By Geoffrey Gray
In the hotel room before the game, Dan Gooden was anticipating his son's performance, relishing the culmination of years of dedication, while Ella Gooden battled a nervous stomach. Thirty years ago on Monday, 19-year-old phenom Dwight Gooden was about to take the mound at the Astrodome to start his first major league game.
Ever since their son was born, Dan had pushed to turn Dwight into a major leaguer, a level that Dan himself never could reach. Instead, he operated a conveyor belt in a phosphate factory, while coaching local baseball clubs on the weekends. While the other kids got together after school to play, Dan took Dwight to the weed-infested lot near their home in Tampa, Fla. Dan had cleared out the lot so that Dwight could work on his pitching technique. Dan showed Dwight how to grip the ball across the seams, and with the seams. He walked him to home plate and had him gaze out at the mound. He found a plank, laid it on a brick and told Dwight to balance on it.
"Legs and the abs, they're a pitcher's foundation," Dwight recalled his father telling him, in his memoir Doc. "They bring all the balance and power to the arm." Dan had a legacy to uphold as to the son of Uclesee Gooden, who had pitched for the Albany Red Sox, a sandlot team in Georgia. "He may have been the best ever," Dan told Dwight, exhorting his boy to fulfill the family's legacy in baseball. Dan had played first base for the same Albany club, but he lacked the pitching talent that his father and son seemed to share.
"Why are you pushing him like that?" Ella remembers asking Dan. "It ain't his fault you didn't make it in baseball." She felt that the relentless pressure Dan put on their son was misguided, and she worried about Dwight's development outside the game. As a boy, Dwight was shy, socially awkward. If he didn't have a chance to grow and mature along with his peers, she felt, Dwight eventually might struggle with the pressures of adulthood.
"That boy is going to make it," Dan would reply.
"What if he doesn't make it? He's got to have something to fall back on."
One afternoon, Dwight brought home a work application. Other kids his age were working at places like Wendy's and McDonalds.
"That'll be good," Ella told him.
"No, no," Dan countered. "You ain't got time to work. You've got to play ball."
"Let him learn how to work, and stop pushing that boy," Ella said.
"He's going to play ball," Dan insisted.
"You shut up. You're just mad because you didn't make it."
Eventually, headlines would document how the best pitching talent in at least a generation destroyed his career with cocaine benders, car chases and prison stints. But all that would come later.
At the time, back at the hotel in Houston, the relentless pressure that Dan Gooden had put on Dwight seemed worth it, unquestionably. Despite her complaints, Ella was content that Dan had pushed Dwight the way he did. If he hadn't, Dwight might never gotten drafted in the first round by the New York Mets, might never have cruised through the minor leagues. They might never have made it to the Astrodome, to watch Dwight fulfill the his father's dream, keeping the Gooden family name alive in baseball.
In another part of the hotel, Dwight couldn't stay in his room any longer. On road trips, Mets players typically took the team bus from the hotel to the ballpark. Gooden didn't want to wait. He was too nervous. He wanted to get to the ballpark early. The Astros had an impressive lineup, with hitters like Jose Cruz, Ray Knight and Terry Puhl. Gooden left his hotel room, passed through the lobby and set out across downtown Houston on foot to find the Astrodome. After walking across town to find the stadium, he arrived to find that he was too early. The gates were closed, the grounds empty. He scanned the perimeter, found a fence that was low enough to climb and jumped over. For his big-league debut, Dwight Gooden had to sneak into the stadium.
The Astrodome was a sacred place for students of pitching like Gooden and his father. This was where high priests of the mound had mastered their craft -- pitchers such as Nolan Ryan, the fastball king; Joe Niekro, the knuckleball wizard; and Mike Scott, the split-finger specialist -- and now here was Gooden, about to take that same mound. The dome itself seemed gigantic to him. More than 50,000 fans could fit inside the Astrodome. Gooden was dumbfounded at its size and engineering. "Awesome," Gooden told a reporter from The New York Times before the game. "I never saw anything like it. I never thought there was anything like it."
