By Ernie Palladino
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Whether they deserve the reputation or not, New York sportswriters have always been known as a hard-hearted bunch, quick to criticize, slow to forgive.
On the night of May 14, 1996, though, the hard exteriors that lined the Yankee Stadium press box melted away for just one evening. As Joe Torre’s Yanks worked toward their first world championship in 18 years, one pitcher rose up to not only put away the Seattle Mariners but also push back the demons that hovered over his career.
Dwight Gooden pitched a no-hitter that night.
And the press corps — the same stone faces who gravely reported every one of Gooden’s drug-induced missteps over the years — collectively smiled and, in there own quiet manner, went a little bonkers along with the 20,786 fans who witnessed that most improbable of feats.
A little background here. The writers loved Gooden. He was one of the good guys. Engaging, funny, always available, Gooden stood as a clubhouse favorite among the scribes. A decade before, it became as satisfying to mine his locker for quotes as it was thrilling to watch him mow down the National League with that exploding fastball and big, sweeping curve.
Gooden was a good hitter, too. He struck his first of eight career home runs while pitching a typically-dominant, four-hit victory against Pittsburgh in September of 1985. This reporter stupidly began his interview by asking about the pitching.
Gooden smiled and shook his head.
“Nah, man, I don’t want to talk about pitching. I want to talk about my hitting,” he said.
That was Doc.
Gooden had gone into hero territory as he led the Mets to the 1986 title. The demons hadn’t fully revealed themselves at that point. Not until he missed the victory parade down the “Canyon of Heroes” did it become known that Doc had a huge drug problem.
We followed the fall. An arrest. Trips to rehab. Comebacks.
We followed his journey right down the rabbit hole in the early 1990s that left him with three straight losing seasons and, finally, his total absence from baseball in 1995. All with broken hearts. All with the unanswered question of how such a good guy could lose his way so badly.
A lot of us figured he was done. But the Yanks gave him a shot in 1996. It wasn’t a happy comeback. The fastball didn’t rise like it used to. The curveball — Lord Charles in his glory days — had long ago turned into the more pedestrian Uncle Charlie. The record going into May 14 read 1-3.
The Yanks had thought about sending him to the minors.
Magic was the last thing anyone in the press box anticipated.
And yet, two hours and 43 minutes after first pitch, there was the promising rookie shortstop — a fellow named Derek Jeter — settling under Paul Sorrento’s high popup to unleash a joyous celebration on the field.
It wasn’t a particularly clean no-hitter. He walked six and struck out five. And he gave the reporters fits in a hair-raising ninth when he put men on second and third with a one-out wild pitch after walks to Alex Rodriguez, who Gerald Williams robbed of extra bases in the first inning with a great stabbing catch, and Edgar Martinez.
The Yanks only held a 2-0 lead. Not only was the no-hitter in jeopardy, but also the shutout and the win.
To add tension, Torre paid a visit to the mound after the wild pitch. Pulling him would have squashed his no-hit bid, since a pitcher must go nine full innings to get credited.
It also would have meant total rewrites for the scribes — on deadline. More than one reference to various ancestral chains floated around the press box. Writers can be selfish like that.
But Torre left him in.
Doc struck out Jay Buhner.
He got Sorrento to pop up a 2-1 pitch.
It was over.
The press probably should have figured something special was happening that year. It was still early, though. The win put the Yanks’ division lead at two games. They would never fall out of first.
It turned Gooden’s season around. He went 8-2 in his next 11 starts and finished at 11-7, though he didn’t appear in a single postseason game.
But May 14 proved the high-water mark for him. For the first night in years, he looked like the confident, dominant Gooden of old. And he had accomplished something he couldn’t during his truly great years with the Mets.
Even the great stone faces that lined the press box had to smile at that.
Coming later this week, WFAN.com’s Jason Keidel sits down for an in-depth interview with Gooden about his magical night in the Bronx. For more coverage of the 1996 Yankees celebration, please click here.
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