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Mudville: April 14, 2024 10:16 am PDT

Heroes Among Us

Heroes, sometimes, are right in front of us and we don’t realize it. The everyday takes extraordinary strength.

Dwight Gooden is realizing that in many ways.

Black History Month is such an important time for our country. The past needs to be put in perspective. Not just history-making moments, like Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball but the everyday acts of courage and encouragement.

Considering all that, here is what Gooden told BallNine about his own life growing up.

Yes, we all know Gooden has lived a life of ups and downs, winning a World Series with the Mets at 21 years old and later in his career pitching a no-hitter with the Yankees.

Drugs and alcohol abuse haunted him. He knows the mistakes he has made but he also knows how blessed he is to be at this point in his life with his children and grandchildren.

Here at BallNine, The Story is not just about success. There is failure too. And often it is about plain old survival. That’s the challenge. Dwight Gooden is a survivor. And today, at the age of 56, he is one thankful man.

“Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby over in the American League, Hank Aaron, all that he accomplished, I agree that they should all be honored but for me, Black History Month really is about family,’’ Gooden told me.

“Me personally, when I think about Black History Month now, I think about my parents and the sacrifices they made to raise our family.’’

Both of Gooden’s parents had to quit school after third grade to work.

“My family is originally from Georgia, a small town called Americus, Georgia and Cordele, Georgia, where it was dirt roads and everybody grew their own vegetables,’’ Gooden began. “You have your chickens there, you have your hogs, your cows and every summer we used to go back there and find out from my aunts and uncles about my parents and what it was like for them growing up.

“When I think about my parents I think about what they went through. My dad had only that third-grade education, same for my mom, and at that time they had to go to school at a church. After the third grade my dad had to quit school and work, picking pecans to help his family and raise the chickens and all that stuff. My dad had to teach himself and educate himself. He was self-taught on everything.

“When my family moved from Georgia to Tampa – that’s where I was born in Tampa – and that’s where my dad taught me the game of baseball, as well as my nephew Gary.’’

That nephew would be Gary Sheffield, who went on to play 22 years in the majors, hit 509 home runs, bat .292 and put up a lifetime .907 OPS. Gooden lasted 16 years in the majors.

Dan Gooden taught two superstars how to play baseball. Imagine that. Dwight Gooden, one of the game’s best pitchers of his time and Gary Sheffield, one of the best hitters, can thank Dan Gooden for their unique skills.

“Looking back, the only thing I wish I could have asked my dad before he passed was where did he get his knowledge about baseball’’

Here’s a little secret, Dan Gooden was so good at baseball, knew so much about the game and its history and the mechanics of the game, that when he first started teaching Dwight and Gary, he would do so without using any baseball equipment.

True story.

“I told my dad I love baseball and Gary loves baseball and he said, ‘Okay, every day when I come home from work we are going to go to the park and work on stuff’,’’ Dwight recalled. “When Gary and I first started going to the park, we couldn’t take our gloves, no bat, no ball. My dad knew I was going to be a pitcher and Gary was going to be a hitter and he had me do all these different drills about mechanics and stuff. Same for Gary with hitting.

“It wasn’t fun because as a kid, you want to throw, you want to hit, you want to do different things. But he kept saying, ‘We’ll get to that. We’ll get to that.’ So we spent like three weeks on all these different drills and then he said, ‘Okay, now we’ll bring the ball out. Now we’ll bring the bat and the gloves.’ At that point it all made sense.’’

Sheffield was famous for wiggling his bat. Here is how that started.

“That was a timing thing my dad taught him,’’ Dwight told me. “Because I was with him when he was teaching him this stuff.’’

A young Gary Sheffield and Dwight Gooden. (Photo courtesy Cooperstown Cred / Manny Rubio)

Let’s fast forward to 1992.

“Gary gets traded from Milwaukee to San Diego,’’ Gooden said.

At the time I was covering the Padres and Sheffield was on fire. He hit .330 for the Padres that year and had 323 total bases. He blasted 33 home runs, drove in 100 runs and struck out only 40 times. Early in the year it was time for a family showdown: Doc vs. Gary – Mets vs. Padres. The Mets and Gooden beat the Padres 7-3 that first meeting and Sheffield only got a single.

Gooden told his catcher, “When Gary comes up, don’t put down a sign until I nod my head because I want to see what he is doing with his bat. If he is wiggling his bat real fast, he’s thinking fastball. If he’s going a little slower, he’s thinking off-speed. So I will nod my head, and then we will go with the pitch I want to throw. I had a lot of success against Gary. He would kill other pitchers, but I wouldn’t tell them how I did it because he was still family.’’

Family first.

And all those lessons from Gooden’s father helped, and throughout his career, Gooden often would call his dad after he pitched to hear what his father had to say about the outing. Gooden got his father a satellite dish in 1984 so his dad could watch every start.