* * *
As the fans trickled in, Dan and Ella Gooden got out of the car and found their way to their seats. As the players warmed up on the field, Ella reminded Dan what Dwight had said to her when he was five years old, at the laundromat.
"Mama, you have everything to do," Dwight had said. He didn't like watching her work during the week at a nursing home, then work at night at a pool hall, and then also have to clean the family's clothes. "I'm going to play ball on television and I'm going to take care of you," he told her.
"OK, baby," she said.
When he was younger, Gooden's parents had planned to get a divorce -- a reasonable move, considering that Ella nearly killed Dan after she found out he had cheated on her. As Dwight tells the story in Doc, the memoir he wrote with author Ellis Hennican, Ella trailed Dan as he drove to meet his girlfriend, waited for him to leave the house, then removed a .38 special she kept in her purse and started firing. One bullet nicked him in the arm. He never went to the hospital, never filed criminal charges. He drove home with his bloody wound and got on with his mission of turning young Dwight into a ballplayer.
Dan Gooden could be skimpy with affection, generous with demands. In his memoir, Dwight recalled that throughout his childhood, his father told him that he loved him only once or twice. "He's definitely not over that," Ella says, even now.
Dwight's mother shielded him, giving him extra affection to compensate. She had grown up an orphan in the rural town of Cordele, Ga., raised by relatives. As a little girl, Ella had promised herself that when the time came for her to have children of her own, she would give them so much affection so they would never have to feel as alone as she did. She could be overprotective of Dwight, almost smothering. When he left home to pitch in the minors, Ella liked to speak on the phone with him every day. Once, when Dwight was traveling with his team, she couldn't reach him. She recalls running into his empty room in tears, grabbing a pair of his pants from his drawer and hugging the pants, as if young Dwight were still in them.
"My baby," she kept calling him, no matter how old he was. Even decades later, once he was a father of five, shuttered in a Paramus, N.J., motel room, flirting with suicide, hiding from anyone who might recognize him, ashamed of what he had become. Even now, she still calls him "my baby."
Taking the mound for his big-league debut, Gooden carried more than his own family's burdens with him. He had been the Mets' top draft pick at a time they were one of the worst teams in baseball. New York had finished dead last in the National League East for five of its last seven seasons, second-to-last in the other two years, and it was counting on Gooden's magic arm and a handful of other young prospects to turn its miserable team around.
In the spring of 1984, New York itself felt doomed, as emergency room doctors dealt with an influx of gunshot victims and drug overdoses. A glut in cocaine across the country had given birth to crack, and around Shea Stadium in Queens, street corners were becoming outposts for gang wars, leading to the highest murder rates in the city's history. Subway cars were caked over in graffiti, and city politics were fractured by race and a struggling economy. New York City may not have been the best place for Gooden to be, but the city certainly needed a hero to lift its dreary spirit. Gooden never auditioned for that part, but he was cast in the role anyway.
Mets manager Davey Johnson was under pressure, too. Joe Torre had lasted five seasons, never once managing a winning record. George Bamberger had been replaced midway through his second season by Frank Howard; both kept the Mets' losing-record streak going. Howard's replacement was Johnson, who had been hired by the Mets after a fine major league career playing second base, mostly for the Orioles. Johnson had started with the Mets as a special instructor and minor league manager. As with Gooden, the Mets were looking to a rookie manager to turn things around.
Johnson was so impressed with Gooden's arm that he had argued all through the offseason with GM Frank Cashen about moving him up to the majors. "Keep an open mind on Dwight Gooden coming to spring training," Johnson had told Cashen. "Keep an open mind, and you'll see what you see." What Johnson saw was a pure pitching machine.
To test Gooden's accuracy, Johnson asked a practice catcher to crouch on the outside of the plate. Gooden hit the mitt every time, at 95 mph. Johnson asked the catcher to move to the inside of the plate. Gooden hit the mitt with same accuracy and velocity. How could a teenager throw so hard, with such command?
