27 years later: Dwight Gooden’s unlikely no-hitter remains a Yankees masterpiece
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In an improbable turn of events exactly 27 years ago, Dwight Gooden, a former New York star pitcher, threw an epic no-hitter that stirs imagination even today. It was the triumph of a pitcher, who had been suspended from baseball for multiple violations of the league’s drug policy, causing him to miss most of the 1994 season and all of the 1995 season. Dwight Gooden got a rebirth only after he joined the Yankees, hoping to start over with a clean slate.
Dwight Gooden made May 14, 1996, memorable for the Yankees with his no-hitter, which made him the eighth Yankees player to accomplish this feat. He threw 135 pitches and led the team to a 2-0 victory over the Mariners at Yankee Stadium. The 31-year-old right-hander had been struggling and hadn’t won a game in almost two years. In fact, he had almost been released from the team the month before. Dwight Gooden expressed his joy at the achievement, saying:
“This is the greatest feeling, especially because I did it in New York. With all, I’ve been through and all the stuff that has gone on, this is the greatest feeling.”
He had been out of baseball since June of 1994, and this no-hitter marked a triumphant return to the sport. As Dwight Gooden approached a potential no-hitter on the mound, his father was hospitalized 1,000 miles away in Florida and scheduled for open-heart surgery. Gooden’s mother suggested he leave to be with his father – forget the Yankees, she said, forget baseball, forget everything but Gooden refused. He believed his father, who taught him to play baseball, would want him to stay and pitch. Gooden went on to make history by pitching a no-hitter later that day.
Dwight Gooden no-hitter is unparalleled
On the same day eleven years prior, Dwight Gooden was a dominant pitcher with an impressive record of 24-4 and a remarkable ERA of 1.53, making him the best pitcher in baseball at the time. At the young age of 20, he possessed a graceful pitching motion and threw a fastball that was so powerful that even the best batters struggled to hit it. This made him one of the greatest one-season wonders in the history of the game.
Yet, Dwight Gooden never threw a no-hitter with the Mets, not even in that surreal summer of ’85. He famously said in 2020:
“I knew I could get any hitter out in any situation that year. Didn’t matter what the count was, didn’t matter if they knew the fastball was coming – I’d still throw it right by them. I just wish I’d appreciated it more at the time. I had a good career, but man, I knew I should’ve had a great one.”
When Dwight Gooden joined the Yankees, he had a dream to achieve something that had been unattainable for the past ten years. But his performance was not as impressive as it had been during his time with the Mets. He was more strategic and careful with his pitch selection, but he had also gained weight and lost some of his previous agility. Dwight Gooden could no longer lift his left knee up to his chin; his range of motion was limited to the mid-waist area.
Dwight Gooden’s baseball career was affected by his addiction to cocaine and alcohol, which started around 1986. It was not long before his drug problem became widely known in New York. In 1986, he missed the World Series parade because he was still too intoxicated to get out of bed. This had a profound impact on the Mets and things were never the same again.
Dwight Gooden had received a suspension from baseball due to a positive cocaine test in 1994. He failed a second test and was suspended for the entire 1995 season, leading to his release from the Mets. Gooden was in search of a new beginning for his career as his suspension came to an end. The New York Yankees took a risk and signed him as a free agent on February 20, 1996.
Following his signing with the Yankees, team owner George Steinbrenner had expressed confidence that Dwight Gooden, who was 31 years old at the time, could win 15 games for the team. Dwight Gooden later revealed that after his initial interview with Steinbrenner, he felt disappointed with the impression he had made.
“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. More importantly, he said, ‘Stay out of trouble, pitch hard, and everything will work out.’”
Dwight Gooden struggled in his first three starts of the 1996 season, with an ERA of 11.48. Due to his poor performance, he was moved to the bullpen by mid-April, where he was not given many opportunities to pitch. However, when the team’s starting pitcher David Cone had to take time off due to health issues, Dwight Gooden was given a chance to return to the rotation.
His career, which was once a sure certainty for Cooperstown went into jeopardy, after his addiction and suspension. Dwight Gooden’s tenure with the Yankees was also winding down. His record on the squad read 0-3. After signing him that summer solely at George Steinbrenner’s urging, the team was considering releasing Dwight Gooden. Upon hearing this, the pitcher replied, “That would have been the end of my career, and who knows what would have come after that.”
