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Dwight Gooden: baseball legend in the making

HIS fastball explodes out of a tangle of arms and legs with the same overwhelming suddenness that would occur if someone were to turn on a blazing spotlight in a darkened room. But that's just the mechanical part of baseball's latest legend in the making. The rest is wrapped up in the amazing overall ability of this young right-hander, who has never had to struggle with his control and who already possesses a veteran's poise on the mound. Then there's his extraordinary personality -- so polite, so likable, and so unassuming that people meeting him for the first time can hardly believe he's real.

If you're not guessing 20-year-old strikeout king Dwight Eugene Gooden of the New York Mets, then you must have been under water since April searching for the Titanic. If Gooden were a Broadway show, producers would never authorize a ticket under $100.

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Gooden put on his latest spectacular performance Wednesday night, striking out 10 batters and surviving a ninth-inning scare to beat the Cardinals 5-2 in St. Louis and keep the Mets alive in the torrid National League East race.

The victory lifted his major-league-leading total to 24 (against ony 4 losses), and he also leads the majors in strikeouts (268) and earned-run average (1.53); is second in shutouts (8); and tops the National League in complete games (16). He has lost only once since May 25, posting a phenomenal 19-1 record in that time. And until the Cardinals nicked him in the second inning Wednesday night, he had gone 49 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run.

Asked about the difference between this season and last, when he won 17 games, broke the rookie record for strikeouts with a major-league-leading 276, and earned National League Rookie of the Year honors, Gooden replies: ``Last year was different because everything was so new. I really had only part of an idea of what I was doing. But when you do well, your confidence builds.

``I've also learned a lot about how to respond to certain situations, like having runners in scoring position with fewer than two outs. The truth is: I've always worried about hitters, because I've always been afraid that I might make a mistake against them. I guess I still worry about that. But at least now I'm more confident when I get into a tight situation.''

The intensity Gooden brings to throwing a baseball is, in a sense, like that of an expert cutting diamonds. Hiding the ball behind the highest kick you will see this side of ``A Chorus Line,'' the 6-foot, 3-inch native of Tampa, Fla., keeps the hitter off balance until the last instant, finally cuts loose, then completes his motion with probably the best follow-through in the game.

Even before the start of this season, most of New York's baseball public was calling Gooden ``Dr. K'' -- K is the official scorers' sign for a strikeout. But whether the batter gets a hit or goes down swinging, it's as though Dwight is wearing a mask. Whatever he thinks, it's all inside. And unlike some players, he would never intentionally embarrass a strikeout victim with any wild antics.

``What you've got here is a phenomenally gifted kid who is really a two-pitch pitcher,'' explains the Mets' pitching coach, Mel Stottlemyre. ``Sure we had him working on a change-up in spring training, because someday when he slows down he's probably going to need it.

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``There are times when we even encourage him to use it under game conditions, so he'll get a feel for it. But anytime you discover a kid who can consistently throw his fastball and curve as hard in the ninth inning as he does in the first, basically you leave him alone.''

Like most pitchers, of course, Gooden changes speeds on his pitches, but somehow you get the idea that if he did nothing at this point but rear back and fire that 95 m.p.h fastball, he'd be no less effective.

Asked how he explains Gooden's outstanding control despite his youth and relative lack of experience (he started exactly 38 minor-league games before joining the Mets in 1984), Stottlemyre replies: ``I don't think anyone can explain it. He was probably just born with it. His mechanics are almost perfect when he delivers the ball, and the fact that he gets so much body movement into every pitch is an indication that he doesn't put nearly the strain on his arm that most pitchers do.''

Nevertheless, Mets' manager Dave Johnson has passed a law in his own mind against overworking his young star -- and has consistently resisted the temptation to break his rule even in tight situations. Basically, the Mets use a five-man rotation, so Gooden normally gets at least four days' rest between appearances. Furthermore, whenever Dwight has thrown about 130 pitches, Johnson simply puts in a call to his bullpen -- the idea being not to allow him to burn himself out or risk injury by asking him to d o too much.

Gooden, whose face wouldn't look out of place on a cornflakes box, has been so much in demand by both the local and national media this season that the Mets finally had to come up with a way to protect him. Otherwise, he would have had no time for himself at the ballpark between starts. As it is, at home he frequently has to leave his phone off the hook.

The solution: He is made available for 15 minutes or so after each game he pitches -- win or lose -- and that's it. While the young hurler is always cooperative and understanding, this isn't exactly Billy Martin talking about George Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson, or Earl Weaver voicing his opinion of American League umpires.

What does come through is Gooden's sincerity, his obvious delight with his accomplishments, and a genuine appreciation of his managers' and teammates' support. The kid does love to talk about his hitting, which sets him up for some good-natured ribbing by his teammates -- but in fact he really has helped himself with his bat on numerous occasions.

Wednesday night in St. Louis was a good example as Dwight drove in one run and executed key sacrifice bunts to set up two others. He has now driven in at least one run in each of his last four starts and is on a streak in which he's had six hits, including a home run, and eight RBIs in his last 13 times at bat.

One problem Dwight did have as a rookie last season was an inability to hold runners on base. Not used to having hitters get on against him either in high school or in the minors, he had simply never taken the time to learn that aspect of the game. The result was that runners stole successfully 47 times in 50 attempts against him. He also balked seven times.

Since the Mets acquired all-star catcher Gary Carter from Montreal last winter, however, that has begun to change. Carter began working with Gooden in spring training to speed up his delivery and improve his pickoff motion to first base -- and Dwight is now much more effective in these areas.

Gooden isn't the only pitcher who has done well in the National League this year. Joaquin Andujar and John Tudor have each won 20 games for the St. Louis Cardinals. Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser have impressive statistics with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and rookie Tom Browning has been a surprise 20-game winner with the Cincinnati Reds. But it would be hard to find anyone in baseball who doesn't think Gooden will be a near-unanimous Cy Young Award winner -- and maybe wind up with most-valua ble-player honors as well.

``Only once or twice in the past 20 years have I seen a pitcher who uses his body power so effectively in conjunction with his throwing arm,'' says Roger Craig, perhaps the most highly recognized pitching authority in baseball and the new manager of the San Francisco Giants. ``To me, that explains his tremendous speed.''

In getting off to the best statistical start of any pitcher in baseball history, Gooden has already passed the test of brilliance. Now it is a question of waiting to see if he will also pass the test of time.

``If he does,'' Craig says, ``this kid will be the best of all modern-day pitchers.''

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