“The first couple of months of all this, I was going crazy,” Dwight Gooden said. “Then, I started getting out of the house a little, going down to Maryland every three weeks to see my grandkids. That gave me stuff to do. Now baseball’s coming back and also basketball. It’s a short season, but I’ll take it as a fan. It’s all about adapting and acceptance. We’ve all had to accept what’s going on.”
Nobody knows adapting and acceptance the way that Gooden does, as this COVID-compressed baseball season is finally set to begin.
“I have my mask and my gloves,” he said. “I’ll admit it. I got a little comfortable going out and not wearing gloves. A good friend of mine—a gentleman, he’s 82 years old—he was getting on me for not wearing gloves. And he’s right. It’s better to be overprotective than caught off guard. But I’m healthy. Kids are healthy. Grandkids are healthy. What else can you ask for?”
That’s an easy question, and Gooden knows the answer. You can ask for baseball.
Thirty-six years after he first set the city on fire, the former Mets and Yankees pitching phenom still holds a unique place in the hearts of New York sports fans. Nobody was better than “Doc,” as the fans liked to call the strikeout king, for “Dr. K.” Certainly, nobody’s been through more.
How big a baseball fan is he? Big enough that over the past couple of months, he said, he’s gotten up a few times at 5 in the morning to watch live baseball from South Korea—with no fans in the stands. “Now that was weird,” he said.
“I was 7 years old when I started watching games with my dad,” he recalled as he prepared for the strangest Opening Day of modern times, which comes on Thursday. “Watching games on TV. Going to spring training” near the Gooden family home in Tampa, Fla. “Going to the ballpark when I started to play. And every year, baseball came back again.”
Until it didn’t.
“As a fan, I’m greedy,” said Gooden, now 55. “I wish we were getting more than 60 games. I’d like 80 games, close to half a season. But considering everything that’s happened this year, we gotta be happy for what we can get.” And this season promises fresh surprises. “Sixty games is like a wild card. Anybody could win. Pittsburgh. Seattle maybe. Your team, whoever it is—every team gets hot at some point. Anything can happen.”
Dwight Gooden is carried off the field by teammates after pitching his first career no-hitter at Yankee Stadium in New York in 1996.
But that’s the fan talking. The ex-player in Gooden is having trouble shaking one concern.
“I hate to say it,” he said, “but there’s a flip side. If I was an official or a player, especially a pitcher, I don’t know if I would take part. It’s sad because I want these guys to play. But I think there’s a high risk of injury. I hope I’m wrong. But the training just wasn’t there. Once they stopped spring training and people had to work out on their own—it’s not the same. You can’t just go out there and play.”
And the empty stands this year will take some getting used to, for sure.
“It would be very difficult if I were playing and pitching to have no fans there,” Gooden said. “It’s almost gonna seem like an exhibition game. Especially when you play in New York where it’s always loud. No disrespect to anyone else. But guys who’ve been playing in small towns, they may not notice such a difference. They don’t have that many fans anyway. But here, players are motivated by fans whether they’re cheering for you or they’re booing. You use that to get the extra inch. I’m sorry, but piping in crowd noise over the intercom—that’s too strange.”
Then, there’s the sticky issue of statistics. Baseball, after all, is a game of recorded events.
“If a guy has an 0.0 ERA or he hits .400—should that go into the record books? Should that affect his contract? It’s not the same as 162 games.”
But despite it all, one thing’s for certain: Gooden will be watching when the Yankees meet the Nationals on Thursday in Washington. He’ll be watching when the Mets host the Braves on Friday in Queens. And he’ll keep watching all the way till the end.
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Too bad, he said, Yankee Stadium and Citi Field don’t have unofficial viewing spots on the roof of a nearby bar, the way Wrigley Field in Chicago does.
“The guy who owns the bar, he can charge a fortune for those seats,” Gooden said. “They have some buildings in the Bronx, I guess. But you’d probably be arrested if you tried to go up there.”
Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist. He is the co-author of Dwight Gooden’s 2013 memoir.