Fathers and Sons

By Larry Dierker

Dwight “Doc” Gooden

Dwight Gooden concentrated before his next pitch

This is a story about fathers and sons, about precious gifts and broken promises. But mostly this is a story about heart.

Last week, as I lay recovering from heart surgery at Methodist Hospital, I looked up at the television and saw Doc Gooden ride triumphantly from the mound on the shoulders of his teammates at Yankee Stadium.  A glow came over me.  A warm peaceful tide swelled my every membrane. I don’t know Doc Gooden. But I think I know how he felt.

The next few days, I pondered many aspects of gifts and promises. These thoughts pursued me day and night.  When I learned that Gooden’s father, Dan, was facing heart surgery the day after the no-hitter, my feelings grew more intense.  When I thought about Doc, retreating to the dark runway behind the dugout between innings, holding his face in his hands and thinking about Dan, the tide rose over the bulkhead and seeped across my face.

There is nothing in this world more natural than the simple expressions of the gifted. The artful grace of their rhythm seems effortless. So it was with young Dwight Gooden, the greatest child/pitcher of them all. To a lesser extent, it was the same way with me. I struck out Willie Mays in my first big league inning on my 18th birthday. A year later, I took a perfect game into the ninth at Shea Stadium only to lose 1-0 on two-line drives that were so close to being outs that they both touched leather before they hit the ground.  The next year I pitched two shutouts and hit a home run.  I finished my teenage years 17-17 with an E.R.A. of 3.30.  It was easy.

That winter, I passed Tal Smith in the hallway at the Dome. “With your arm, you should win 20 games every year,” he said.  It wasn’t that easy.

Dwight Gooden won 17 games his rookie year and set numerous strikeout records. He made the all-star team and struck out the side.  The next season, he went 24-4 with an E.R.A. of 1.53 and 268 strikeouts.  He won Cy Young Award hands down.  His strikeout ratio was better than Nolan Ryan’s and his control was better too.  And though he was about 3000 strikeouts behind Ryan, folks were already saying that Gooden would ultimately break Ryan’s and everyone else’s records and go straight to Cooperstown.  He was 21 years old.  It was easy.

The next year, things changed.  Gooden’s fastball was still fast, and his curve still plunged like a waterfall. His control was superb.  His concentration, poise, courage, and the strength of his will were undiminished.  But the flit on his fastball was often missing.  Suddenly, he was human.  Still great, but no longer awesome, Doc Gooden helped the Mets become world champions, but not without great effort.  It was easy no more.

Nolan Ryan had prodigious talent.  But it was never easy for him to win.  Henry Aaron, with wrists that struck like vipers, still made more outs than hits.  What seems effortless for the gifted, is really quite the opposite.  For with the gift comes the expectation.  And expectations impose steady pressure on the intuitive innocence of natural ability.

The fulfillment of talent becomes a responsibility and then it becomes a passion.  The gift is your very essence.  It defines you, supports you and you live to serve it above all other things.  More often than not other virtues are damaged in the process.

One night, after winning a game, I bummed a cigarette as I spoke with reporters.   The game story the next day said, “After lighting a borrowed cigarette, Larry Dierker talked about his win over the Cubs.”   I was upset with the writer.  Even though a lot of guys smoked back then, I didn’t want the kids to know.  Personally, I was unrepentant.  I needed the smokes and the beer I had learned to drink to relax, I surmised.  After all, I was a man now.  Didn’t my pitching prove it?  Looking back, I laugh.  So wise on the mound, I was just a wanton boy in the larger world.  When my father got the drift of my fumes he sent a firm yet gentle letter, and I quit smoking –for three months.  But things weren’t going well on the Homefront either.  My new wife and my parents were at odds and my response was to dash around town ignoring all of them.

On September 13, 1969, the Astros were in Atlanta, opening a series three games back of the Braves.  I gave up an infield hit with two outs in the ninth, trying to win my 20th with a no-hitter.  After 12 scoreless innings, I retired, and the Braves won 3-2.  I got my 20th the next time out.  Atlanta won the division flag.  I moved out and my wife filed for a divorce.  I quit smoking and started back again.  Then I got a sore arm and the jig was up.  It was no longer possible to honor the gift above all other things.  The gift was gone.  And I was in debt.

Then I met the lady of my life and things changed.  Relationships were rebuilt, and I quit smoking again.  Somehow, I coaxed a few more years out of my shoulder and saved some money.  Little by little, I began mending broken bridges.

Then, on July 9, 1976, I got it all back for one more fling.  In the last three innings, the ball was dancing for me like it did when I was a child. And when I bounced from the field amid the bubbling effervescence of no-hit magic, I was washed, clean and free.

As I imagined the effect of the no-hitter on Gooden, I merely added a multiplier to my own experience.  He had more talent, more charm, more celebrity.  He slew bigger dragons, but the little demons got him too.  Wine, women, songs, the opiates of the night.  Sore arms, guilt trips, insecurity, immaturity.  And the worst of all torments, the ineffable emptiness, the hollow deep in the pit where the gift had been.

Things are better with Doc and Dan.  All washed and clean, I’m sure of it.  In the role of the father, I now realize what my own dad knew all along.  I was no saint, only a ballplayer.  I didn’t fulfill all my promises, but I wasn’t a bad guy. I don’t think Gooden is a bad guy either, though he may never make it to Cooperstown.  As I look back I see that my overweening allegiance to art was only foolish pride.  My dad was proud too. Proud of my noble deeds. He also suffered my indiscretions, shared my sorrow.  For that is the way with fathers and sons.  We were of one heart, are still.  In the end, that is the greatest gift of all.

Originally posted in the Houston Chronicle in 1996ish