After being reinserted into the rotation, Dwight Gooden showed improvement in his performance by allowing only four runs in 20 innings in his first three games. On May 14, he faced the Seattle Mariners, who had a strong offense. Despite his father being scheduled for heart surgery the next day, Dwight Gooden pitched a remarkable game, walking six batters and allowing no hits. This was a critical moment for him, who had been struggling with his career and facing the possibility of being released by the Yankees.
The day unfolded
In early May, Dwight Gooden received news that his father would need open-heart surgery and it was scheduled for May 15. Initially, he planned to fly home on May 14, but Dwight Gooden began to consider what his father had taught him about putting his job first and being responsible. The pitcher eventually decided to pitch instead of going home, believing that his father would want him to prioritize his duties as a professional athlete.
Dwight Gooden pitched against the Seattle Mariners in front of a crowd of 20,765 at Yankee Stadium. He aimed to pitch well enough to give his team a chance to win. His opponent was Sterling Hitchcock, who had won his first three games of the season but had not won a game since April 12.
It was only in the sixth inning when Dwight Gooden became aware that the Seattle Mariners, who were leading the American League in runs scored, had not been able to hit any of his pitches yet.
In the ninth inning, Dwight Gooden faced some nerve-wracking moments as the Mariners threatened to score. When he took the mound at the start of the inning, the crowd applauded him. However, he walked the first batter, Alex Rodriguez, who didn’t join the Yankees until 2004. Although he managed to get Griffey out, Rodriguez advanced to second base. Dwight Gooden then walked Edgar Martinez and threw a wild pitch on his first pitch to Buhner, putting the tying runs in scoring position, with Buhner as the potential go-ahead run.
Yankees manager Joe Torre approached the mound and spoke to Dwight Gooden as the crowd anxiously watched, aware that if Torre took him out of the game, he would not be able to complete the no-hitter. Despite this pressure, Torre decided to leave Gooden in the game. Dwight Gooden regained his composure and struck out Buhner, his fifth strikeout of the game.
Dwight Gooden’s lead was only two runs, which made the situation risky until the end. In the final moments of the game, the Mariners had two runners on base with two outs, and Gooden’s wild pitch allowed both runners to move into scoring position. The last pitch of the game, which was a hanging curveball to Paul Sorrento, had the potential to ruin everything.
“I was gassed at that point, I just spun (the curveball) to (the left-handed hitting) Sorrento,” Gooden said. “As soon as he swung, I thought, ‘Oh no.’ That’s the only thing that was running through my mind. ‘Oh no.’ With that short porch in right, I was sure he was going to hit it out.”
Gooden hoped for one more successful pitch as the ball was hit between the shortstop and third baseman.
“I wanted (Derek) Jeter to catch it, not (Wade) Boggs,” he said with a laugh. “No disrespect towards Wade, but I knew he had trouble with pop-ups.”
After Derek Jeter caught the ball, Dwight Gooden celebrated the no-hitter with his teammates as they rushed to the mound. Gooden removed his glove and cap and raised his arms in the air. This was the ninth no-hitter in Yankees’ history, and it was especially surprising since Gooden had just come off a year-long suspension. The win proved to be a turning point for Gooden’s season, as he won eight out of his next 11 starts and finished the season with a record of 11-7.
Following the last out, there was chaos on the field, with Dwight Gooden being lifted by his teammates and carried off on their shoulders. He raised his fists to the sky and was shouting, screaming, and crying all at once, likely overwhelmed by the emotions of the moment and his personal situation with his father’s surgery.
The following morning after the game, Dwight Gooden took a flight to the hospital where his father was scheduled for open-heart surgery. He presented the game ball to his father, who had listened to the game on the radio and wept after the last out. Sadly, Dan Gooden passed away eight months later. However, Dwight Gooden found comfort in the fact that he was able to give his father some closure by pitching the no-hitter before his surgery.
After Gooden arrived in Tampa, he gave his father the ball from his final out in the no-hitter and told him it was for him. Although his father was too weak to speak, he showed his emotions by crying.
Dwight Gooden later stated that he was uncertain whether his father’s tears were due to the pain he was experiencing or from happiness.
By the time he retired from Major League Baseball after 16 years, Gooden had achieved numerous accolades, including being selected as an All-Star four times, winning two World Series championships, receiving a Silver Slugger award, being named Rookie of the Year, and winning the Cy Young award.
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