BOSTON — At times this season, it hasn't been easy to distinguish batting practice from the major-league games that follow. In both cases, hitters have teed off.
Runs per game and home runs are soaring. Maybe it's smaller ballparks, stronger hitters, livelier baseballs, or bad pitching.
So it was a shock when Al Leiter and Dwight Gooden pitched no-hit games - the first and only ones this season - within days of each other. How did these veterans, both of whom have known a fair amount of adversity, manage such a feat in a year of hit-athons?
"Fools give you reasons," goes the line from "The King and I," "wise men never try."
Leiter had the first no-hitter in the four-year history of the Florida Marlins in an 11-0 win over the Colorado Rockies May 11. On May 14, Gooden threw the first no-hitter of his career to lead the New York Yankees past the Seattle Mariners, 2-0.
In a teleconference with reporters, Leiter reacted to Gooden's feat: "I can't believe that after all those outstanding years with the Mets he didn't have a no-hitter."
Truly, Gooden was a logical candidate to throw a no-hitter earlier in his career, when "Dr. K" was striking out batters left and right with the New York Mets. He won the Cy Young Award as the National League's best pitcher in 1985 and helped the Mets to a World Series championship in 1986.
Soon thereafter, though, a cocaine problem came to light. Gooden had to sit out part of the 1987 and 1994 seasons, and all of the 1995 campaign. The Yankees decided to give him a try this year, but after he gave up 17 runs in his first three starts, the club demoted him to the bullpen.
Things looked bleak. Then Gooden was pressed into service as a starter and responded with a couple of solid outings. His first win since June 1994 came three weeks ago, followed by the no-hitter, only the ninth in Yankee history. Gooden said he couldn't have imagined it in his "wildest dreams. To be through what I've been through and now this, I can't describe it."
Leiter began his major-league career as a much-heralded prospect with the Yankees. Injuries put him on the disabled list, though, and then he was sent down to play Triple-A ball for a couple of years.
That experience humbled him, he says, and led to his gradual comeback. "It wasn't like one game, one coach, or learning one pitch. It was a process," he observes.
His outlook was broadened, he says, by watching Jimmy Key, Mike Flanagan, and Dave Stewart, Leiter's teammates during his second big-league stop in Toronto.
Leiter became a free agent and signed with the Marlins this season. Some wondered if the Marlins had made a mistake by giving a three-year, $8.6-million deal to a pitcher known to have control problems.
"He always has outstanding stuff," says Florida manager Rene Lachemann. "But he keeps you on the top step of the dugout."
During his no-hitter, though, Leiter was a model of control.