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E.M. Swift
April 15, 1985
Overpowering pitches and uncommon control made the Mets' Dwight Gooden the best teenage pitcher ever. Now he's one year better
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April 15, 1985

So Good, So Young

Overpowering pitches and uncommon control made the Mets' Dwight Gooden the best teenage pitcher ever. Now he's one year better

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"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."

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