Dwight Gooden: From San Juan Senators to 1996 World Champion New York Yankees

Dwight “Doc” Gooden was inactive during the 1995 MLB season, due to a drug-related suspension, after pitching for the New York Mets, 1984-to-1994. This blog will focus on how Gooden resurrected his big-league pitching career, with the help of the Steinbrenner family, advisor Ray Negrón and three starts for the 1995-96 San Juan Senators, in Puerto Rico’s Winter League. Gooden’s SABR bio by Lee Kluck is at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/d9e52fa4. Gooden was an iconic baseball figure: 1984 NL Rookie of the Year, 1985 Cy Young Award, 2x NL strikeout king and 1986 World Series champion. His major-league stats can be viewed at: https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/goodedw01.shtml. How would Gooden pitch in Puerto Rico the first half of November 1995 and how did this help the Yankees win their first title since 1978? Emphasis is placed on Gooden’s 134-pitch no-hitter for the Yankees on May 14, 1996, at home versus the Seattle Mariners, a contest featuring many players who played winter ball in Puerto Rico.

Ray Negrón, long-time New York Yankees employee

Ray Negrón, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, was up to “no good” in 1973, his last day as an 11th grader. He was playing hooky in the Bronx, when Yankees owner George M. Steinbrenner caught him spray-painting an «NY» on the side of the original Yankee Stadium.
Steinbrenner had recently purchased the team from CBS. «The Boss» showed his kindness and soft spot for Negrón, who recalled: «Instead of having me arrested, he [Steinbrenner] made me a batboy—as long as I promised I would never do graffiti again.” Ray’s other duties included clubhouse work, babysitting a kid named Barry Bonds in 1975 for his CF-playing father, Bobby, and later (1977-to-1981) running errands for Reggie Jackson. He threw batting practice until then-manager Billy Martin told Negrón he wasn’t good enough. Steinbrenner agreed with Martin, who he hired and dismissed as Yankees manager five times. Negrón would take Yankees players into the city where he grew up—to hospitals, Little League fields and community centers. In 2012, two years after The Boss died at 80, The New Yorker called Negrón, «The Bronx Ambassador,” per https://www.mlb.com/news/ray-negron-s-son-drafted-by-braves-c237811442.

Negrón also befriended Sandy Alomar Sr., when Alomar Sr. was traded to the Yankees in 1974, and played with them, 1974-to-1976. Sandy Alomar Jr. and his younger brother (Roberto) got to see, first-hand, how Negrón adeptly embraced his different roles with the Yankees, including the 1974 and 1975 seasons, when the team played home games at Shea Stadium, due to renovations at Yankee Stadium. The Pittsburgh Pirates selected Negrón, January 1975 phase of the draft. His manager with their rookie team in the [1975] Gulf Coast League was Woody Huyke, ex-catcher for the Caguas Criollos in Puerto Rico’s Winter League. But Negrón only had one hit in seven AB. “I stunk,” said Negrón. “I couldn’t hit the curveball and the fastball overwhelmed me.” This may have been a blessing. “Ray’s a good guy and bleeds Yankee blue,» said Randy Levine, the club’s longtime president who took Negrón under his wing circa 2007. «He’s done a good job in whatever I’ve assigned him to do. He knows a lot of people in baseball and around the city.”

So how and where does Doc Gooden come into the “Ray Negrón and 1996 Yankees equation”?

Pre-season, 1995-96, at Hiram Bithorn Stadium

The author spent a few days in Puerto Rico, late October 1995, doing radio shows and going to bookstores promoting his Puerto Rico Winter League book. He was granted an interview with Doc Gooden, after a San Juan Senators practice, with the condition “that Ray Negrón be present.” Negrón—lively, energetic and task-oriented—emphasized that the Gooden interview focus on baseball matters, “without any distractions.” This was A-OK. A San Juan team official informed the author that Negrón played an important role as Gooden’s representative.” (Negrón played a key role in Gooden signing a Yankees free agent contract, February 20, 1996.)

