Wednesday, May 11, 2016

How Upset Am I (Still) That I Missed Gooden's No-Hitter?

Most of you have probably heard of FOMO -- Fear of Missing Out. Well, as a result of something that happened 20 years ago this week, I suffer from a chronic, recurring case of DAMN -- Depression About Missing a No-hitter. I had a ticket to Dwight Gooden's no-hitter, and I missed it. I was ten years old, it was my best chance to catch such a feat in person, and I might as well have been an H.G. Wells character. DAMN is right.

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Let's go back to Opening Day at Yankee Stadium in 1996. The snowy conditions at the home opener made this year's weather-affected opening week feel like spring break in Cancun. Even though not much of the wet snow accumulated that April day, it fell throughout the afternoon and severely limited visibility, especially for those of us in the crappy seats. Bernie Williams provided the comic relief by wearing a ski mask under his cap long before so many other players would do so.

Here's a telling quote from current Jack Curry's game story in the next day's New York Times:

"These were the worst conditions that I've ever played in," said Wade Boggs, who spent most of his career in Boston. "When you got blowing snow around and it's tough to see, a ball could hit you in the eye. If you're out in it, it's just miserable. There's nothing you can do."


Curry also spent several paragraphs discussing the game's attendance, both actual and reported. Here's another excerpt:

The game was sold out, so the announced paid attendance was 56,329. But there were pockets of empty seats, and observers speculated that about 45,000 fans actually strolled through the turnstiles. Steinbrenner claimed an estimated 50,000 fans showed up. Whatever the number, it shriveled dramatically to what appeared to be under 5,000 by game's end, as the snow swirled, the wind whipped to about 12 miles an hour and the temperature tumbled to 36 degrees.

"I was absolutely stunned there were that many people here," said Steinbrenner, who has often groused about a lack of attendance, but was so impressed by the turnout that he approved giving yesterday's fans a free ticket to one of three future games. "Everyone was stunned by it. DiMaggio sat through the whole thing. It was unbelievable."


I love that DiMaggio quote! However, the "free ticket to one of three future games" is the key part in tracing the genesis of my DAMN. Because the third and last chance to cash in on one of those three free games would come on May 14, 1996, a relatively meaningless early-season game against the Seattle Mariners.

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May 14, 1996 fell on a Tuesday, so there were a few factors working against my attendance at that night's Yankees game. First, it was a school night, a hallowed occurrence that mothers have been using for centuries to keep their kids from having fun. Since it was a school night, there was little chance my dad would be able to convince her that we should go to the game. In the previous October, he had persuaded her to let us attend a Yankees playoff game against the Mariners. Thanks to the wonders of extra innings, blown saves, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Jim Leyritz, we didn't get home until about 3 a.m. that night. So, to be fair, I guess my mom had a bit of a reason for skepticism about my attendance at a school-night game.


The second factor conspiring to damn me to at least two decades of DAMN was the fact that my own baseball team practiced on Tuesday nights. For my father, commitment was sacred, whether it was to a job or to your Little League team. He rarely let us miss practices or games, especially if it wasn't for some sort of family obligation. I could tell that my dad desperately wanted to head down to the Bronx, but my mom's opposition to that idea, combined with my baseball practice, saddled him with a critical mass of reasons to keep us in the suburbs for the night.

We listened to the start of the game in the car ride home from my practice, and at that point, I was pretty much over the fact that we'd missed the game. After all, I knew that we'd probably visit the Stadium again within a few weeks. My sense of understanding wouldn't last, though.

My brother and I listened to the next few innings with my dad after a quick dinner, but I don't remember getting too worked up that Gooden had held the Mariners hitless through the first half of the game. After all, you see no-hitters through five innings all the time. Besides, Gooden had given up a handful of walks and a laser by Alex Rodriguez that Gerald Williams caught and turned into a double play. The Doctor didn't exactly seem to have his best instruments in this game.

I went to bed in the sixth inning (again, because of the Tyranny of the School Night), and my dad kept my brother and me posted each inning by sneaking into our room to whisper updates. "Doc's still got it. He's through seven innings." "Still no hits, guys. One more inning to go." And finally: "He did it."

At the end of the game, of course, this had happened:


My dad came in for the last time at around 10:00 to tell us that Gooden had finished it off. I remember going from half-asleep grogginess to jubilation (One of our guys pitched a no-hitter!) to sadness (We coulda been there.) in the span of a few seconds. I lay in bed for a long time afterwards, wondering how I'd explain this one to my friends. We coulda been there.

I was still sure of one thing, though. I'd definitely witness a no-hitter at some point.

