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Quietly, Gooden endures

There is nowhere for Dwight Gooden to hide. He cannot escape the twin realities of life on and off the mound. "Family is more important than baseball," he says, stating the obvious.

Still, he tries to separate the reality of an ailing father and the worst stretch he has suffered through since emerging as the Mets' marquee pitcher in 1984.

"When I go to the ballpark, I find myself thinking a lot about what's wrong with my pitching. I block everything else out. When I'm on the mound, I don't think about anything except the game, the batter. Away from the ballpark, the problem with the pitching doesn't bother me. But then I find myself thinking a lot about my dad.

"I'm sure everything's going to work out in both areas. But right now, yeah, it's kind of heavy."

For the past four years, 63-year-old Dan Gooden has undergone kidney dialysis, four hours a day, three days a week.

And since May 21, home to the elder Gooden has been a room at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, where he is awaiting a second hip replacement.

The first one resulted in a severe infection. He must wait another six weeks or so before he regains the strength needed to cope with another operation.

Dwight Gooden, who is all business and no emotion on the mound, maintains his trademark unemotional exterior when he speaks of his father's condition. "Everything's okay. Everything's going to be fine," he says.

But he admits to having spent agonizing hours at his father's side daily during the Mets' most recent homestand, looking at a frail man and remembering him once so vibrant.

May 21, the day Dan Gooden entered the hospital, also is the night the world began to crumble as never before for Dwight Gooden.

Oh, he won that night as the Mets beat the Cubs 8-6. But Gooden was rattled for nine hits and all of Chicago's runs in just 6 innings.

And in each of his three starts since then, twice against St. Louis and once against Cincinnati, he has given up 11 hits. Only twice in the preceding seven seasons had he allowed 11 hits in a game.

So as he takes the mound in the Houston Astrodome tonight, he carries with him both the emotional baggage of personal trauma and the statistical burden of a four-game streak in which he has allowed 23 runs and 42 hits in his last 22 innings. In that span, his earned-run average has mushroomed from 2.39 to 4.25 and his record has slipped to 5-5.

"This might be the worst ever," he says, comparing the latest shellackings to a similar streak last August when, in a four-game stretch, he was raked for 21 earned runs in 22 innings.

This should be the best of times for Doc. He owns a contract extension worth a minimum $15-million through 1994. And with Darryl Strawberry gone, he is the Mets star.

As such, he feels he is letting both the team and the fans down. And some fans, who know all about that contract, have let him know that they feel the same way.

Manager Bud Harrelson, who has a few other things on his mind _ like maybe his own job _ says he's not worried about Gooden's sudden fallibility. "Concerned," is the official word he uses. Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre says he's not even concerned.

Maybe they are downplaying it to keep Gooden from dwelling on it. A pitcher's psyche can be very delicate.

And despite the obvious link between his personal problems and his public performances, Gooden, too, still says he thinks it's simple mechanics that have played havoc with his stats.

"The rhythm's a little out of whack. A lot of times, with a pitcher, all it takes is something real small," he says. "Me and Mel, we talk a lot. Right now we're just trying to make an adjustment to get me back to where I feel comfortable. My arm feels fine. Everything feels fine. Nothing's hurting."

If Gooden is looking for signs that this streak is due to end, he need look no farther than his own history, both distant and recent.

He is back in the building where it all began. His first win in his first start in the majors was in the Astrodome.

And a year ago, Gooden was even worse off than he is today. He was 3-5. He finished the season 19-7.

"Things will get better," Gooden says without prompting. He doesn't say whether he's talking about his father or himself, but it's obvious he's talking about both. "Everything will turn out fine."