COMMENTARY : Forget Gooden, George: Take Care of Your Own


In his continuing quest to sign every troubled former New York Met, George Steinbrenner will present a contract soon to Dwight Gooden. The word out of New York and Tampa Thursday was that it was close to a "done deal" but that they weren't quite ready to announce it. Whether the holdup was because the sides had yet to finalize financial details or because the club was embarrassed about the deal remained unclear.

On its face there is nothing seriously wrong with hiring Gooden, an extremely talented pitcher and basically nice fellow who deserves another chance at baseball and life. If Steve Howe is the measuring stick, Gooden deserves this chance and four more after that. If the New York Yankees don't take him, somebody else will, and rightly so.

On some levels, Steinbrenner's latest bombshell in a career of bombshells actually makes some sense. During the division series against the Seattle Mariners, it became painfully obvious that the Yankees could use a pitcher or two, or more. The situation isn't getting any better with David Cone and Jack McDowell potential free agents, and the great likelihood is that the Yankees can't or won't pay two $5-million pitchers at the same time again.

The main problems with the impending Gooden signing are timing and appearance. On both counts, this move is questionable and short-sighted at best, and objectionable and foolish at worst.

What's wrong about this deal has little to do with Gooden's checkered past. It also has little to do with his two drug suspensions. Nor does it have much to do with his winter arrest for driving 118 m.p.h. while toting a bottle of Red Dog and riding on thin ice.

What's wrong with this deal is that Steinbrenner should be taking care of his own people first. While the Yankees who played with heart, and in some cases played with hurts, keep waiting, Gooden, who has not pitched real baseball for a year and a half, gets a three-year conditional deal (it appears the Yankees will have buyout options for the second and third seasons).

Meanwhile, almost all of Steinbrenner's loyal and longtime players and employees are sweating out their careers. With the exceptions of Ruben Sierra, Tony Fernandez, Jimmy Key, Melido Perez and Paul O'Neill, who have contracts for next season, the other Yankees scattered to their respective winter homes to ponder what went wrong in the playoffs and wonder whether they have a Yankees future.

After 22 years Steinbrenner still hasn't learned that treating people well is part of running a business well. All of the unsigned Yankees no doubt will hear about Gooden's big deal and wonder where their big deals are. They can't be blamed for wondering.

Buck Showalter, who worked 18-hour days, slept on a folding cot inside his Yankee Stadium office and kept his team together after it appeared dead at midseason, has a contract that expires Oct. 31. As of Wednesday afternoon, he had not heard word one from the Yankees. Apparently, Steinbrenner was too busy courting a pitcher who hasn't thrown in a real game since June of 1994, a pitcher who was 3-4 with a 6.31 ERA in '94 before his June 28 suspension for violating his aftercare program.

Wade Boggs, who has batted .300 or better in all three of his years with the Yankees, who should win his second Gold Glove at third base and limped through the Seattle series with a severely strained left hamstring, still has no new contract. Or offer. And the word is, he may not get one. The Yankees want to trim their $50-million-plus payroll, and one way they believe they can do this is by replacing Boggs with the cheap but unproven Russ Davis. As one scout noted the other day, "This would be one heck of a gamble."

Don Mattingly, who busted his butt and his back for 14 years, also hasn't heard a thing. Mattingly played with heart and courage, and he deserves an answer, or a hint, at the least.

Mattingly said this summer he believed Steinbrenner was plotting to dispose of him, as, Mattingly said, he did with Goose Gossage and Willie Randolph and Dave Winfield and Ron Guidry. Maybe Steinbrenner will make Mattingly a token offer just to keep public sentiment on his side. Or maybe they will string him along until someone better comes along, such as Tino Martinez or Mo Vaughn. There are lots of unpleasant and unfair options. Any way they do it, Mattingly knows they won't make the end comfortable. He has stayed around long enough to figure out that much.

Mike Stanley, who played valiantly and batted brilliantly despite being tormented by earning about 25% of his market value, still has received no overtures. Stanley, who made $562,500 last year, which didn't qualify him for governmental subsidy but did make him the most underpaid player in the American League, still can't be sure if the Yankees care. Stanley understood it was business but admitted he still was "irked" that the Yankees wouldn't even talk about it.

It is understood Steinbrenner felt rushed here, that he knew he was bidding for Gooden against the Chicago White Sox and Florida Marlins. Even when times are supposedly lean, Steinbrenner does not like to be outbid for drug-addicted players who come with guarantees to provide big headlines and little else. Gooden has been working out with friends in Tampa and playing for a semi-pro team. He still will be only 31 next season. But there are no guarantees. There aren't even any likelihoods.

"The first time I saw him he threw good, the second time he didn't throw too good," White Sox General Manager Ron Schueler said. "The velocity was not much the second time. He looked a little stiff. The first time he was loose." Gooden threw 92 m.p.h. the first time, 86 the second, according to Schueler. The GM also was disappointed Gooden replaced his sweeping curveball with a slider in that workout.

"I saw it with Scott Radinsky this year. When a guy misses a whole year, it's difficult," Schueler said. That is why he offered only around $500,000 guaranteed, with higher incentives. Marlins GM Dave Dombrowski was more impressed but also concerned about the layoff. "He threw the ball very well for us," Dombrowski said. "The only question mark surrounding it was that he hasn't pitched in a year and a half."

These type of things don't bother Steinbrenner, particularly when there is a headline at stake.

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