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To appreciate the implausibility of Dwight Gooden’s no-hitter, which turns 25 on Friday, you need to understand who the following characters were a quarter of a century ago:
When the clubhouse opened — again, after a victory — it had the pall of a playoff loss, such was the importance of Cone on and off the field. There was a sense that offseason that the Orioles had outdone the Yankees in team building and were better. But at least George Steinbrenner had blinked on Cone’s demands at the eleventh hour and re-signed the ace, keeping him away from Baltimore. Now, Cone was gone for at least months.
They also owned real estate in the Yankees psyche after the division series rally. But also because they were managed by Lou Piniella, which enraged Steinbrenner. The Yanks lost to the Mariners and soon after had changed GM, manager and one third of the roster.
But in a quirk, Mel Stottlemyre was the pitching coach. When he was released by the Yankees in 1975 in a salary dispute, Stottlemyre blamed Steinbrenner and vowed never to return. He had been hired as the Astros pitching coach, though, by Bob Watson, who was now the Yankee GM. Watson brokered a peace. And Stottlemyre agreed to be the pitching coach. And he believed in Gooden going back to when they were coach/ace with the Mets. Gooden trusted Stottlemyre enough to make changes to his delivery (more compact) and mindset (stop thinking he was Dr. K).
Cone had gone into the Mets rotation in 1987 when Gooden first went for drug rehab. Now, Gooden was staying in the rotation because Cone was hurt. In the three starts before May 14, Gooden had a 1.80 ERA using Stottlemyre’s recommendations.
Yet, Gooden nearly did not pitch on May 14. His sickly father, Dan, was due for open heart surgery in Tampa. His family said it might be best if Gooden came sooner than later. Gooden, though, believed his father would want him to pitch. So he did — with his best friend on the Yankees just out of surgery at Columbia-Presbyterian and the man who taught him how to pitch at St. Joseph’s in Tampa. Cone couldn’t get cable in his room, so he turned on a radio to listen to Michael Kay and John Sterling in the eighth inning. A transistor radio was stuck under Dan Gooden’s ear 10 hours before his surgery, but no one knew if he was lucid enough to hear the game.
One other quirk: Bernie Williams had been among the Yankees’ iron men, but he was struggling with a strained left calf. So Gerald Williams started. Gerald was a brilliant defender, better than Bernie by a grade (or two). Darren Bragg led off the May 14 game with a walk. A-Rod then hit a dart toward the center-field wall that almost certainly is an RBI double if Bernie is playing. But Gerald made a sensational, twisting stab and fired back to double up Bragg. Rather than one in, one on, it was two outs, nobody on, tone set.
Throughout the game, Gooden would retreat to the dugout tunnel to cry between innings about his dad. Trainer Steve Donohue would exhort Gooden to do something special for his father. Inning by inning, Gooden built something special while filling in for his friend, while pitching for his father, against the nemesis that bedeviled the Yankees and for a team that needed even more signs to believe. With the tying runs in scoring position (Gooden walked six) in a 2-0 game, Gooden threw his final pitch of May 14, 1996, at 10:18 p.m. — his 134th. Paul Sorrento lifted it to a rookie shortstop named Derek Jeter.
The scoreboard read, “The Doctor Is In The House,” and “Simply The Best” played through the stadium as Gooden was carried off the field. A revived pitcher in place of his pal had provided an improbable symbol that this Yankee season would be special.
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