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It's hard to overstate how big of a deal Gooden's no-hitter was. No-nos have become much more common in recent years than they were in the '90s. Last season there were seven such outings, whereas in 1996 Gooden's no-no was one of just three.* Still, when you consider the fact that Gooden issued six walks in that game, it shouldn't have been that special. But there are a few reasons that it was indeed momentous. First, to New Yorkers, Gooden had been a surefire Hall of Famer as a 20-year-old, a seemingly contradictory idea that many fans nonetheless believed in 1985. Doc was so unbelievable in the '84 and '85 campaigns that it seemed like he'd certainly book his ticket to Cooperstown, even with a string of less-dominant seasons. Then, of course, his self-destructive tendencies caused him to waste about 92% of his incredible talent and become a cautionary tale for future young athletes.

*Al Leiter had twirled a no-hitter for the Marlins just three days before Gooden's.

As unhittable as Doc had been in a Mets uniform, he'd never thrown a no-hitter. In New York, May 14, 1996 offered a measure of redemption to Gooden and to New York fans. Perhaps it wasn't all a complete waste.


The no-hitter was also a big deal for Yankees fans because it continued a turnaround in the franchise's fortunes. The Yanks had snagged the first-ever AL wild card spot in 1995, and Leyritz gave many euphoric fans their first real taste of playoff baseball in the Bronx. Of course, Griffey and Edgar Martinez had eventually stolen that series from us, but we knew bigger and better things awaited. (This might seem like hindsight, but it's not, at least not totally.) The Yanks got off to a good start in '96, and Gooden's no-hitter continued the club's upward trajectory, especially as rookie shortstop Derek Jeter squeezed the final out off the bat of Paul Sorrento.

When Gooden's no-hitter turned out to be just a small part of a magical 1996 season, it fit nicely into that team's narrative. Redemption for Doc; redemption for the pinstripes. And when perfect games by David Wells (in 1998) and David Cone (in '99) portended the Yanks' next two titles, it was possible to see Gooden's gem as the kickoff in a series of no-hitter/championship seasons. At the same time, though, my DAMN grew worse and worse with those perfect games, especially after my cousin Mary and a bunch of other Beanie Baby collectors lucked into seeing Boomer's masterpiece.

And that's probably my most enduring takeaway from that night -- the unfortunate case of DAMN that has lingered like scurvy in a pirate. I have vague memories of Jim Abbott's no-hitter in 1993, and that's when someone explained to me exactly what a no-hitter was. (I guess I should've been able to figure it out.) I always figured that, since I went to about a dozen games each season, I'd eventually see one. The closest I've ever come since is a college game in which both pitchers took no-hitters into at least the eighth inning.

Now, as I write about my DAMN, it seems like I might never come as close to seeing a no-hitter as I did with Gooden's, when we had the tickets in our house. After all, my dad has still never seen a no-hitter in person, which might explain why he wasn't more excited when he came into our bedroom to tell us Gooden had finished off his gem.

The wonderful Post columnist Mike Vaccaro, who went to almost a hundred games every season, spent years literally chasing no-hitters (over the dreaded George Washington Bridge, no less) before finally witnessing one. I understand that we can't all be like Vin Scully, but my DAMN will persist until I see a no-no. If I end up having similar luck to most fans, that means my DAMN will persist until my life no longer does.

Physically, all I have to show from Gooden's magical night in May 1996 is a scorecard given to me by my uncle, who did take the Steinbrenners up on their offer for a free ticket. He scrawled "NO-HITTER: DR. K" across the top of the page and gave it to me the next time he saw me. That program might as well have been a sympathy card: Dear Francis, Condolences about your DAMN. Get well soon. I still haven't.

Nevertheless, I'll keep searching and hoping that I find a cure for my DAMN, like that scurvy-ridden pirate looking for shore on the horizon, dreaming of fruit and fresh water. I'll continue to go to as many games as I can, always getting slightly bummed out when each team records its first hit. If I do see a no-no, I sure hope it's at one of the Friday-night games I attend with my dad and brother. (Yup, the Tyranny of the School Night is still in effect.)

Logically, I know that there's nothing all that special about a pitcher's ability to throw a no-hitter; most of the time, luck plays a huge part. Still, you can't tell me it's not special for fans to attend a no-no. Even watching highlights of Gooden being carried off the field that night leaves me with goosebumps. Well, goosebumps and a word that I keep quietly repeating to myself: "Damn..."



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2 comments:

  1. One more note that a few readers have at least hinted at: The fact that Gooden's no-no came against Seattle was significant in itself. As I mentioned, the M's had eliminated the Yanks from the playoffs the previous year. Additionally, their lineup was absolutely stacked (Young A-Rod, Prime Griffey, Ageless Edgar, etc.). I couldn't find this information anywhere online, but I'd bet that most of the fans taking the Yankees up on the free tickets after Opening Day chose the Mariners game. I've heard from a handful of people that were there on the Steinbrenners' dime. Alas, I wasn't one of them.

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