Gooden had only four strikeouts, nothing close to the firepower he brought to the mound in his glory years, when he whiffed 844 batters in his first three seasons. But on this night Gooden would throw seven changeups and five sliders, pitches that did not exist in his arsenal then. "I feel like I know how to pitch now," he said later. "I throw the other pitches enough—enough for the guys doing the scouting reports to write it down and for hitters to think about them."
In the ninth the Mariners put the tying runs in scoring position after Gooden's fifth and sixth walks and a one-out wild pitch. Gooden responded by fanning Jay Buhner. Then, on his 134th pitch, Gooden induced a pop-up off the bat of Paul Sorrento. Gooden held up his arms triumphantly and began jumping on the mound even before the baseball, dropping maddeningly slow, as if by parachute, plopped into the glove of shortstop Derek Jeter. Gooden, who had come to the Yankees like some recycled punch line—The Halfway House that George Built is what people were calling Yankee Stadium and owner George Steinbrenner—now chiseled his name into the history of the most fabled franchise in the game. Gooden was the first righthander to throw a no-hitter at Yankee Stadium since Don Larsen tossed his perfect game in the World Series 40 years ago.
The next morning's newspapers would be filled with pictures of Gooden, a look of unfettered joy upon his face. Ella Mae Gooden told her son later, "I have never seen that much emotion from you." Dwight, trying to explain, said, "It's a feeling that's really tough to describe. It's like a numb feeling. I realized after the last out where I had been."
He figured the worst of it—the years of heavy drinking beginning in 1986, the return to cocaine in 1994 after staying clean for six years, the nights prowling Tampa clubs "like a vampire," as he told SI last year—occurred one day at home in St. Petersburg in November 1994. A letter arrived from acting commissioner Bud Selig informing Gooden, who had previously been suspended, that he was banned for the 1995 season because a follow-up urinalysis had turned up positive for cocaine. Gooden, alone in his bedroom, checked to make sure the letter was addressed to him. He read it a second time, then a third and then a fourth, checking every word for the hint of some mistake, some loophole, some hope. He read it again. Nothing.
He spent the next 90 minutes wondering what to do. Quit? Sure, he thought of that. I'm a failure. I'm done. Get high? Of course, he thought of that, too.
"If I had gone out right then and used drugs," he said, "that would have been it for me. I would have wound up in jail or dead. In that frame of mind, anything could have happened. Man, I still get chills just thinking about what might have happened that day. I'm glad I took that hour and half to think about everything."
He decided to get himself cleaned up—for good—and to pitch again. "That," he said, "is really when the comeback started."
Steinbrenner called Gooden in the clubhouse after the no-hitter. So did New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Yankees catcher Joe Girardi said the game was the highlight of his seven-year career, better even than having played in the postseason with the Colorado Rockies last year. Gooden returned to his Long Island home about midnight. After calling his wife, Monica, and his mother, both of whom were in St. Petersburg, he tried to sleep but found it impossible. How can you rest after pitching the game of your life and thinking that your father might die the next day?
Every time he replayed in his head the pitches from the game, he kept coming back to his father. Does he know about it? This went on all night, until he heard birds singing and saw the first faint light of day. Maybe he slept an hour. Maybe he didn't.
New York, known for a heart colder than last winter, melted for Gooden. Fans flocked to him at LaGuardia Airport and swarmed him as he sat in his first-class seat on the flight to Tampa. "Crazy," he said. "I've never seen it like that before, not in '85, not when we won the World Series [with the New York Mets] in '86."
The ball from the last out of the no-hitter was tucked inside his travel bag. He brought the New York papers too. In Tampa, just as orderlies wheeled Dan Gooden into the operating room, the father announced from his gurney, "He did it! My son did it! My son pitched a no-hitter!"
Always likable, Gooden now added a dimension that the public found irresistibly heroic. Everybody wanted him. CBS This Morning, BET, ESPN, CNN, Inside Edition, David Letterman, Conan O'Brien ("Who's he?" Gooden asked), Regis & Kathie Lee ("Never heard of them," he said) and others called the Yankees asking for him. When Gooden looked over the two-page list of requests, he shook his head and said, "It does make you wonder where everybody was before, when things weren't this good for me."
On the flight to Tampa, after an attendant ended the parade of autograph seekers, Gooden pulled out one of the Narcotics Anonymous manuals he always carries. The man seated next to him smiled. "I'm an addict too," he said. They talked at length. "It was just like having an NA meeting," Gooden said. "Two people is a meeting. It was great. He told me, 'Thanks. What you did keeps me clean another day.'"
His father was still in surgery when Gooden arrived at the hospital with Monica, who is six months pregnant with his fifth child, and Devin, their youngest son. They waited in a private conference room with 13 family members, including Gooden's nephew, Florida Marlins outfielder Gary Sheffield (page 68).
An hour later a doctor entered to tell them that Dan had made it through the most critical part of the surgery. Not until the next day was Dan alert enough to recognize his family. Gooden held out the baseball from his no-hitter. "This is for you, Dad," he said.
Dan, still too weak to speak, smiled. His eyes moistened.
"I don't know whether it was from all the pain he was in," Gooden said later, "or from the joy."
The heat of a Florida afternoon was gone, leaving only the soft orange glow of twilight that makes for what photographers like to call "magic hour." A cool breeze blew as gently as a whisper through the oaks and Southern pines, barely rustling the Spanish moss hanging like chimes from their limbs. In the long shadows of the mighty trees were the boys of the North Seminole Little League. Dwight Gooden Jr. played third base and batted leadoff for the Marlins. His father watched from the metal bleachers, returning to North Seminole not with a suspension from baseball, but with a major league no-hitter not quite 48 hours old and more good news: Dan was making progress, and if all went well he would be home after three weeks in the hospital.
Watching Dwight Jr. made Gooden think of the first time his own father came to watch him play. As a seven-year-old, Gooden had played in the Belmont Heights section of Tampa, about 10 minutes from this park. He was on deck when he saw his mother and father in the stands for the first time. He started crying right there, not stopping until they walked away from the field. "I don't know why I cried," Gooden said. "Maybe because I was scared to fail in front of them."
Later that night Dan, who had watched Dwight play from some hidden vantage point, described every detail of the game to his son. Gooden then figured it was O.K. for his parents to watch him play. Dan almost never missed a game after that.
Now Gooden was watching his son, wearing uniform number 1. "The guilt is always there in the back of my mind," he said of struggling with his addiction. "I still feel like I let down a lot of people. Sometimes, when I pick up one of my kids, it really hurts because I realize I wasn't there for them. I think that guilt will always be there for a reason. It's important not to forget how much I must have hurt them. That's what makes this no-hitter so special. I was able to share it with my teammates and then be fortunate enough to come home and share it with my family. I'm just so happy for my dad. I know it was a thrill for him to see me in the big leagues, win the Cy Young and pitch in the World Series. But this, coming back like this, is almost like completing the chapter for him."
Dwight Jr. drew a walk and sprinted to first base, his beltless pants hanging around his skinny waist. His dad smiled easily and took a drink of cola from a cup. As night arrived in Tampa, no one had to ask. Dwight Gooden was all right. He was doing just fine.