NEW YORK — In a tableau that had the trappings of Disneyland before the game and took on the atmosphere of a World Series game from the time he threw his first pitch, New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden made his first major league appearance of the season at sold-out Shea Stadium Friday night.
Gooden, a 22-year-old right-hander who left the team and entered a rehabilitation clinic after testing positive for cocaine during spring training, didn't walk on water.
But before 51,402 fans, most of whom were in Gooden's corner, he pitched the first 6 innings of a 5-1 victory over the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates, allowing 4 hits and 1 run, striking out 4 and walking 5.
Afterward, in his first meeting with the press since he left the team in Florida, Gooden said baseball was fun again.
"When things are not going well, you start fighting yourself," Gooden said. "Last year, things weren't going well, and the World Series wasn't fun."
Gooden, after winning 41 games, losing 13 and striking out 564 batters in 1984 and 1985 for the Mets, went 17-6 last season, but his strikeout total plummeted. Then he lost all three postseason starts, dropping two World Series games to the Boston Red Sox, against whom he allowed 10 runs in 9 innings and threw like a pitcher with a sore arm.
In the off-season, there was a scrape with police over a possible traffic violation in his hometown of Tampa, Fla., and then the harsh reality of his cocaine problem.
Since then, during his rehabilitation period and through five appearances for Met farm clubs, Gooden had been publicly analyzed and reanalyzed by New York's media. On Friday, the New York Post used a headline usually reserved for a declaration of war. It said, "STAND UP & BOO," over a Dick Young column that read:
"If I could choreograph things tonight, I would do it this way: Enter Dwight Gooden . . . 50,000 people boo loudly. That's to let him know how society feels about the wrong he has done, about the damage he has committed to the millions of kids who worshipped him."
Later in the piece, Young said Gooden would deserve cheers, no matter how he pitched, just for making the effort to come back.
There were no boos. Only cheers, and more standing ovations than you'll see at the curtain call of "Les Miserables," a box-office hit on Broadway. Shea Stadium, which probably would have been occupied by about 30,000 fans on a normal Friday night, was festooned with banners that were typified by the "Dwight, We Still Love You and Always Will" sign that was suspended from the railing on the left-field upper deck.
Thursday had been a restless night for Gooden. He said he couldn't get to sleep until about 2 or 3 a.m., then he was up at 7:30 Friday.
"The whole day was dragging," said Gooden, who arrived at the stadium at 3 p.m. and tried to pass some of the time by playing cards with teammates.
Dr. Allan Lans, who has been supervising Gooden's aftercare at a New York clinic, didn't help relieve any of the pressure by complaining about a Met pregame promotion that called for a mock wedding at home plate between The Amazing Spiderman and Mary Jane Watson, who has been his heartthrob in the comics for 22 years.
"Who needs this?" Lans said. "It's horrible. In my way, it would have been as routine an evening as possible. But it's one of those crazy things, where the schedule was already made. The circus will go on, it pretty much had to happen."
As it turned out, the Spiderman nuptials may have helped Gooden, who, unnoticed by most of the fans, began warming up in the right-field bullpen while the two comic characters were saying their so-called vows.
The first batter Gooden faced, Barry Bonds struck out on a curveball.
"I was trying to relax, but I had butterflies all day," Gooden said. "Getting that first out was the biggest part, and the crowd was tremendous."
Gooden was shaking off his catcher, Gary Carter, all night, asking to throw the curve instead of the fastball.
"The last couple of times I pitched in the minors, I had a good curveball," Gooden said. "I thought they might be sitting on my fastball. Overall, I thought this was a decent outing."
Gooden allowed only one hit through the first five innings--Andy Van Slyke's single in the third. After one of his walks, in the fourth, he picked R.J. Reynolds off first base. The Mets also supported him with some exceptional fielding.
In the third, all three Pittsburgh outs were adventures. Mookie Wilson reached into the left-field stands to catch a foul fly; Lenny Dykstra, coming over from center field, caught a fly in left when Wilson appeared to lose the ball in the lights, and then Wilson caught the final out, despite a collision with Dykstra in left-center that left Dykstra with a banged-up nose and Wilson with superficial cuts inside his mouth. Both players finished the game.
Gooden, whose longest outing through his five minor league appearances was seven innings, began tiring in the seventh Friday night.