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"Each day was a challenge'

His father was in the hospital. His team was in ruins. His million-dollar arm was worthless.

"Last year," Dwight Gooden said, "was the toughest year of my professional career."

More difficult than 1987, when the New York Mets' ace pitcher tested positive for drug use, underwent rehabilitation and missed half the season. More frustrating than 1989, when a torn muscle sidelined the Tampa native for two months, Gooden's first significant baseball injury.

It was a season when Gooden was worried about his father's health. A season when Gooden grew so disgusted and frustrated with his teammates that he no longer wanted to come to the ballpark. And, ultimately, a season when Gooden saw his baseball future jeopardized by surgery on his right shoulder.

"Each day," Gooden said, "was a challenge."

Now, Gooden can talk openly about his struggles. He sat in the office of his roomy south St. Petersburg home last week and discussed his troubled year and his future.

His wife, Monica, and two young daughters _ Ashley and Ariel _ played on the living room couch as music videos bounced off a large-screen television. His dad (who has recovered from hip-replacement surgery) and mom live in a waterfront house just down the block. His sister and her son, Milwaukee Brewers infielder Gary Sheffield, live across the street.

Gooden is entering the first season of a three-year, $15.45-million contract that makes him the third highest-paid pitcher in baseball this season and fourth highest-paid player overall. He has endorsement contracts with Spalding, Nike and Toys R Us. He does advertising spots for Kingsford Charcoal and Armitron watches. He has a baseball-signing deal with Home Shopping Network.

Gooden is attending his 11th spring camp and starting his ninth season in the major leagues. When you consider his achievements (a 24-4 season and a Cy Young Award in 1985 and the 1984 Rookie of the Year Award) and struggles (drugs, injuries, an arrest), it seems hard to remember he is just 27.

Really, Gooden said, life now is good. Make that great. "I couldn't ask for anything more," he said.

Except, of course, a full recovery.

Rotator cuff surgery is traumatic, and often career-ending, for pitchers. There are people who say Gooden never will be the same pitcher who compiled a 132-53 record.

But Gooden remains optimistic. He worked feverishly in the off-season, is throwing freely and regularly off a mound and hopes to be ready by Opening Day, six weeks away. Team officials are impressed with his progress but have not set a date for his return.

A year ago, Gooden headed to the Mets' Port St. Lucie camp with tremendous confidence. He was coming off a 19-7 season where he won eight of his last nine decisions, and his team was expected to challenge for the division title.

His world began to crumble May 21. Gooden won his fifth game of the season that night, but it was the same day his father checked into a New York hospital to await a hip transplant.

Dan Gooden has kidney problems that require thrice-weekly dialysis. There were some complications leading up to the hip operation, and Dan Gooden was in the hospital for 2{ months.

Every day the Mets were in town that summer, Dwight Gooden would drive from his Long Island home to the New York City hospital and spend the afternoon with his dad.

Dwight didn't like what he saw.

"He didn't look good at all. You knew the pain he was in," Gooden said. "All I could picture were the days we spent playing and how he used to get around, and now he's unable to. To watch him lay there, it was tough. A lot of times you'd leave the hospital and it would be on your mind."

The two, Dwight said, are as close as any father and son.

It was Dan who helped steer his son toward baseball, playing catch with Dwight and Gary after a long day's work, finding a way to buy Dwight new spikes or a glove, taking Dwight to Cincinnati Reds spring training games and Tampa Tarpons minor-league games, reassuring Dwight through the early minor-league years.

"He's one of the biggest reasons I've come this far," Gooden said.

So with Dan ailing, Dwight began struggling. It was a rough period unlike any Dwight had ever experienced.

The night his dad went into the hospital, Gooden gave up nine hits and six runs in 6 innings against the Cubs but stole a win, raising his record to 5-3. But in his next four starts, covering 22 innings, Gooden was knocked around for 23 runs and 42 hits. He won just three other games over two months.

His concentration was wavering. Thoughts of his dad accompanied him to the ballpark, he said, and even to the dugout bench.

"You try not to take it on the mound," Gooden said, "but it's like any job, whether it's baseball or your job or anything. How can you not? We're all human, but you try and block it out and go on.

"I caught myself sometimes between innings just not focused. It shouldn't be that way, but things happen."

When it did, Gooden would turn to pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.

"When I found out about Dwight's father last year, the main thing I tried to do was let him know that I cared," Stottlemyre said. "I told him when he was pitching that he just had to concentrate. As hard as it was, he just had to try and focus on the present task, knowing his dad would want it that way."

That was exactly what Dan did want.

"We talked about it a lot," Dan Gooden said. "He was worried about me, and it was rough on him."

In mid-July, doctors decided Dan Gooden was healthy enough for surgery, and the operation was a success. The night of the surgery, Dwight beat the Giants 6-4, and it was the start of something good.

Counting the night he beat the Giants, Gooden made eight post-surgery starts _ winning five, losing one and posting a 2.44 ERA.

He wouldn't admit it at the time, but Gooden says now the connection between his performance and his dad's situation was more than coincidence.

"I didn't want to put the two together," Gooden said, "but now looking at it the way it happened, I know "

The worst, Dwight thought, was behind him. Then came an Aug. 22 start against St. Louis. Gooden felt something wrong in his shoulder and left after the fifth inning. He has yet to return.

Initial tests were inconclusive. Speculation grew. Gooden flew home to St. Petersburg to be with Monica for Ariel's Sept. 1 birth. Three days after that cherished moment, Gooden's world crashed again.

Team officials told him his pitching arm required surgery.

Gooden was stunned.

"I was like I just looked and said, "Man!' You try to be strong, but at the same time, it was too much to handle," Gooden said. "It probably took 30 minutes to actually realize it and get that to sink in, considering what had already happened with the team and my father. I never thought it would get to that."

With his season ended, Gooden tried to find solace in his teammates' performance. That didn't work.

The Mets had lost 11 straight games and quickly fell from the race. Worse, in Gooden's eyes, some of the players didn't seem to care.

"There was a lot of pointing fingers. You could see how the team was going. A lot of times you'd have to question the attitude," Gooden said. "You would think, "Okay, maybe we're out of the race, but pride has to come in somewhere.' This team has too much talent to finish where we did."

In each of Gooden's first seven seasons, the Mets finished first or second.

"Now here it is September, and we're already 20 games out," Gooden said. "That was tough to handle. Then when I got hurt, it was like I was useless. You don't want to be at the ballpark because it's tough to watch a game when there's nothing you can do."

The off-season was a panacea, and with a team of new faces and soaring expectations, Gooden is excited again about baseball.

"One of the biggest reasons I want to get healthy is because I think this season is going to be a lot of fun," Gooden said. "We'll have a chance to win a lot of ballgames."

And in south St. Petersburg, Gooden's biggest fan will be watching.

"He was pulling for me," Dan Gooden said. "Now I'm pulling for him."