In a sense, the 30-year-old man on the mound for the New York Yankees Monday was a rookie.
So maybe Dwight Gooden has won a Cy Young Award, pitched in a World Series and spent most of 11 seasons in the major leagues. An addiction to cocaine laid waste to that life, which was spent in the orange-and-blue uniform of the New York Mets. He is supposed to be different now, a survivor who has clung to those talents despite his self-destruction.
Gooden must prove himself again, as he first did on the major-league level in 1984, so it was appropriate that the former Dr. K squared off against the most talented prospects in the Yankees organization Monday afternoon.
Youthful enthusiasm versus steely-eyed perseverance. Gooden won most of those battles under the intense glare of the Tampa sunshine, not to mention the intense glare of George Steinbrenner. He struck out four of the first six batters he faced and allowed two hits in three simulated innings.
"There's been a lot of talk in New York," said Steinbrenner, acknowledging the buzz created by his newest acquisition. "The excitement will come later if he can bring it."
Steinbrenner couldn't help but drive across town to see Gooden throw at the club's minor-league complex. It was the first time that the right-hander has pitched to major-league-caliber players since he was suspended for violating his drug aftercare program on June 28, 1994. He had worked out at Eckerd College in nearby St. Petersburg, but those were college players -- not opponents who included three of the Yankees' most promising youngsters.
Derek Jeter, the 21-year-old shortstop, led off against Gooden and was called out on a sharply thrown slider. Ruben Rivera, considered the organization's best power-hitting outfielder, did not fare much better. He managed to tip a two-strike fastball up around his neck, and catcher Jorge Posada gloved it for the strikeout. He walked Russ Davis but struck him out swinging in the next at-bat on a good curveball. Kevin Maas and Mike Figga got the two singles off Gooden.
"There was a couple (of fastballs) that I turned loose on," Gooden said.