All those lessons paid off, even those without a baseball.

“When I did get drafted I knew where your leg should be in a certain position, where your arm should be and if you are trying to throw down and away to a righty and the ball is going up and in, that means your arm is here and it should be there,’’ Gooden explained. “So I knew all of that before I even started pitching with a baseball. He already taught me mechanics. As I got older it all made sense. But as a kid, nine years old, you don’t get it at times.

“I think a lot of what he taught came from his discipline growing up and being accountable, the hard work he had to put in growing up to help his family even though he was only 10, 11 years old. He used that knowledge and that discipline to teach to me from a baseball perspective.’’

Dan Gooden passed away in 1996 at the age of 69, a few months after Dwight pitched his no-hitter with the Yankees against the Mariners. His mother Ella Mae passed away in 2016.

“Looking back, the only thing I wish I could have asked my dad before he passed was where did he get his knowledge about baseball,’’ Gooden said.

“My dad worked very hard at a chemical plant to take care of his family, all on a third-grade education. But if you had met him you would never had known that because he taught himself so much. Same for my mom.’’

His mom had to leave school too after third grade. They went to school at the same church, Gooden told me.

“They walked miles to go to this school,’’ noted Dwight, “We didn’t have a lot in my family growing up, but we had love in the house. We understood about respect. My dad and my mom taught me it doesn’t matter if you are black, white, Spanish, whatever, it doesn’t matter where your home is, everybody is the same. There’s different upbringings, different jobs, but we are the same. I try to install that into my kids today what my parents taught me.

“With all due respect to all the Black heroes before them, everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie, but for me and what I witnessed and hear the stories within my family, my heroes are my parents. Witnessing what they did for me made them my heroes,’’ Gooden said. “I look at all the sacrifices they made, especially now they are no longer here and all the support they gave me, that was the difference, why I was able to make it. So many kids don’t have the parents that continue to push them and they end up dropping out of school and bad things happen.

The New York Mets' Dwight Gooden and nephew Gary Sheffield of the San Diego Padres pose for a photo at Shea Stadium. (Photo via Bo Jackson's Elite Sports)

“I get the analytics, but the best scout is your eyes, what you see from the mound and as a pitcher you react to what you see,’’ Gooden said. “There are things analytics can’t tell you.’’

That is the deGrom approach. No one reads swings better than deGrom.

Gooden then told me this story about Kenny Rogers when they were together with the Yankees.

“Me and Kenny grew up together,’’ he said. “We played against each other in Little League and high school. When he pitched with the Yankees he would say, ‘Man I don’t feel like dealing with these fans today.’ I’d say, ‘Kenny, you have to understand that if the fans boo you or something is written bad about you the next day, it’s about your performance, not you as a person. They don’t know you as a person.’

“Guys that come to New York need to separate the two,’’ Gooden explained. “You know if you had a good start or not. If I screw up and have a bad start, there should be something written bad about that start, the fans should boo, but they are only booing the performance. All you can do is give it 100 percent. And the fans will recognize that and that’s all you can do. A lot of guys come into New York and are so afraid to fail because they are thinking what is going to happen afterwards. You’ve wasted so much energy before they even get on the field.’’

Gooden enjoyed working with George Steinbrenner when Steinbrenner made him an assistant around 2001. Gooden worked closely with a lot of young Yankees back then.

“Unfortunately I got into trouble,’’ he said. “A lot of teams may look at my track record and say, ‘Can we trust him?’ I think everything is timing and I’m a Met at heart. I would love the opportunity to talk to Sandy (Alderson) or Steve Cohen. Just to talk so they can see where I am at in my life. Any way I could help the team I would love to do it. I’m at the ballpark all the time as a fan and I am a student of the game. So I would love that opportunity.’’

Gary Sheffield and Dwight Gooden sit court side as the the New York Knicks play the Cleveland Cavaliers at Madison Square Garden. (Photo by Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

The opportunity to pass along the baseball knowledge.

The Mets signed free agent pitcher Taijuan Walker to a two-year deal this week. Gooden talked to Walker at the Futures Game at Citi Field back in 2013. “I got the chance to talk to him about his curve ball and stuff,’’ Gooden said.

“I know baseball. My whole life is baseball. The stuff I’ve learned through the years from pitching coaches like John Cumberland, Al Jackson, Mel Stottlemyre, who helped me make the adjustment from a power pitcher to more of a pitcher later in my career, learning how to read bat speeds, changing speeds, location, so I’ve had different pitching coaches in different periods of my career. Phil Regan was another one, I had him as a pitching coach in Cleveland. All you do is take all the knowledge I’ve gotten, pass it along with my own experience and go because baseball is a game where you are constantly learning.’’

Dwight Gooden has learned some lessons – some hard lessons – but his love for the game and willingness to pass it along is strong as ever.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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