Twenty years ago, Dwight Gooden pitched a most unlikely no-hitter. After being suspended from baseball for most of the 1994 season and all of 1995 for repeated violations of Major League Baseball's drug policy, the one-time New York Mets superstar pitcher joined the Yankees, looking for a fresh start.
But Gooden's opportunity to shine almost never happened. In his first three starts of the 1996 season, he pitched to an 11.48 ERA. By mid-April, Gooden was demoted to the bullpen, where he saw little opportunity to get into games. But after health issues forced starter David Cone off the field, the team reinserted Gooden into the rotation.
This time, the 1985 National League Cy Young Award winner seized the moment. In his first three games after rejoining the rotation, Gooden gave up four runs in 20 innings of work leading up to a May 14 matchup with the high-powered Seattle Mariners. With his father less than 24 hours away from undergoing heart surgery in Tampa, Fla., Gooden took the mound in the Bronx and did the unthinkable, holding the Mariners' potent offense to six walks and no hits.
Earlier this spring, Gooden sat down with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III to discuss his 134-pitch performance during the Yankees' 1996 championship run.
During the time you were suspended from baseball in 1994 and 1995, did you think that you might never play again?
When I got the letter from [acting Commissioner] Bud Selig saying I was suspended for the entire 1995 season, I pretty much gave up on my career. I went into a heavy addiction. At that point, I was so sick with my disease that I really thought I was going to die before I ever took the mound again. Fortunately, I was able to get clean, and once I started straightening up, I began going to Eckerd College to work out. But I didn't have the same motivation as I had in the past, and even after the suspension was over, the phone wasn't really ringing from teams. I hadn't totally given up, but I felt there was a very small chance that I could make it back.
How did you come to sign with the Yankees?
Once Major League Baseball said it was okay for me to throw for teams, I went to Miami to work out for the Marlins, where my nephew, Gary Sheffield, was at the time. I threw the ball well that day, and we actually agreed to a two-year deal contingent on me going to Puerto Rico for part of the winter. I was OK with that, but a week later, my representative at the time, Ray Negron, called me with good news and bad news. He told me that the Marlins wanted me to go to winter ball for the entire winter, and I didn't want to do that because there was no guarantee that I would not get hurt pitching that much before Spring Training. Ray also told me that he had talked to George Steinbrenner, and The Boss wanted to meet me and possibly offer me a deal. I found out later that Ray had made the whole thing up about the Marlins wanting me to pitch that long in winter ball, and he just really wanted to get me to the Yankees.
What was the meeting like with Mr. Steinbrenner?
Ray told me to wear a suit and tie for the meeting, and I did. George walked in wearing an Adidas sweat suit, and he talked about everything but baseball. I left the meeting feeling frustrated because based on what we talked about, I didn't think he really had intentions to sign me. But not long after, George called me and made me an offer. We met one more time, this time with my dad at my side, and I agreed to a one-year guaranteed deal with team options for a second and third year. George told me to go to Puerto Rico for as long as I felt I needed to be there. More importantly, he said, "Stay out of trouble, pitch hard, and everything will work out." I felt bad about not signing with the Marlins and they weren't too happy with me, but I was put in the middle of a difficult situation with them.
How did then-Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre help you turn things around after your first three starts of the '96 season?
Well, I was pitching so badly that I didn't just get demoted to the bullpen. I actually got benched. Have you ever heard of a starting pitcher getting benched? Regardless of what the circumstances were, Joe Torre was not going to put me into any games at that time. During a series in Minnesota, Mel came out while I was throwing, and he said, "Forget about your days with the Mets. Nobody can pitch the same way for 11 years. We have to go with what you have now until whatever magic you had comes back." That was tough because I had been purely a power pitcher. I had to make the transition to becoming a complete pitcher who could pitch to specific locations, study hitters and throw more off-speed pitches. Once I did those things, I became more confident, and that changed everything for me.
Had you lost faith that you could again have success in the Big Leagues?
You never want to admit that, but I had no confidence. I was getting hit so hard that it was impossible not to doubt myself. I'm sure that George's loyalty to me was the only reason I wasn't released.
