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The no-hitter that defied physics

Jerry Beach

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Dwight Gooden
The attendance was 20,786 for Dwight Gooden's 1996 no-hitter. Jerry Beach and his future wife were not among them. (Photo by John Munson-Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports)

Like millions of men, my marriage contains an undercurrent of mostly silent tension stemming from a terrible, eternally regrettable decision I made during a moment of great weakness. But I didn’t cheat on my wife, or invest the family’s savings trying to help out a Nigerian prince, or lose said savings betting on a sure thing in Vegas.

I did something much, much worse.

Twenty-two years ago tonight, I cost my future wife a chance to see Dwight Gooden’s no-hitter.

Hours before Gooden took the mound, I had no idea the biggest test of Michelle’s devotion to me was about to take place. We were inside the Hofstra University college newspaper office and sitting at the only desk with a computer connected to the Internet, presumably marveling at how great this Netscape Navigator was and how fast I could access boxscores on ESPNet.Sportszone.com, when my former roommate walked in.

“My girlfriend and I are going to the Yankees game tonight,” John said. “Do you want to go with us?”

Michelle and I met and fell in love over baseball. The first time I saw her in the spring of 1994, she was wearing a Yankees jacket. This was back when the Yankees had a championship drought old enough to get a job, so I knew she was a legitimate fan.

The first time we ever socialized outside the office was at a happy hour at a local dive bar, where she asked me if I’d like to go to Shea Stadium and wait for spring training to begin. This was November 1994, by the way, and there was a non-zero chance there would never be another spring training.

By the time spring training actually commenced with the real players, Michelle and I were head over heels in love. She joined our fantasy league when the season began. Our first trip together was to Cooperstown in the summer of 1995.

We loved baseball almost as much as we loved each other. So yeah. She wanted us to go to a random Tuesday night Yankees game with John and his girlfriend.

Except…

I had a physics exam Thursday afternoon. It was my final scheduled exam as a collegian, and it was in the one class I had to pass to graduate—the one class in which I needed to not completely tank the exam in order to pass.

“Sorry honey,” I said. “But I have to study for the physics exam.”

“C’mon, you can study tomorrow night!” she said.

“No, no, I really need two nights of studying for this,” I said. “We’ll go to some Yankees games this summer.”

She looked disappointed but nodded. And then she said the 13 words that will haunt me for the rest of time.

“OK,” she said. “But if Doc Gooden throws a no-hitter, you’re a dead man.”

Yeah, sure, I thought to myself. What are the odds of that?

We eventually ended up in my room, where we actually studied for our exams. Sometime after 8 p.m., we took a break, and I turned on the television and began changing channels when MSG Network popped up.

In the words of the concerned wife in Airplane!: “That’s odd. We don’t usually get MSG Network at Hofstra.”

Yet here it was, for the first and only time in my three years at Hofstra. And there was Dwight Gooden, walking off the mound. I would say he was accompanied by the voices of Al Trautwig and Jim Kaat, except they weren’t saying anything. I would even say he was accompanied by the scoreboard bug, except one wasn’t shown.

“He’s throwing a no-hitter,” Michelle said.

As it turned out, not for the first time and not for the last time, Michelle’s instincts were right.

Gooden, who was suspended for the 1995 season due to repeated failed drug tests, signed with the Yankees in February 1996 in one of George Steinbrenner’s patented attempts to play Father Flanagan while tweaking the Mets. But Gooden looked washed-up during his first three starts, a stretch in which he posted an 11.47 ERA.

He was removed from the rotation, but never missed a start because David Cone was skipped with what was eventually diagnosed as an aneurysm in his right shoulder. Gooden, who spent his brief sabbatical reworking his delivery with Mel Stottlemyre, went back into the rotation and produced a 1.80 ERA in his next three starts, a stretch that ended May 7 with an eight-inning gem in which Gooden retired the final 22 batters he faced.

So, I probably should have seen this coming. Michelle did.

The next three innings were the longest, most miserable innings of my life, and I grew up a Mets fan. My agony built, and the physics books were shoved to the side, as Gooden set the side down in order in the seventh and eighth.

Still, I sensed a glimmer of hope as the ninth inning began with the Yankees nursing a 2-0 lead and Gooden heading into what had become unfamiliar territory. Gooden hadn’t thrown a complete game since Aug. 7, 1993, three weeks before I arrived at Hofstra, and while pitch counts were not yet a staple of a baseball game, I recall the MSG crew noting he’d thrown a lot of pitches (110 through eight, according to Baseball-Reference).

Plus, Gooden was facing the heart of the Mariners’ lineup: Sensational 20-year-old shortstop Alex Rodriguez, transcendent center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. and wizened designated hitter Edgar Martinez. Someone in that group of future Hall of Famers was gonna get a hit, right?

Rodriguez didn’t get a hit, but he drew a walk to further raise Gooden’s pitch count. Rodriguez went to second on a groundout by Griffey, after which Martinez walked to bring the go-ahead run to the plate in ex-Yankee Jay Buhner. Gooden’s first pitch was a wild pitch that sent Rodriguez and pinch-runner Rich Amaral to second and third, bringing Stottlemyre to the mound and spurring activity in the Yankees’ bullpen.

