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Gooden's golden arm and sterling image have made him the hottest item in New York this side of a lucky $41 million Lotto ticket. He has more than doubled his base salary of $335,000 with endorsements, posters, T shirts and an autobiography (Rookie, Doubleday, $13.95), and next year he should approach seven figures from his off-the-field endeavors alone. His "Dr. K" is now awaiting approval as a registered U.S. trademark. He has even appeared in a Bruce Springsteen video.
Media interest has become so overwhelming that the Mets usually make Gooden available to reporters only on days he pitches—and then only at a post-game press conference. "People sometimes forget he's only a 20-year-old kid," says p.r. director Jay Horwitz. The team hired a tutor, Andrea Kirby, late of ABC's college football scoreboard show, to work with the Doctor and other Mets players on handling interviews. "I always had a problem, talking with the press, of talking too fast," Gooden says. Ever cooperative, he seems less nervous this year. In 1984, facing packs of reporters for the first time in his life, he was downright scared. "It was a rough experience," he admits.
Gooden still keeps a low profile off the field. He rents an apartment on Long Island and phones his father, Dan, in Tampa after every game he pitches. But it's no longer so easy for him to visit the local pizzeria for a slice or two after the game. "People have changed a little," he says. "They figure they've got to treat you, you know, like you're somebody big—but I'm still the same person. It feels kind of strange."
While Gooden is shy, quiet and even-tempered in public, his teammates know a slightly different character—no less humble, no less likable, but more of a schemer, one quick to feign innocence. He fits in perfectly. The Mets have plenty going for them—brilliant young pitching, a defense that has made the fewest errors in the league, a bright and popular manager and a .288 team batting average since July 4—but what really keeps them rolling is a clubhouse esprit de corps typified by exploding cigarettes and faces pushed into birthday cakes. There goes Backman nailing Gooden's shoes to the floor. Here come outfielder Darryl Strawberry and pitcher Ed Lynch to do what most of the NL would applaud—smear Heet balm in the seat of Gooden's trousers. "Hey, Howard," yells reserve catcher Clint Hurdle as third baseman Howard Johnson arrives for a double-header in some heavy-duty sunglasses, "you plan on doing some welding after the first game?"
Gooden, says infielder Ron Garden-hire, is "an instigator. He'll ask you for some sunflower seeds, then you pour him a handful and he throws 'em on the floor. If you ever get on him about anything, he'll just give you this look and say, 'Hey, I thought we were tight.' " Strawberry still hasn't finished picking all the gum and tobacco out of his hair from the time Gooden stuck a sticky wad in his cap.
Gooden has been especially rough on one of his best friends, equipment manager Charlie Samuels. Besides serving as special negotiator for Samuels's clubhouse boys ("They said they needed someone to get them more shoes, a couple sweat suits, some more money," he says), he has feasted on cheeseburgers, a favorite of his, at Samuels's expense. "He gets a free burger for every shutout inning he pitches before he gives up a run, as long as he wins the game," says Samuels. "If he loses, I get a free dinner anywhere I want. So far, he's hit me up pretty good."
Samuels has the unusual duty of stretching Gooden's cap before each game. Could this be the result of a swelled head, you ask? "No, he just sweats so much it makes the stitching shrink," says Samuels. "It's become his good-luck charm, a ritual. The very last thing we do before he goes out there is stretch the hat." Then Gooden goes out and stretches the imagination.
It's far too early to predict Gooden's eventual place in baseball history, especially in light of what happened to Score. After 36 wins and 508 strikeouts in his first two years, the Indians' lefthander, then 23, was struck in the right eye by a line drive early in his third season and was never the same. He retired five years later with 55 career victories and 837 strikeouts. But Gooden seems destined for longevity: He is mechanically sound, works in a five-day rotation and even hits righthanded (though he prefers lefty) to protect his throwing arm from incoming pitches.
"When people start comparing me to Hall of Famers and everything...I haven't been in the league long enough to be in that category," Dr. K says. "I just want to be the first Dwight Gooden." From what we have seen, that should be more than Goodenough.