Even though you weren't pitching well, the Yankees turned to you when David Cone was diagnosed with an aneurysm and was out for several months. How did you view that opportunity?
I was sad for David, especially because he was a close friend, but I also looked at it as my last shot to stay in the Big Leagues.
How much did you want to turn things around to repay Mr. Steinbrenner for giving you a second chance?
A lot. I wanted to do it for him and for me. When I first came back, I wanted to get an opportunity with the Mets, but they didn't want me back. But when George gave me a chance to come back to New York, it was all about doing what was right not just for me, but for the fans and for George.
In the start before the no-hitter, you retired the final 22 batters you faced. For a pitcher who knew what it felt like to completely dominate Major League hitters, did you feel that you could pick up where you left off when you took the mound on May 14?
That start definitely gave me a boost of confidence. Coming from where I started off that year and then doing that after Mel and I had that talk was really good for me. Going into the next start against Seattle, which had the best offense in baseball, I was just thinking about pitching good enough to get through six or seven innings and give my team a chance to win. I never, in my wildest dreams, thought that I could dominate them.
When did you find out that your dad would need to undergo open-heart surgery?
It was talked about two weeks prior to when he actually had the surgery. We didn't know that it was going to take place on the day after the no-hitter, but his health was deteriorating, and about two days before the no-hitter, they scheduled it for May 15.
How close were you to skipping that start and flying home to Tampa to be with your dad before the surgery?
I had flight reservations already set to go home, but when I woke up that morning, I started to think that my dad would probably want me to pitch. I began to think about all the days we spent together at the park when I was a kid. He always talked to me about being a man and putting the job first. So I said, "You know what, I'm going to pitch, and then I'll go home."
I called my mom to tell her that I was going to stay in New York, and she didn't take it that well. She was making me feel guilty, and when she started to say, "You know what could happen …" I hung up the phone on her. After that, it felt like a dark cloud was over me all day, and I couldn't really focus. All I could think about was my childhood.
How instrumental was your dad in your life?
He was always there for me. I felt a lot of guilt, especially in 1995, because he wasn't well, and he needed me to be there for him. Unfortunately, I was going through addiction, and I wasn't able to be there for him. When the 1996 season began, instead of just going out and pitching, I was trying to do well for him, and I think I was putting too much pressure on myself. But once things started to come together, my dad was the extra incentive I needed to do well.
The no-hitter didn't start off that well for you. After walking Darren Bragg, Alex Rodriguez launched a ball to center. What do you remember about the play that center fielder Gerald Williams made on that ball?
It was unreal. I was running over to back up third, and I was shocked that Gerald was able to get to the ball in time to catch it. If he doesn't make that catch, I'm down 1-0, A-Rod is on third base with no outs and Ken Griffey Jr. is coming up. That catch changed the whole dynamic of that game.
When you took the mound in the sixth, you had retired seven in a row. Was there a point between the first and the sixth where it kind of clicked for you?
The more zeros I put up, the more confidence I was gaining. I was walking out to the mound with more of a swagger. Even though I wasn't the Doc Gooden of '85, I felt like I was back that night. There wasn't one moment where I began to feel it. Instead, I just felt better after each inning that I got through.
When did you begin to think about the possibility of throwing a no-hitter?
Well, I thought about my dad a lot during those first few innings because I was supposed to be home with him that day. But when I took the mound in the sixth inning and realized that I hadn't given up a hit, I just said, "Wow, is this really happening?" From that point on, I forgot about my dad's situation. That's when it began to feel like 1985 again. Although I didn't have the same velocity as I did back then, my focus was just as sharp and my confidence was just as high.
Darren Bragg led off the sixth and got to second base on an error by Tino Martinez. With a runner in scoring position and no outs, you had to face Rodriguez, Griffey and Edgar Martinez. How important was it to get A-Rod out in that spot?
That was a big out for me because I was already in a situation I didn't want to be in, and putting A-Rod on base would have made it a lot worse. Not only did I have to throw the ball over the plate, but I needed to throw quality pitches because of who I was facing.
