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Jewish World Review August 4, 2000 / 3 Menachem-Av, 5760

Mile Lupica

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Gooden magic is the Dwight stuff -- HE FINALLY REACHED BOTTOM when the Devil Rays released him. Drugs never did that to Dwight Gooden, suspensions never did it, rehab never did it. Neither did a bad arm. He was still in his 20s when he got hurt. The arm would get better and he would still have baseball. Then the Devil Rays cut him and told him to retire, and he went home and waited for the phone to ring. He waited for 3 1/2 weeks.

"Longest three weeks of my life,'' he said.

He was 35 and staring at the rest of his life. Only, he wasn't ready for the rest of his life. Few of them are. He swallowed his pride and wrote a letter to George Steinbrenner and asked for one last chance. Now here he is, the story of the baseball season in New York for as long as he keeps pitching this way. There hasn't been a big-name pitcher to come back from nowhere this way since Catfish Hunter in the summer of 1978.

"It's like I said one time after I pitched my no-hitter (for the Yankees, in 1996),'' Gooden said. "These things only seem to happen to the Yankees.''

The Yankees lost to the Royals Wednesday, 4-1. A big 6-foot-7 guy for the Royals named Blake Stein gave the Yanks just two hits. The Yankees hit balls all over the place, and hit them hard. Most were caught, so Denny Neagle lost for the first time since he came over from the Reds. The Royals got him for 11 hits and three earned runs in his seven innings. Neagle is 2-1 as a Yankee, with an earned run average of 2.61.

Gooden is 3-0 with an earned run average of 1.86 since he got what was supposed to be one start, at Shea Stadium, against the Mets. That was the second weekend in July. Roger Clemens is 4-0 since that day, with a 2.04 ERA. Andy Pettitte is 2-2 and 3.64, David Cone is 0-3 and 9.56. Dwight Gooden, who was out of baseball, has been as good as the Yankees have. If the bullpen could have held his lead Tuesday night, he would have been 4-0 with the Yankees. Clemens was named American League Pitcher of the Month, according to the release from Major League Baseball handed out in the press box in the seventh inning of the Royals game. It could just as easily have been Gooden.

Steinbrenner gave him one more chance. The Boss has always been as much of a sucker for Doc as he was for Darryl Strawberry. Steinbrenner put him on the field with Billy Connors, who told Gooden the first day: "You're either going to do things my way or you can go home.'' Gooden showed up believing he could still pitch, that his real problem was mechanics, not a dead arm. Connors told him he was right, showed him how, showed him a new pitch that was a combination of change-up, splitter and screwball that Gooden would have laughed off as an old man's dodge when he had the best fastball in the world.

Now Cone is working with Connors, and El Duque Hernandez is working out a sore arm, and so no one knows what happens when all of Joe Torre's top-shelf guys are ready to go. But how does he take the ball away from Gooden? For the last month, since he beat the Mets at Shea on a day that was supposed to be a curtain call for him, Gooden has been a righthanded Neagle. He throws four-seam fastballs and two-seam fastballs and a big slow curve and a hard splitter and the most earned runs he has given up in a game is two. Watching him on the mound these days is like watching some old boxer stick and move with everything he has learned.

"Seeing him is like seeing a ghost,'' Willie Randolph said, walking with Gooden toward the Yankee clubhouse. Randolph reminded Gooden that they were once teammates with the Mets.

"I've been teammates with everybody,'' Gooden said, smiling, still looking like the teenager who showed up at Shea in the spring of 1984. Somehow he has been around the big league now for parts of 17 seasons.

"You've got nine lives,'' Randolph said.

Gooden said, "Which one am I at now?''

Randolph laughed and said, "Eight.''

There are so many pitchers to talk about in New York this season, in a baseball summer when a total of 80,000 fans show up at Shea and Yankee stadiums for two games on a Wednesday afternoon. You have Clemens and Neagle and Mike Hampton and Al Leiter, who beat the Reds at Shea yesterday and saw his record go to 12-4, the best in town. You have the setup guys for both teams and then Mariano Rivera and Armando Benitez for the ninth inning.

But for the last month -- and maybe for the rest of the season if he can keep fooling everybody with soft stuff -- the pitcher people want to watch and talk about is Dwight Gooden, who finally hit bottom and got up one more time. Catfish Hunter's last great run in baseball lasted all the way through the summer to the last game of the 1978 World Series. He wasn't gassing anybody either.

"How can you not be happy for this kid?'' Joe Torre said before the game. "I call him a kid because I think that's the way a lot of us still think of him.''

Torre was asked the difference between the Gooden he is watching now and the one the Yankees gave up on a couple of years ago.

"The count's 1-2 now or 0-2, not 2-0,'' Torre said.

Gooden is ahead in the count after we had all counted him out. Other teams have stories like this. The Yankees somehow have more. They have always had more ghosts than anybody else. Now they have one more.

JWR contributor Mike Lupica is author, most recently, of Summer of '98: When Homers Flew, Records Fell, and Baseball Reclaimed America. To comment, click here.


08/03/00: Shea holds fort, Atlanta reloads
07/27/00: Bombers pass on small change
07/12/00: Dealing from strength, bombers laugh last
07/12/00 Under Rocket fire: Too high & tight for Bombers
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06/19/00: Sosa whine is not fine
06/16/00: Even for Sammy, can't afford to throw this one away
06/15/00: Go for gold, George. How does Sosa help Yanks? Let us count the ways
06/12/00: Thirty-three is the loneliest number
06/12/00: For starters, Yanks up in arms & age

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