If you're interested in baseball, Tampa's quite a spot in which to grow up. Last year, a couple of local sportswriters figured out that 49 players from Hillsborough County were active in organized ball—Class A through the majors—among them Steve Garvey, Wade Boggs and, of course, Gooden.
Gooden was a product of the Belmont Heights Little League program, which was started by four men, Billy Reed, James Hargrett, George Sullivan and Ben Rouse, after the 1967 race riots in Tampa. What began as an effort to keep kids off the streets turned into one of the most successful programs in the country—Belmont Heights has made four appearances in the Little League World Series, most recently in 1981. Reed also coached Gooden at Hillsborough High, where Dwight was observed by about a dozen scouts a game his senior year. "They'd be behind the plate with radar guns and videotape cameras," recalls Reed. "It didn't bother him, or didn't seem to. Nothin' did. Sometimes I kind of wanted to see him get upset, just to know he cared. His concentration was always there. He was always composed."
A month before the Mets' spring training camp opened this year, Gooden began daily workouts with Reed's Hillsborough team, practicing his newly developed changeup, running laps in the outfield, taking and pitching batting practice. The winter had already been about three months too long for him. Two things surprised Gooden about his rookie season with the Mets. Three, if you count his making the team in the first place. He had expected to pitch for the Mets' Class AAA club in Tidewater, but when Seaver was lost to the White Sox in the player compensation pool, an opening was created in the starting rotation, and Gooden won it with a dazzling spring training. Gooden was surprised at how easily major league hitters struck out. In 1983, when Gooden was 19-4 with the Mets' Class A farm club in Lynchburg, Va., he fanned 300 hitters in 191 innings—most of them on high fast-balls. "They kept telling me they'd lay off that pitch in the big leagues," Gooden says. "But they didn't. Power hitters like that high pitch. It looks real good to them up there where they can see it. They like it, but they can't catch up to it."
Next, he was surprised that runners were able to steal bases off him at will—47 out of 50 on the year. Over the winter he has worked to speed up his delivery, practicing with his former minor league pitching coach, John Cumberland, who noticed that the problem was not with Gooden's high leg kick—as had been thought—but with the placement of his hands in the stretch. He held them too far away from his body. Gooden is keeping his hands closer now, and that should reduce the time it takes him to deliver the ball to the plate from two seconds to under 1.5. "Holding base runners was something he never had to work on before," says Reed. "There were so few who ever got on."
At Hillsborough the late-afternoon sun hits Gooden full in the face as he does his half-hour stint throwing batting practice. No clowning, no showing off—just strike after strike at three-quarter speed to high schoolers in baggy sweats. His delivery is so smooth and seemingly effortless that it comes as a surprise to see sweat beaded on his forehead as he jogs off the mound. "Feels good to throw some BP," he says.
Gooden puts on his nylon warmup jacket—the one with DOC sewn on the back—and jogs into the outfield to do his sprints. It's almost dark when practice breaks up. "You should see it on Saturdays," Gooden says. "We used to practice two hours, play a seven-inning game, then practice what we messed up in the game another two hours." He calls across the field on his way to his car: "Thanks, Coach Reed. See you tomorrow."
"O.K. We be live tomorrow," Reed answers.
"It feels like the season's already been over for a couple of years," Gooden says. "I'm so impatient for it to start again. I want to see if last year was a dream or if I'm for real." His eyes are smiling as he says it. He knows.
Oh, he's for real, all right. In his first start this spring, on March 13 in Sarasota, Fla., Gooden faced Seaver himself, a pairing of historic moment between Mets stars past and present. Gooden allowed the White Sox two hits in three scoreless innings, striking out one; Seaver gave up just one hit in five shutout innings, striking out three, After seeing Gooden in person for the first time, Seaver got right to the heart of the matter. "What impressed me about him were his mechanics and control," he said. Power pitchers come and go, but power pitchers with mechanics and control stay in the game long after their fastball has left them, as has been the case with Seaver. "I wouldn't mind having his curveball either," Seaver said.
Gooden is often asked if he worries about the sophomore jinx—he doesn't, predictably—but the question seems irrelevant in his case. Gooden never seemed much like a rookie in the first place. Also, there was none of the rookie phenom's braggadocio or false modesty, none of the diamond swagger carrying into the streets. "He's basically been the same ever since I first got to know him, back when he was 17," says Mets manager Dave Johnson. "He's always been way ahead of his years. That's what poise is. That's maturity. It's part of his pitching repertoire."