"Hey, Dwight," Johnson called out. "How do you grip your fastball?"
"I grip it cross-seams when I want to put a little giddy-up on it," Gooden said. "I grip it with the seams when I want a little lateral movement." It was unusual for a teenager to know those things, but Johnson knew that Gooden had received a first-rate baseball education from his father.
Cashen and others in the front office naturally were hesitant about pushing Gooden too quickly. Throw too hard, and he could injure himself. Struggle with the pressure of pitching in front of thousands, and the experience could scar his psyche.
There were other factors to consider. The Mets were a rowdy team. Adolescents that move up too quickly on a ballclub, Johnson knew, often try too hard to be accepted by the older guys on the club. Rusty Staub, one the team's veterans, had signed his first contract three years before Gooden was born. Many of the players liked to drink and party. For many ballplayers, bars and groupies and drugs were all a part of life in the big leagues.
* * *
"And there's the young right-hander, Dwight Gooden," said Astros broadcaster Gene Elston from the booth, as Gooden took the mound and kicked the dirt with his cleats.
"Last year ..." play-by-play man Jim Durham started.
"... he did it all," Elston said, finishing the thought.
"He sure did," Durham continued, "19-4 at Lynchburg, 300 strikeouts."
"Kind of interesting to look at his stats, Jim. A 2.57 ERA in the minors, and he struck out 344 batters in 270 innings."
From the dugout, Johnson waited for the first pitch, watching as his young pitcher turned into a blur of fidgets and tics. Gooden rustled his long fingers on his right hand to warm them up, licking his fingertips to get them tacky. He grasped the ball in both hands and massaged it, to work the seams and get the cowhide warm. He touched the bill of his cap, then the back of his cap, nuzzled his nose into his arm. Hubie Brooks on third and Ron Gardenhire at second tossed grounders back to Keith Hernandez to warm up. Gooden gazed out into the stands and looked for his parents, a habit of his since Little League.
It was no accident that Gooden's first professional start in a major league baseball game was at the Astrodome. Johnson could have started him during the opening series in Cincinnati, but the air at Riverfront Stadium could be cold in early spring, and it often rained during the first weeks of the season. The Mets didn't want to risk another pitching prodigy in bad weather. Only three seasons before, they had spent their first-round draft pick on Tim Leary, a Santa Monica, Calif.-born right-hander whom many had called "the next Tom Seaver." Leary had moved up to the majors quickly and debuted at Wrigley Field, pitching only two innings before leaving the game with a strained right elbow, ending his season. In the three years since, Leary had managed to pitch in only two big-league games for the Mets.
Gooden wouldn't have to battle the cold or rain at the Astrodome. It was a calm and pleasant 70 degrees inside, a fastball pitcher's paradise. At shortstop, Jose Oquendo walked over to the mound, gave Gooden a nod and plopped the game ball into the web of his glove. In the batter's box, Astros second baseman Bill Doran touched his bat to the plate. Gooden went into his windup, kicking his front leg up to his chin.
Doran flashed bunt.
The fastball landed in the dirt, nearly a wild pitch. Gooden had held the ball in his fingers perhaps a millisecond to long. He composed himself for the next pitch.
Another fastball. Dolan's bat shattered on contact. The ball dribbled to Gardenhire for an easy out.
Next up: rightfielder Terry Puhl. Another fastball. Another broken bat.
"High heat," said Durham from the booth.
"Sheer velocity," replied Elston, as the innings went on.
"He's not messing around, is he?"
"Nobody is getting a good swing on him, Gene."
"That's an adrenalin fastball that he's throwing."
"Mama and Papa are happy about that, aren't they?"
* * *
Gooden lasted five innings before he started losing control, and Johnson pulled him. The Mets were able to fend off a brief Astros rally to win 3-2.
"He's got the most live arm I've seen in a long time," veteran Ray Knight told reporters after the game. "His fastball explodes just like Nolan Ryan's."