Gooden was casually dressed, with a t-shirt and shorts, during our brief interview. He wasn’t sure how long he would stay on the Island, but did highlight the “importance of facing live hitters, again,” along with “working on secondary pitches, like the knuckle curve,” since his “once-explosive fastball was a thing of the past.” Gooden wanted to prove himself with the 1996 Yankees, and was “optimistic that Puerto Rico would be a confidence-builder.” Thanks to Negrón and San Juan teammates, Gooden was “aware that the Puerto Rico Winter League was usually below a big-league level, but superior to Class AAA,” with league play improving when big-leaguers put on their uniforms later in the season. (The San Juan Senators were defending champions from 1994-95 with terrific players such as catcher Carlos Delgado, DH Edgar Martínez, 3B Carlos Baerga and double-play duo of 2B Roberto Alomar and SS Rey Sánchez.)

Gooden’s three San Juan starts resulted in a 0-1 record, 1.26 ERA, 14.1 innings, seven hits allowed, 11 strikeouts and four walks. This was sufficient for Gooden to return to the States, mid-November 1995, hopeful of securing a free agent deal. Coincidentally, Darryl Strawberry made his Puerto Rico debut for the Santurce Crabbers, against arch-rival San Juan, with two HR on November 18, 1995, several days after Gooden’s departure. (Strawberry had a .355 AVG with six HR and 10 RBIs, when he, too, departed Puerto Rico). “Major-league teams tend to protect their pitchers more,” said Frankie Thon, Santurce’s GM. “The Yankees made it clear that they wanted Strawberry to get as many AB as possible…if he wants to leave, there’s nothing we can do to stop him either.” San Juan (26-25) finished fourth in the league, after defeating Ponce (25-26) in a tie-breaker, but were eliminated by Mayagüez (28-21) in the semi-finals.

Gooden (and Negrón) enjoyed hearing the author mention past New York Yankees/San Juan Senators links, including Elston Howard playing for the 1954-55 Senators; Ralph Houk managing San Juan, 1956-57, and some of their future Yankees—Luis “Tite” Arroyo and Johnny Blanchard; Chris Chambliss (1973-74 Senators) being traded to the Yankees, in a deal approved by Mr. Steinbrenner, early in the 1974 AL season; plus, Paul O’Neill being traded from San Juan to Mayagüez, 1985-86 season. Could history repeat itself with a San Juan player (Gooden) later playing on New York Yankees championship teams?

1996 New York Yankees

Gooden became reunited with Mel Stottlemyre, his pitching coach with the New York Mets. Stottlemyre was a great hire by Joe Torre, first-year Yankees skipper. Don Zimmer was the club’s bench coach; Willie Randolph coached third; José Cardenal, a native of Cuba, coached first; and, Chris Chambliss, was the hitting coach. Zimmer was once a teammate of Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays, with the 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers, 1955 Caribbean Series champs. (Zimmer was Series MVP.) Cardenal plied his trade with the Caguas Criollos and San Juan Senators during the 1960s. San Juan and Santurce fans remember him for hitting two HR off Jim Palmer in the semi-finals, following the 1968-69 season. Chambliss nearly won the 1973-74 league batting title with San Juan (.3627), falling short by .0005 to George Hendrick (.3632), a Santurce OF. The Yankees 1996 GM was Bob Watson; Mitch Lukevics was their Farm Director.

These 1996 Yankees eventually used 48 players. They were coming off a tough 1995 ALDS loss to Seattle, on Edgar Martínez’s game-winning double, in Game Five. Torre counted on LHP Andy Pettitte (21-8), LHP Kenny Rogers (12-8), Gooden (11-7), David Cone (7-2) and set-up man Mariano Rivera (8-3) during the regular season, with closer John Wetteland, who had a league-leading 43 saves. Pettitte, Rogers, Gooden, Rivera and Cone were a combined 59-28; the other 18 hurlers used by New York (including Wetteland) were 33-42.

Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill, Rubén Sierra and Gerald Williams were 1996 Yankees OF with extensive Puerto Rico Winter League backgrounds. Bernie and Rubén were teammates on the February 4-9, 1995, Puerto Rico “Dream Team,” which captured the Caribbean Series at Bithorn Stadium, undefeated (6-0), over the Toros del Este (4-2 W-L) from the Dominican Republic, Mexico (1-5) and Venezuela (1-5). O’Neill’s trade from San Juan to the Mayagüez Indios was for OF Dion James. “We won the [1985-86] league title,” recalled O’Neill. “I later came back with Mayagüez for another post-season run.” Gerald Williams reinforced Santurce, early-to-mid 1990s, while Sierra—who idolized Roberto Clemente—had a storied career with Santurce, 1984-85 through the 1990s, before a final season with Bayamón.

Doc Gooden’s No-Hitter, May 14, 1996

Circling back to Gooden, he was 1-3, 5.67 ERA, when he started at Yankee Stadium, Tuesday night, May 14, in front of 20,786 paid fans. The 21-14 Yankees hosted the 20-17 Seattle Mariners. Gooden fanned five; walked six; but did not allow a hit in 58-degree Fahrenheit weather. It was his only CG and SHO in 29 regular season starts. Seattle’s line-up was: Darren Bragg, LF; Alex Rodríguez (A-Rod), SS; Ken Griffey Jr., CF; Edgar Martínez, DH; Jay Buhner, RF; Paul Sorrento, 1B; Dan Wilson, catcher; Joey Cora, 2B; and Russ Davis, 3B. Their starter was LHP Sterling Hitchcock, who was traded to Seattle by the Yankees, on December 7, 1995, with 3B Davis, for Tino Martínez, Jeff Nelson and Jim Mecir.

Gooden walked Bragg, before A-Rod slammed a long drive into deep CF, which Gerald Williams (who started in place of Bernie Williams) flagged; relayed back to SS Derek Jeter, who completed the double-play with a throw to Tino Martínez. Griffey Jr. walked and Edgar Martínez hit a long fly, caught by RF O’Neill. Sorrento (second inning) and A-Rod (third inning) walked, but Gooden got out unscathed. The Yankees, meanwhile, mounted a threat in the second, without scoring. Their line-up was: Wade Boggs, 3B; Joe Girardi, catcher; Paul O’Neill, RF; Rubén Sierra, LF; Tino Martínez, 1B; Jim Leyritz, DH; Gerald Williams, CF; Robert Eenhoorn, 2B; and Derek Jeter, SS. Girardi had played winter ball in Venezuela, 1988-89, and was the All-Star catcher in the February 4-9, 1989 Caribbean Series, for the Zulia Eagles. Boggs had a fine season for the 1981-82 Bayamón Cowboys, in Puerto Rico. He once told the author he lived (as a child) at the Ramey Air Force Base, Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, when his father was stationed there.

Seattle went out in order, fourth and fifth innings. Bragg reached second, leading off the sixth, when his sharp grounder went off Tino Martínez’s glove, into the stands to the side of 1B. A-Rod’s 4-3 grounder moved Bragg to third. Gooden fanned Griffey Jr. and induced Edgar Martínez to line out to CF. The Yankees scored the game’s only runs in the sixth. Boggs and Girardi singled. O’Neill grounded out to first, with both runners advancing. Sierra was walked intentionally. Tino’s SF to Griffey Jr. scored Boggs; Leyritz’s sharp single to LF plated Girardi.