How do you remember the at-bat against Griffey playing out?
After he worked a full count, I struck him out with a high fastball away. Griffey was probably the best left-handed hitter in the game, and as a right-handed pitcher, he really had an advantage over me. I didn't want to make a mistake against him because I knew he would make me pay for it, especially with the short porch in right field at the old Yankee Stadium. So I threw a lot of pitches away, and fortunately, I got him to chase a few of them. When I had that conversation with Mel about being more of a complete pitcher, he emphasized the importance of throwing pitches that batters won't expect. With a full count, Griffey was probably expecting an off-speed pitch, but I threw a fastball and put a little extra on it. I purposely threw it out of the strike zone because I was OK with him walking. But he swung right through that pitch.
How relieved did you feel when you got Edgar on the first pitch?
That one-pitch out could not have come at a better time. After the battle with Griffey, I didn't want to get into another long at-bat with a guy who was probably the best right-handed hitter in the game.
Why did you throw so few warm-up pitches in the later innings?
I was fatigued, and I didn't need to throw as many because my adrenaline was taking me through each inning. With all that was on my mind, I was ready to go as soon as I stepped onto the mound.
What was going through your mind when you took the mound in the ninth?
The crowd was really into it, and I was trying to soak it all in. I was thinking about how close I was and how much I wanted it. Mentally and physically, I was done. I was completely exhausted. If the circumstances had been different, if I had given up a few hits, there's no way I would have been out there for the ninth. That ninth inning was all about adrenaline and guts. I had a two-run lead, and I was going to complete the no-hitter.
After walking A-Rod to lead off the ninth, you had to face Griffey. How challenging was that?
It was mentally challenging because the no-hitter was right there, but before I knew it, I was behind in the count. I knew I couldn't make a mistake. I wanted to make a quality pitch, but I didn't have much left. I was like a boxer in the last round just trying to hang on. Tino made an incredible play at first base on a ground ball that Griffey hit. That saved the no-hitter.
After you walked Edgar with one out and threw a wild pitch to Jay Buhner, Mel came out to the mound. What did he say?
He said, "How are you doing?" And I said, "It doesn't matter. I'm not coming out." He said okay, and he turned around and walked away. I didn't tell him that I was tired or good. I just told him that I wasn't coming out.
After that conversation, you struck Jay Buhner out. How did you stay calm when you were one out away from completing a no-hitter?
I was thinking, "I just need to get this guy. He's mine." The last pitch of the game was actually the worst pitch I threw that night. I threw Paul Sorrento a hanging curveball that was right over the plate, and he popped it up. You've got to have some luck to pitch a no-hitter. I gave up a huge home run to Mike Scioscia during the 1988 postseason on the same pitch, but the difference in the outcome of the no-hitter just came down to luck.
What emotions were you feeling when Derek Jeter closed his mitt on the final out?
When I saw the ball go up into the air, I was thinking, "No way." When Derek caught it, I was thinking, "I was out of the game last year, and I just threw a no-hitter." I remember saying, "God, please don't let this be a dream." Then, my teammates carried me off the field, and I was thinking about how, not that long before, I couldn't stay clean for more than a day. I thought about how I would be in a hotel room crying because I thought my life was over. I couldn't believe that after being out of baseball and then nearly released by the Yankees, I was getting carried off the field at Yankee Stadium.
When did you start to think about your dad again?
Once I talked to the media and celebrated with my teammates, the reality hit me. I started thinking about whether I would get to see him again, and I stopped thinking about the no-hitter. I couldn't sleep at all that night, and before I knew it, I was on the first flight to Tampa the next morning.
Was your dad aware that you had thrown a no-hitter before he went into surgery the next morning?
Yes. The doctor told me that his eyes began to well up after the game, and that surprised me because he never really got emotional.
What do you remember most about seeing your dad for the first time after his surgery?
My mom pulled everyone out of the room and just let me have a moment alone with my dad. That's when I gave him the ball from the last out.
Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the May issue of Yankees Magazine. Get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.