A DREAM PITCHING MATCHUP : Gooden vs. Lovelace . . . Lovelace?

Times Staff Writer

There was a time, when they were pitching in high school together, that he threw a baseball as fast as Dwight Gooden, and was just as coveted.

In the Tampa, Fla., neighborhood where they began as Little League teammates and won a Senior World Series together, Vance Lovelace and Dwight Gooden were equals.

They are equals no more.

There are those who say, basing their observation on his one breathtaking season with the New York Mets, that Gooden has no equal.


There are others who say, basing their judgment on his four losing seasons in the minor leagues, that Lovelace has no future.

Gooden is known as the next Nolan Ryan.

Lovelace, to those who know him at all, is known as one of the two players the Dodgers got from the Cubs in the Ron Cey deal. The other, Dan Cataline, is out of baseball.

The trade has not been one of Al Campanis’ finest. Even so, Lovelace is only 21. Time certainly has not run out on him. Neither has his dream.

“With the stuff you have, there’s no reason you won’t be here,” Gooden told Lovelace one day last winter.

That is the day of dreams, when Lovelace of the Dodgers takes the mound against Gooden of the Mets. “My time will come,” Lovelace said. “I’m going to open some eyes.”

For now, however, Lovelace remains at Double-A San Antonio, a victim of his wildness and of a left shoulder that has caused him as much pain as it has given him pleasure. It was that way even in high school, when Lovelace, a left-hander, and Gooden, a right-hander, were part of one of the best high school pitching staffs ever assembled.

“If there was a better one, I’d like to see it,” said Billy Reed, a one-time college catcher who had four of his Hillsborough High pitchers drafted by major league teams. “I dream about it every night.”

Gooden was drafted No. 1 by the Mets in 1983. Lovelace, a year earlier, had gone as a No. 1 to the Cubs after having been named Hillsborough’s player of the year. “When we were growing up, I was getting all the attention,” Lovelace said.

Floyd Youmans, who moved to Fontana, Calif., after his sophomore year, was the Mets’ second pick, behind Gooden. Youmans since has gone to the Montreal Expos as one of four players in the Gary Carter deal. A fourth pitcher, Albert Everette, was drafted by Minnesota and has since been released.

Gooden, Reed saw from the start, would be something special.

“I detected it early,” he said. “Dwight had that easy, fluid motion. Vance was always a little tight, like he was short-arming the ball.

“Vance threw hard, but there was a little more labor to it. Dwight didn’t have to throw it hard.

“Speedwise, they were about the same, but Dwight always had that maturity and charisma. Vance fights himself more than Dwight.”

At 6 feet 5 inches and 215 pounds of well-defined muscle, Lovelace has perhaps the most impressive physique in Dodgertown. He looks like a basketball player. Problem is, he sometimes pitches like one, too.

“He looks like Nate Thurmond trying to pitch, just trying to muscle the ball up there,” one Dodger instructor said.

And it seemed the harder Lovelace threw, the wilder he got. “Control always was his problem,” Reed said. “But in high school, a lot of batters would swing at balls.”

In the minors, however, they let those pitches go by most of the time, and Lovelace began averaging a walk an inning. In 1982 at Class-A Quad Cities, Lovelace walked 94 batters in 94 innings. In 1983 at Vero Beach, there were 93 walks in 115 innings. Last season, on the Double-A level, Lovelace walked 73 batters in 65 innings.

“He had to learn how to get people out without throwing the ball as hard as he could every pitch,” said Larry Sherry, the Dodgers’ minor-league pitching coach.

But it’s hard to learn anything when your shoulder is hurting, and Lovelace’s shoulder has plagued him since he was in high school. “His arm would tighten up on him, and I’d have to rest him four days,” Reed said. “Dwight, I could use the next day, or every other day.”

Some suspect that Lovelace might have come to the Dodgers as damaged goods. Tendinitis limited him to just 65 innings last season, and the Dodgers dropped him off the major league roster at the end of the year.

“He knows people got down on him,” Sherry said. “When they take you off the roster, that’s a pretty big setback.

“But you don’t give up on a guy with a 90-m.p.h. fastball. They don’t grow on trees.”

Last fall in the Arizona Instructional League, Sherry saw the first signs of progress. “We had to do a little overhaul job and had to convince him that it would work,” Sherry said. “It was about the first time in a year that I saw him smile.

“He went a five-inning stint, pitched a one-hitter, came back two days later and threw on the side, then came back and pitched two days later. He’d never been able to do that.”

So far this spring, Lovelace’s arm has felt fine. “This is the best I’ve ever felt. I’m very optimistic this season,” said Lovelace, who may need to advance just to protect his investment in gold jewelry. He has an Austin watch, a necklace with a “14K” pendant, and assorted bracelets. “Most of my pieces are given to me,” he said.

He also said he still has high hopes. “I’m shooting for the top,” he said. “I don’t know what the front office has in mind, but maybe if I go out and do a good job, I’ll get a call in midseason.”

For now, however, the closest Lovelace comes to the big leagues are his calls to Gooden, whom he talks to often.

“I wish the best to anyone I’m close to,” Lovelace said of Gooden. “Dwight hasn’t changed at all. It hasn’t changed him. What can you say? He had a great year.”

The kind kids dream about in high school.