Buhner—who once played for the Arecibo Wolves in Puerto Rico—grounded out to Jeter (6-3), to start the seventh. Sorrento was retired on a grounder and Wilson skied to Gerald Williams. In the home seventh, Andy Fox pinch-hit for Eenhoorn; and was the only defensive change for New York, at second. Joey Cora—fine student-athlete at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee (and Alex Cora’s older brother)—flied to O’Neill to open the eighth. Doug Strange pinch-hit for Russ Davis, but bounced out to Gooden. Bragg was caught looking, Gooden’s fourth strikeout.

Fast forward to the ninth frame, with A-Rod, Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martínez coming up. A-Rod walked; Griffey Jr. grounded out, with A-Rod advancing. Gooden pitched cautiously to Edgar, walking him. A wild pitch sent both runners to second and third. Lou Piniella sent in Rich Amaral to run for Edgar. A tiring Gooden struck out Buhner and induced Sorrento to fly out to Jeter in short left-center field. An exuberant Gooden was carried off the field by his teammates.

Remainder of 1996

Gooden’s 9-4 mark after his May 14, 1996 no-hitter, was superior to the Yankees 70-56 record from May 15 until season’s end. His pitching efforts became more valuable when David Cone missed 20 regular season starts due to injuries. Cone, however, was healthy for the post-season, and won a World Series contest versus Atlanta. Gooden was not on the Yankees post-season roster. The 92-70 Yankees edged 88-74 Baltimore, managed by Davey Johnson, for the AL East Division crown. Without Gooden in the rotation, the Yankees probably fall short in the AL East. New York defeated Texas, three games-to-one in the ALDS; bested Baltimore, four-games-to-one in the ALCS; before winning four straight against Atlanta, after losing the first two World Series games. New York signed Tim Raines for 1996; traded  Rubén Sierra to Detroit for Cecil Fielder, late season; among other 1996 moves. The combination of Mariano Rivera (two innings) and closer John Wetteland (one inning) was vital for the Yankees, regular season/post-season.

Aftermath of the 1996 Big-League Season

Gooden went 9-5 for the 1997 Yankees, with a start versus Cleveland in the ALDS (no-decision and 1.59 ERA in 5.2 innings). He signed a free agent contract with Cleveland, for 1998 and 1999, where he was a combined 11-10. His 2000 season was divided between Houston, Tampa Bay (2-3) and the Yankees (4-2), for a final 6-5 record. With New York, he posted a 3.36 regular season ERA, followed by a forgettable relief appearance versus Oakland in the ALDS. He pitched two and one-third scoreless frames in a solid relief effort against Seattle in the ALCS, his last appearance in a big-league uniform. His 194 MLB wins and 112 losses equate to a .634 PCT. Gooden’s 2,293 strikeouts were accomplished in 2,800.2 innings. His career Hall of Fame (HOF) “Similarity Scores” are quite close to David Cone. Gooden’s HOF Monitor pitching index is 88, compared to the “average index” of 100 for a HOF pitcher, devised by Bill James. Per Gooden’s SABR bio, he said: “I appreciate what the Yankees did for me, but I’ll always be a Met at heart.’’  

The author was at The Ballpark at Arlington (Texas), Saturday, June 6, 1998. In a post-game interview with Wetteland, the now-Texas closer noted that his winter in Puerto Rico with 1988-89 Santurce, as a starter; and a 1991-92 winter with Venezuela’s Caracas Lions (13 saves, 2.84 ERA), “helped his career.” The author interviewed San Diego’s Tony Gwynn earlier that day. Gwynn extolled the virtues of winter ball, with Bayamón (1982-83) and San Juan (1983-84).

With thanks and appreciation to Doc Gooden, for conversing with the author at Hiram Bithorn Stadium. He was sincere and pleasant. Ray Negrón was professional and focused. Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, Paul O’Neill and John Wetteland highlighted the importance of winter ball. Luis R. Mayoral helped the author obtain a press credential in Texas. Frankie Thon provided valuable insights as a Puerto Rico Winter League GM, mid-1990s. Jorge Colón Delgado furnished Gooden’s regular season stats with the 1995-96 San Juan Senators.

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