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Doc Is Patient : Gooden May Be Past His Prime, but He Says He Still Can Be a Winner

March 26, 1993|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Old man Dwight Gooden, all of 28, is trying to turn back the clock at an age when most big league careers are just taking off.

"Last year I felt like I was 45," the New York Met pitcher said.

Rest isn't part of the deal in the city that never sleeps.

Reeling in the years:

--In eight jam-packed seasons, Gooden has already posted near-Hall of Fame credentials. He has 142 victories and a winning percentage of

.683, fifth-best in history.

--He was the youngest player to win the Cy Young Award, at 20, way back in 1985. He has gone from a feared power pitcher, the fabled Dr. K, to a pinpoint artist.

--He played for a World Series championship team in 1986, checked in and out of cocaine rehabilitation in 1987 and underwent rotator-cuff surgery on his pitching shoulder in 1991.

So, two years before he turns 30, Gooden reaches back to a simpler time.

It's quite a stretch.

Gooden has to go back to his teens, when he was a wide-eyed 19-year-old prospect who never imagined making the jump from Class-A ball to the Mets.

All eyes have been on Gooden since.

They were fixed on him again last month when he walked into camp and dropped the baggage of recent history: his first losing season in 1992, three consecutive seasons with an earned-run average higher than 3.50 and doubts about his shoulder.

But Gooden was all smiles. He closed his eyes and remembered 1984.

He even shaved his head, as he had that spring, and asked the equipment man for uniform No. 64, the longshot jersey he wore then.

"The last couple of years, I have not had a lot of fun, on or off the field," Gooden said. "My rookie year, in the spring, there were no expectations, no expectations to make the club. I was enjoying every day. I wanted the same approach this year. I wanted to start over. And everything has been great."

No one assumes that Gooden can reclaim the dominance of his earlier years, when he won 58 games in his first three seasons, striking out more than 200 batters each year.

But Gooden was always more than a strikeout pitcher who lived or died by his fastball. Even in his flame-throwing days, his control was amazing. Met Manager Jeff Torborg, who as a player caught no-hitters thrown by Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan, remembers how those fastball pitchers struggled for years with wildness.

Gooden never had that problem. In the consecutive seasons when he struck out 276, 268 and 200 batters, Gooden walked 72, 51 and 92 batters.

He has struck out more than 200 batters only once since 1986, getting 223 in 1990, but Gooden was good enough to make the adjustment.

Not that it wasn't great being Dr. K.

"Once you've done it, you think you can do it again," Gooden said. "There were times in '88 and '89 when I would win a game, 3-0 or 3-1, and would only have two or three strikeouts. People would say, 'Yeah, but you only had two or three K's.' That would bother me. That's crazy. All I want to do is win."

Case in point: Gooden won 18 games in 1988 despite striking out only 175.

What worries the Mets more than the radar-gun speeds are Gooden's shoulder problems.

He missed much of the 1989 season after tearing a muscle in the back of his shoulder that July.

Despite a career-high ERA of 3.83, he returned to win 19 games in 1990. But he underwent rotator-cuff surgery on his shoulder after the 1991 season, and his career seemed in doubt.

Even Doc Gooden didn't know if he could make this adjustment.

He returned in time for spring training last year but didn't know what to expect.

"Starting the first day," Gooden said, "you're waiting to feel something. It's like starting all over again; your first batting practice, your first game, (the shoulder) was in the back of my mind. Once you start thinking about it, you're not focused on what you've got to do."

Gooden finished with a 10-13 record on a team that was 72-90. He wasn't the same Gooden, but he wasn't bad, either.

Torborg was impressed with Gooden then, and now.

"Whatever he is, I'm glad he's with me," Torborg said. "He threw over 200 innings last season (206), so you know he must be doing something right. He had a losing year as far as wins and losses, but not a losing year as far as performance. A lot of games, we couldn't score. We hit .235 as a team. There were a lot of dry days."

Having a sound Gooden in the rotation is paramount for a Met comeback this season.

"It means you won't have any long losing streaks," Torborg said. "And the innings are important. It saves your bullpen."

The injury and subsequent rehabilitations have changed Gooden. He has to work harder now to maintain a level of excellence. Gone are the days when he stepped to the mound and blew batters away.

It was easier then.

"Before, it was shower and get out," he said. "Now, it's two or three hours in the weight room. Probably the easiest thing now is the day you pitch. I never want to cheat myself."

As he grows older, Gooden's mark on the game becomes more important. Because of his success earlier, he realizes that he can leave a legacy few can match.

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