When he's done, in 15 years or so, we'll say: "He was the best of his time."
—JIM FREY, manager, Chicago Cubs
Everyone talks of Dwight Gooden's poise, of his coolness under fire last season as he became the most successful 19-year-old pitcher in baseball history. But Jim Frey has it right when he says that a kid like Gooden, now 20, doesn't need poise—not with a 95-mph fastball and a curve that breaks like a barn swallow. Poise is for the guy with an 85-mph heater that has just been deposited against the back of the bullpen wall. What Gooden has is control—of his pitches and of himself. He has always had control, even when he was a child, which is why it seems unlikely he will lose it, and why his future appears so bright.
Indeed, it's the first thing baseball people speak of—not the strikeouts, not the poise but the control. Al Lopez was manager of the Cleveland Indians in 1955 when Herb Score set his rookie strikeout record of 245—a record Gooden broke last year with 276. "The first time I saw Gooden he was pitching against my grandsons in Little League," says Lopez, 76, who, like Gooden, lives in Tampa. "He was real fast and just mowed 'em down, but what surprised me was that even then he had real good control. That's one of the differences between him and Score. Score had great stuff, probably a better curve than Gooden, but he'd scare a manager by walking two or three guys in an inning. This kid won't beat himself. He makes you hit it."
"Eighty percent of the veteran pitchers in the league can't throw a breaking ball for a strike when they're behind in the count," says Milwaukee manager George Bamberger, who skippered the Mets when Gooden was the fifth player taken in the first round of the 1982 draft. "Yet here's a 20-year-old kid who can. There are other young guys with as much ability, but they don't have his command. He's got a 30-year-old head on a 20-year-old body. He should be another Tom Seaver or Jim Palmer."
Seaver and Palmer were 22 and 19, respectively, when they reached the majors, though. In his rookie year, at 19, Gooden went 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA, threw three shutouts (including a one-hitter against the Cubs) and led the majors with those 276 strikeouts, in just 218 innings. That averaged out to 11.39 Ks per nine innings, shattering Sam McDowell's record of 10.71. (Nolan Ryan's top nine-inning average is 10.57; Sandy Koufax's 10.55.) Gooden and Philadelphia's Jerry Koosman were the only men in the National League to pitch more than 200 innings and allow fewer than 10 home runs. Last July Gooden became the youngest player ever to appear in the All-Star Game. He struck out the side in his very first inning.
In September Gooden set a league record by striking out 32 batters in consecutive games: 16 against Pittsburgh, 16 more against Philadelphia. And he didn't walk a man in either game. Against the Pirates, in fact, Gooden never had three balls on a batter, throwing 92 strikes in 120 pitches. "You really can't pitch any better than that," says Mets pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. "One thing that became clear by the end of the year was that teams weren't able to handle his pitches any better the second or third time they saw him than they were the first time. He kept getting better and better and better."
The only pitcher whose accomplishments at 19 even approached Gooden's was Bob Feller, the farm boy with the heater from Van Meter, Iowa. Feller broke in with Cleveland in 1936 at age 17, and at 19 he struck out 240 batters in 277.2 innings en route to a 17-11 record. But Feller also gave up 208 bases on balls. No control. Gooden last season walked just 73 for a strikeout/walk ratio of 3.78 to 1. Putting that in perspective, Seaver's best strikeout/walk ratio was 4.73 to 1; Koufax's was 5.38 to 1; Bob Gibson's was 4.32 to 1. "Dwight doesn't throw as hard as J.R. Richard or Nolan Ryan did, but he's close," says teammate Rusty Staub. "And he may still develop more speed. But that's not important. His curveball is the pitch. It's virtually un-hittable when it's on—an overmatch. And he'll develop a changeup. He has a chance to be as good a pitcher as there is. As long as he keeps working, keeps his mind on the game. That's what's been amazing to me: the way he's handled all the attention. It's a great credit to his family and coaches that he has all of this composure."
Ringggg. "Can you believe it?" Dan Gooden, 57, asks, hauling himself out of his chair with some difficulty to—ringggg—answer the phone for the fourth time in seven minutes. He walks with a cane, necessitated by an artificial-hip implant four years ago, and picks up the receiver without relish. "Hello.... Nope.... He be back by seven, seven-thirty. He's at practice now.... I'll tell him." He hangs up with a smile. "Them girls; they call Dwight any time of day or night. Three in the mornin', one called. 'He sleeps at this time of night, child,' I told her. I'm gon' get him his own private number and just leave it ring."
The elder Gooden, father of Shea Stadium's renowned Dr. K, sits down again in the darkened living room, the shades drawn against the bright Florida sunshine. Dwight bought this house for his parents in November—three months before he signed his 1985 contract, a one-year, $335,000 deal that could reach $485,000 with incentive bonuses. It's a one-story, four-bedroom house in a racially mixed neighborhood in northeast Tampa. As usual, the television is on; it babbles away from dawn till dark whether anyone is watching or not. The bookcase beside the television set is haphazardly filled with photographs and trophies, and on the wall beside the bookcase hangs the 1984 National League Rookie of the Year award, a plaque with Ford Frick's head in bas-relief. It looks about as glamorous as a souvenir from the 1964 New York World's Fair. "I thought for sure that one would be a great big fancy thing," Dan Gooden says with a shrug. "That don't seem like much at all." He folds his large, smooth hands. A former belt operator at a chemical plant, he retired 11 years ago because of arthritis in his hip. "You seen Dwight's hands? They're that much bigger'n mine," he says, putting an inch of space between his forefinger and thumb. "They pretty much cover up a baseball."
As you might expect, it was Dan Gooden who introduced Dwight to the sport. The coach of a local semipro team, the Tampa Dodgers, he would take Dwight to the games Sunday afternoons when the boy was so young he had to roll the ball instead of throw it. Pretty soon Dwight was playing catch with his father's ballplayers. By the time he joined his first youth team, as an 8-year-old, he was way ahead of the other players his age. "He never could understand why them other kids couldn't play like him," his father recalls. "He got frustrated and quit his teams when he was eight and nine years old. 'What for you quit?' I asked. He'd say, 'Daddy, they sorry. They play sorry.' I told him, 'Well, they'll get better. But if you quit one more time, that's it. No more baseball.' I don't say much, but when I do, I mean it. He figured he should win every game. But he grew out of it.