In my journey as a fan, before there was David Wells and David Cone, there was Dwight Gooden. Second chances in baseball, as in life, are not guaranteed. No one could have been more aware of this than Gooden when he took the mound twenty years ago today to face the Seattle Mariners, with now Yankees manager Joe Girardi behind the plate.
Gooden had been one of baseball's elite starters during his time with the New York Mets. Gooden made his Major League debut at the age of 19 in 1984, and through his first ten seasons accumulated a 154-81 record, 1,835 strikeouts, a 3.04 ERA, 23 shutouts, a Cy Young Award, four All-Star appearances, and a World Series championship. But in 1994 Gooden's life began to unravel. During the lockout-shortened season he tested positive for cocaine and was suspended for 60 days, and then was suspended for the entirety of the 1995 season after testing positive for the drug again while serving his suspension.
It was the vision of Ray Negron, longtime specialist assistant to George Steinbrenner, which brought Gooden to the Yankees. Negron convinced Steinbrenner that the Yankees could put together a program to keep Gooden clean, and Steinbrenner made it Negron's responsibility to stay on top of Gooden. "We really intensified his program to show he would do anything he could to stay clean. We went to 12-Step meetings. We even started a radio show in Tampa so that he could express his place in recovery. It was called ‘House Calls with Doc,'" said Negron to Jason Keidel of CBS New York.
Despite the feel-good nature of Gooden's comeback attempt, the early results were not promising. Gooden barely made the Opening Day rotation, and sported an 11.47 ERA after his first three stars. Following a brief stint in the bullpen, Gooden began to turn things around with solid starts against the Twins, White Sox, and Tigers. However, it is safe to say that no one predicted the outcome of Gooden's start on May 14, 1996.
Seattle's lineup boasted stars including Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, and a young Alex Rodriguez. Along the way to his no-hitter, Gooden threw 134 taxing pitches, walked six batters, and counted upon numerous defensive gems. Heightening the drama of the moment was Gooden pitching with the knowledge that his father Dan, who was enormously influential in Gooden's development as a pitcher, would undergo open-heart surgery the following day.
Throughout the game Gooden could be seen in the dugout runway sobbing with emotion at the battle his father would soon endure. Despite those hurdles, when Seattle first baseman Paul Sorrento popped out to Derek Jeter on his 24th pitch of the ninth inning, Gooden found himself having thrown the ninth, and perhaps most improbable, no-hitter in the history of the franchise.
"In my wildest dreams, I never could have imagined this," Gooden said after the game. "This is sweet." Gooden joined his father Dan in Florida the following day. Dan Gooden passed away in January 1997, nearly eight months after Dwight's no-hitter, and less than three after he became a World Series champion for the second time.
Baseball seasons can be a slog at times. 162 games is a lot, and Saturday's game against the White Sox appears to be just your average spring matinee at The Stadium. But sometimes baseball's most magical moments can emerge seemingly out of nowhere, just as they did twenty years ago. In the words of the immortal Roy Hobbs, "God I love baseball."
Curry, Jack. "Dr. No: A Revived Gooden No-Hits Mariners." The New York Times. May 15, 1996.
Keidel, Jason. "Remembering the 1996 Yankees: The Doc-Boss Story You Don't Know." http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2016/05/12/1996-yankees-dwight-gooden-george-steinbrenner-jason-keidel/. Accessed May 13, 2016.
Mearns, Andrew. "1996 Yankees 20th Anniversary Retrospective: Dwight Gooden." http://www.pinstripealley.com/2016/1/18/10783618/1996-yankees-20th-anniversary-dwight-gooden-where-are-they-now. Accessed May 13, 2016.