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.
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."