Mortality comes early to most professional ballplayers. Heroes from childhood, they must come to terms with failure even as teenagers and turn regretfully to other jobs, other lives. Then there are the gifted few for whom the dream becomes destiny. The Greeks would have known that when such gods came to play, it was time to abandon the field and go home; last season, when Dwight Gooden pitched, the entire National League knew the feeling. To say of Gooden the obvious—that he was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 1984 and its Cy Young Award winner this season—is to trivialize a transcendent talent. There were other fine pitchers in baseball this year, but Gooden was first, and not among equals. Perhaps the biggest problem facing the New York Mets’ right-hander, who in 1985 led the major leagues in strikeouts (268), victories (24, with only four defeats) and earned run average (1.53), is how to top himself now that he’s turned 21. Should he escape injury, he could become the first pitcher since Walter Johnson, in 1915, to win 200 games before his 30th birthday. No chatterbox on this or any other subject, Gooden offers a simple explanation for his dazzling success. “Basically,” he says, “I think it’s just God-gifted talent. Plus, when you get in tough situations, like the bases loaded and nobody out, you never give in. Just keep feeling like you’re the best out there. You got the ball in your hands and you’re in command, and if you get your good pitch where you want it, nobody’s gonna hit you.”
Gracious and unfailingly polite off the field, Gooden avoids public appearances and interviews whenever he can. Talking to reporters after a game, he is careful to address only the pertinent aspects of his pitching performance and to avoid even a suggestion of controversy. Such calculated blandness is just Dwight’s way of playing it safe. He is aware of his youth and vulnerability and prefers to talk about what he knows.
Gooden recently became engaged to Carlene Pearson, 20, his high school sweetheart, but in the off-season still lives at home in Tampa, Fla. with his father, Dan, a former semipro coach, and his mother, Ella. “My father helped me become a ballplayer and take the good with the bad,” says Dwight. “My mom helped with my attitude by talking to me about how people are watching you all the time and how stupid you look when you let your temper go. We’re a real close family, and that’s helped me a lot.” The youngest of six children, Gooden last year used his modest rookie’s salary of $40,000 to buy his parents their four-bedroom home. This year, making nearly $500,000, he finally persuaded his mother, a nursing-home aide, to retire. His next contract should bring him at least $1 million a year, and it is obvious he will know what to do with it. “One of the nicest satisfactions you can have,” he says, “is to be able to give something back to your parents when they’ve given so much to you.”