When he arrived in the major leagues five months ago, Dwight Gooden didn't know their names. Grover Cleveland Alexander, Herb Score and Bob Feller were strangers to him.
Now, just as he's getting familiar with their names, the New York Mets rookie is suddenly one of them. Already his name is linked with theirs in the record books and soon he'll be beside them in baseball lore as well.
You see, Dwight Gooden is 19 years old and bucking for legend. Tonight, the tall right-hander with the gold front tooth and the quicksilver fast ball pitched a one-hit shutout in a 10-0 victory over the Chicago Cubs.
Even that one hit in the fifth inning was a pure scratch fluke, a soft chop by Keith Moreland that should have been fielded by third baseman Ray Knight and might have been called an error by scorer Maury Allen.
Moreland's hit was, perhaps, not really controversial, merely painful for the crowd of 46,301. Any of a dozen slick-fielding third basemen could have made the play look routine, but Knight turned a passably difficult chance into no play.
"It was a 1-2 pitch, breaking ball," explained Knight. "I was way off the third base line because nobody was pulling 'Doc.' I couldn't hear the signal (for a curve ball) because of the crowd. Moreland hit a chop over the bag and the only way I could get him was to throw as I was catching the ball. I had trouble getting it out of my glove and I never really had it in my hand, so I couldn't throw (at all).
"From where I was positioned (off the line), it had to be a hit. But I'd be glad to take an error."
From Manager Dave Johnson to Gooden, the Mets agreed that the hit was legit. Only one other ball all night -- a Moreland liner to left-center snagged by George Foster in the seventh -- had even a remote chance of being a hit.
Gooden himself had two hits.
On this bedazzling night when Gooden struck out 11, he also broke the National League record for most strikeouts in a season by a rookie. Gooden now has 235 strikeouts in 193 innings, surpassing Alexander's mark of 227 in 1911 and putting Score's major-league record of 245 in 1955 within his long reach.
Within days, Gooden also should pass Feller and gain the distinction of being baseball's greatest teen-age strikeout artist. Feller had 240 at age 19 in his second full season in 1938.
In the kingdom of Ks, this fabulous teen-ager already is one of the game's all-time princes. In fact, when it comes to strikeouts, the case can be made that Gooden is having the hottest strikeout season ever.
Gooden's 10-0 victory over Chicago tonight, cutting the Cubs lead over the Mets to six games in the National League East, was only the 15th of his first season. His 15-9 mark and his 2.84 are merely excellent.
More stunning is the realization in recent days that he may shatter the all-time major league record for most strikeouts per nine innings 10.71 by McDowell for the '65 Indians.
Gooden, whose current pace is 10.97, could be the only man in history to average 11 strikeouts per nine innings for a whole season. Before Gooden came along, the all-time top five in this category read like a who's who of heat: Ryan, 10.57 in '73; Koufax, 10.55 in '62; Ryan, 10.43 in '72, McDowell, 10.42 in '66.
Though he may not quite grasp it, Gooden is undeniably moving among legends. And he looks right at home. Alexander, the man whose record he broke tonight, was once portrayed in the movies by Ronald Reagan. The company is fast, but not as fast as Gooden's fast ball. The comparison's are slippery but not as elusive as Gooden's overhand curve ball.
"This was one of my better games," said the laconic Gooden. "The hit wasn't really no matter . . . It was a tough play for Ray.
"The (strikeout) record wasn't really important. You don't want to think to much about that . . . Actually, I just worry about pitching. Try to stay within yourself. Don't get too excited. Don't show anybody up. Don't hotdog after a big strikeout."
Then Gooden broke out his most pleasant and youthful grin. "Yeah, this is a great feeling to have."
For Gooden, this was a symbolic night. He was pitching on national TV for the first time since the all-star game and the soon-to-be commissioner of baseball, Peter Ueberroth, was in the crowd. Also, the Cubs have given Gooden more trouble than any other team. He's faced them twice in Wrigley Field and allowed 12 runs in 7 1/3 innings in two defeats. Here in Shea, he'd previously faced them twice and given up just two runs in two victories while fanning 18 in 15 innings.
This time, he squared accounts.
Almost everything Gooden does seems to set a record. When he struck out Dan Rohn, chasing a shoulder-high fast ball in the eighth, it marked the 13th time this year that Gooden had struck out 10 or more in a game. That tied the one-season Mets mark set by Tom Seaver in '71. Gooden has won six consecutive starts and has allowed just seven earned runs in 51 innings over those games.
Gooden, who may well be the most polished and poised pitcher for his age in history, has little sense of his place in the game's long skein. "I never really heard too much about those people (like Alexander) before. I learned about them once I got to the big leagues."
What Gooden does understand is how to launch a baseball nearly 100 mph and throw it to rather precise spots. "The back of my right leg is the key," he says. "When I coil up at the top of my windup, that's where I feel like I'm throwing the pitch from."
"I've played with Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan," said Knight, "but I have never seen anyone who had such command of his pitches as Gooden had tonight."
Johnson, asked if he were thinking about a possible Gooden no-hitter this evening, shrugged and said, "I think about that every time he goes out there."
So will everybody else, now and probably for a long time.