Gooden is the youngest of six children born to Dan and Ella May Gooden of Tampa. "The next youngest is 31, and that has some bearing on his maturity," says Dan. A retired chemical plant worker and former semipro player, the elder Gooden started Dwight in baseball at age 3. When he was six he saw Al Kaline hit two homers and make two spectacular catches in a spring training game at Lakeland. "I fell in love with him and wanted to play outfield," says Gooden. At 12, however, he also became a pitcher. At 14, in senior Little League, he lost his temper—for the last time. "I thought I was never supposed to lose or give up hits," he says. "I gave up something like eight runs in 1⅓ innings, banged my hand against a wall and fractured my wrist." Three years later the Mets made Gooden their first pick in the June 1982 free-agent draft.
As a roving instructor visiting Kingsport, Tenn., the Mets' lowest Class A farm team, that summer, Johnson asked Gooden to show him his stuff. He threw one fastball that rose, another that tailed away, and also showed a superb curve. "I knew we had something," says Johnson. That season Gooden struck out 84 batters in 79 innings. In 1983 he went 19-4 with 300 Ks in 191 innings at Lynchburg, in a tougher Class A league, and jumped from there to Tidewater, helping pitch that team to the minor league championship. One of Johnson's first acts after being named Met manager last Oct. 13 was to ask general manager Frank Cashen to keep an open mind about promoting Gooden to the majors.
Gooden made a compelling case for himself in spring training. First, he pitched well in B-squad games. In his first A-game start, he surrendered a two-run homer to Toronto's Cliff Johnson, then calmly retired eight of the next nine batters. Johnson started him against the Yankees before a large crowd in Fort Lauderdale. Gooden, unfazed, went on to make the club. "Davey gerrymandered the rotation so that Dwight could open the season in the controlled conditions of the Astrodome," says Cashen. Pitching before his parents, whom the Mets had flown in, Gooden struck out five batters and yielded but three hits and one run over five innings, and got the win. "People kept telling me I'd be nervous," he says. "I never felt nervous at all—just strange." Now, after every start, Gooden calls his father and goes over nearly every pitch with him.
Bringing Gooden along slowly—"no crush or rush to go nine," says Cashen—the Mets didn't allow him to complete a game until May 11, when he shut out the Dodgers 2-0 in L.A. In six of his seven starts since then, he has allowed two runs or fewer. "He brushes off games as just another day at the office," says Darling.
Call it the Gooden Effect—his poise has rubbed off on other Met pitchers. But what a crew Gooden has to work with: an odd couple, two erstwhile store detectives and a big guy who can't throw hard.
The odd couple is Darling and Terrell, who were acquired from the Rangers in exchange for outfielder Lee Mazzilli on April Fools' Day 1982. Darling is a Yale man and 1981 No. 1 draft choice whose major pitching problem is his subtlety. Terrell, a 1980 33rd-round choice, is called Bulldog because he goes right at 'em. "Ron's intelligent," says Johnson, "but I sometimes wonder if he has common sense." Darling's getting there. In early May, he stopped falling behind on the count by trying to throw "fine" pitches. Terrell gives up a lot of hits (101 in 94⅓ innings) but not many walks (35).
Sisk and Orosco share the bullpen, a house in Queens, N.Y. and the distinction of having worked as store dicks. "It's hard to believe," says Sisk, "but people were ripping off Goodwill stores." Orosco became one of baseball's best relievers last season when he won 13 games, saved 17 and held opponents to a .175 average with men on base. Sisk can pitch short relief, but he's happier setting up Orosco, both at home ("paper plates") and in the pen ("What else can you do but pitch middle relief when you've only got one pitch?"). Throwing virtually nothing but a sinker, Sisk has only allowed three earned runs in 31 appearances and has a league-leading hits-per-inning ratio of .5. "His pitch is like a dry spitter—you won't see many guys getting the fat part of the bat on it," says Met broadcaster Tim McCarver, an ex-catcher. "I think he's the key to their staff," says Atlanta reliever Terry Forster.
And then there's Lynch, who is 6'5" tall, weighs 207 pounds and doesn't have much of a fastball. "You used to get 10 to 12 changeups out of every 20 pitches from him," says Met first baseman Keith Hernandez. "Now he throws a lot of cut fastballs and sinkers, which make his changeup that much better. He's the most improved pitcher in the league."
Hernandez is a vital member of the staffs supporting cast. The best-fielding first baseman in the league, he made a spectacular stop to preserve the Berenyi-Sisk shutout. Because the team's putative sluggers, leftfielder George Foster (.217, 10 homers, 32 runs batted in) and right-fielder Darryl Strawberry (.269, 9, 32), have produced only sporadically, Hernandez (.303, seven game-winning RBIs), centerfielder Mookie Wilson (.288, 19 stolen bases) and third baseman Hubie Brooks (.320) have carried the offense. And Hernandez is constantly going to the mound with advice on opposing hitters.
Another regular visitor to the mound is Mike Fitzgerald, the rookie catcher whom Hernandez calls the team's "unsung hero." A young catcher to handle young pitchers? "He grew up with these pitchers in the minors," says Johnson, "the way Andy Etchebarren did with the young Oriole pitchers of the mid-'60s. Old-fashioned baseball theory says to have an old catcher with young pitchers. That's nice, but it takes a period of adjustment. Why not use a young catcher with no adjustment?"