Gooden met up with his parents for dinner afterward, Ella recalls. "My baby won the first game he pitched in the majors," she gushed at him.
"I was nervous," Gooden told her. "All them people yelling at me. I didn't know whether to stay out there and pitch the ball or run off the field."
"Well, Mama's glad you stayed out there and pitched the ball. You did a beautiful job, Baby."
After dinner, they went back to the hotel together. Dan and Dwight went over the game as Ella listened.
"You did real good," she remembers Dan telling their son. "You do it like I tell you. Whatever ball is working for you, and you see it working, that's the ball you pitch."
Ella and Dan went back to Tampa, as Gooden started a career that many experts felt would land him in the Hall of Fame. After that first successful start against the Astros, Gooden went on to lead the majors in strikeouts and was voted NL Rookie of the Year. He helped deliver the Mets' first winning season in nearly a decade.
The following season, 1985, Gooden was even better, shattering all reasonable expectations, leading the majors not only in strikeouts but also in ERA and wins. He still wasn't old enough to celebrate by having a beer with his father. "At the age of 20, Dwight Gooden is simply the best pitcher in baseball and getting better," the author Peter Richmond wrote in the Miami Herald. "If all goes well for the next 15 or 20 years, he'll be the best in the history of the game."
* * *
The Mets went on to win the 1986 World Series, dispatching the team's decade of futility and energizing the city. New York gave the Mets a massive parade to celebrate, but Gooden never made it. By that point, he had been introduced to cocaine; rather than attending the Mets' victory parade, Gooden spent the night on the couch in a public housing project, too strung out to make it home. "Coke gave me a feeling I'd always wanted but didn't know how to find," Gooden wrote in his memoir. "Confident, relaxed, actually social ... It convinced me immediately that nothing else mattered at all. No pressure. No worries."
Over the years, Gooden's name continued to surface in newspapers, forming a messy portrait of strip clubs, rehab clinics, missed birthday parties, strange encounters with the Mets front office, and one odd encounter with his oldest son, when they found each other in the same jail. Gooden seemed to pay again and again for an inability to make the right decisions on his own, as if someone else was always going to take care of things for him. His father had prepared him to be an incredible pitcher, but not an adult. Not a father. Not his own man.
In the spring of 1996, Gooden's father was deathly ill and awaiting open heart surgery. Despite years of drug-related troubles, Gooden had been signed by the pitching-starved New York Yankees, and he was scheduled to start against the Mariners the night before his father's surgery. If he pitched the game, he wouldn't be able to make it to the hospital until after the surgery. If the surgery did not go well, there was a chance that Gooden would never see his father alive again.
"I told him his daddy was in the best place in the hospital, and we were going to watch the game on TV," Ella recalls. "Dwight said he thought about it, and he said there wasn't anything he could do for his daddy there. He could do more for him on the field then he could at the hospital."
When he took the mound that night at Yankee Stadium, Gooden hadn't won a game in nearly two years. The Mariners had a very tough lineup for any pitcher to face -- Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner -- let alone a veteran with an 11.48 ERA. That night, however, the Mariners' sluggers couldn't touch Dwight Gooden. He went all nine innings, 135 pitches, and earned his first no-hitter.
The next day, Gooden appeared at his father's side at the hospital, holding the game ball. "Dwight gave him a hug and gave him the ball," his mother recalls. "Then the nurse came in, because he had that machine on. She put a little tube in it, and you could hear him from that tube."
"They talked about the game," she says, just like they did when Dwight was in Little League, but Gooden's father was too sick to go over all the pitches in detail. In truth, Dan Gooden was so sick that he couldn't even comment on Dwight's performance. He was only strong enough to muster one statement speaking through the tube, Ella recalls.
"He told him he was watching it."
* * *
Geoffrey Gray is a bestselling author and reporter based in New York. A contributing editor at New York Magazine, he's covered boxing, bullfighting, tennis, female-arm wrestling, camel racing and high-end perfume.