The only person in America sweating more than Gooden was me. Laying on my stomach on my bed, gripping a pillow, I was finding religion. Just one hit, that’s all I need. He’s worn down. Just a little nubber and I’m free and I’ll never turn down tickets to a baseball game ever again.

Buhner struck out. Paul Sorrento was my last hope.

Michelle turned to me. “You know I forgive you, right?” she said.

“I won’t forgive myself,” I said.

Sorrento got ahead 2-1. A little more hope. And then, on pitch no. 134, Sorrento swung and hit a lazy pop-up to shortstop, where some promising rookie named Derek Jeter settled under it. I prayed for a gust of wind, a pebble tripping Jeter, NASA shooting the ball out of the air. Something, anything.

There was no baseball god, and the Mariners would have no hits. The celebration had begun at Yankee Stadium and the mourning in my dorm room had begun by the time Jeter caught the ball. I remember Gooden being carried off the field, and wondering what kind of euphoria John and his girlfriend—she didn’t even like baseball!!!—were feeling.

I don’t remember Michelle and I saying much of anything the rest of the night. What was there to say? She’d predicted history and I ignored her. And for what? I was in such a fog, I’d forgotten anything I studied.

A few hours later, my phone rang.

“Dude,” John said. “That was AWESOME!”

I bet it was.

The fog didn’t lift Wednesday. I studied for hours that night, but this was physics and it wasn’t sticking on the very best of days, and for a 22-year-old baseball fan, these were the very worst of nights, and I already suspected what was ahead on Thursday.

Sure enough: I failed the exam and failed the class. That’s right. I turned down tickets to a no-hitter in order to study for an exam THAT I FAILED IN A CLASS THAT I FAILED. I’d missed a no-hitter and now I was gonna miss graduation, too.

(Well, not really. This was 1996 and grades were still filed by Pony Express, so there was no official way for Hofstra to know I was one stupid science class shy of graduating. Thus, I walked in front of my very proud parents the following Monday. They found out about the lack of graduation thing a few weeks later. That was not a fun conversation.)

I eventually graduated, thanks to a marine science course Hofstra let me take that summer in my home state of Connecticut. But the most important women in my life never let me forget how I graduated a few weeks late.

I remember re-telling my tale of no no-no woe at a family function and declaring I would have passed the exam and the class if I went to the no-hitter because passing on the tickets wrecked my karma. My Mom, a kindergarten teacher who took education very seriously, shot me the type of stern look I’d thought I’d outgrown.

“It had nothing to do with that,” she said. “You failed the test, but you did the right thing. You did what you were supposed to do.”

My mom was a revered figure in our family long before she died in 2009, so it makes me a little uncomfortable to type these words, but, Mom: you were wrong. I failed because I didn’t go to the no-hitter.

As for Michelle, well, we have more children than no-hitters witnessed together, so she did in fact forgive, if not entirely forget.

Fate didn’t do much to help us out. In 1998, we went to the game BEFORE David Wells’ perfect game. Michelle flirted with history July 7, 2004, when she was out west with a friend and saw Kaz Ishii throw a one-hitter for the Dodgers. On Sept. 22, 2013, she went to Mariano Rivera Day at Yankee Stadium, where Andy Pettitte carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning of his final home start.

In July 2010, we were in Cooperstown for our annual Hall of Fame induction weekend visit when we saw Gooden signing autographs a block away from the museum.

“Hey honey,” Michelle said. “Let’s go tell Doc Gooden how you turned down tickets to his no-hitter.”

And so we did. Gooden was very nice and was quite entertained by our tale, as well as mortified I’d failed the damn exam. When Michelle said she hasn’t let me forget what I did, Gooden smiled and pointed at her.

“Never stop reminding him,” he said.

And my career has served to remind her to remind me what I made her miss. I sort of witnessed a no-hitter in 2007, when I was covering the Red Sox and drove to Fenway for the final four innings of Clay Buchholz’s no-no. I think she rather enjoyed the night of June 1, 2012, when we were sitting at home the night before I was scheduled to cover a Mets game, which turned out to be the game after the first no-hitter in Mets history.

I finally got lucky on June 9, 2015, when Giants rookie Chris Heston no-hit the Mets. I’d never covered a no-hitter on deadline, and I’m only a little embarrassed to admit the adrenaline rush after the last out—it had finally happened!—made me a little dizzy.

Michelle was a good sport the next day, when I gushed about how cool it was to see a no-hitter and write it on deadline. But of course…

“It’s not really fair you got to see one, you know,” she said.

I know. And then I saw another one on Oct. 1, 2015, when Max Scherzer struck out 17 and missed a perfect game only by an inexplicably errant Yunel Escobar throw on Kevin Plawecki’s routine grounder. With that one, she laughed and said, well, at least it wasn’t a Mets no-hitter.

I recently visited her English class to talk about my sportswriting career. Someone asked me the most memorable game I’d covered, and I mentioned the Heston no-hitter.

“Why don’t you tell then the Gooden story?” Michelle said.

I will, honey. Forever and ever and ever.

Jerry Beach has written about professional sports, mostly in the New York area, since 1997. He currently covers the Mets and Islanders for The Sports Xchange wire service. You may reach him at [email protected]

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Incredible Kulk

    May 15, 2018 at 5:55 pm

    Nice story, Beach. Can only wonder what your Twitter feed would have been like that night …

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