High in the upper deck of Shea Stadium, down near the left field foul pole, Dennis Scalzitti is running toward the railing with 27 huge placards, each bearing the letter "K."

"I bring 27," says Scalzitti, 23, dressed in Hawaiian shorts and T-shirt, plus leis in the colors of the New York Mets, "because someday Dwight Gooden is going to strike out all 27 men he faces."

What happens, Scalzitti is asked, if a game goes extra innings and Gooden strikes out more than 27?

"I got a Magic Marker," says Scalzitti. "I'll take off my shirt and write on that."

The first batter of the game steps up. Strike one. Strike two.

"Jeez, he's got two strikes already," wails Scalzitti as he rummages through his stack of signs. "The K Korner," one says. "The Heat Is On," reads another. "Gooden-ough" and "Dr. K" and "The Doctor Is In" say others.

The huge Mets crowd begins its roar, asking Gooden, as it will all night, for one more strike so it can erupt. Scalzitti and his two friends, also in ludicrous Hawaiian garb, fumble with their signs, actually dropping one K over the railing into the lower deck where fans fight over it as though Gooden had touched it.

Strike three. One batter, and already the flame of fame has been fanned again.

Dwight Gooden walks slowly and softly, speaks in a deep, quiet voice and always allows a second of pause -- like the coil at the top of his windup -- between the moment an idea lights his eyes and when it escapes his mouth.

He still carries with him a trace of rookie circumspectness, although he is in his second season and well on his way to being the most exciting and important player in baseball.

If he isn't already.

Whenever Gooden pitches, every fan carries those 27 Ks somewhere in his mind, as does every hitter. National League batting champion Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres, told that Gooden was working on a change-up to go with his fast ball and curve, said that if he ever got one, Gooden would pitch a game someday where "nobody touches the ball."

This is preposterous, but Gooden inspires the outrageous. At 20, he still is all golden with expectation.

Last year, as an unknown teenager up from AA ball, Gooden had the greatest strikeout season in baseball history -- 276 in 218 innings, or 11.39 per nine innings. This year, he's better.

Do you really have to mention that, at his current pace, he'd win about 25 games and strike out more than 300 men this season? And that, barring injury, otherwise sane humans expect him to do the same for as far as the eye can see.

Once you've said that his fast ball is one of the best in the game and that his curve may be the best, isn't it almost overkill to mention that it's really his control that is unique?

That he broke Sandy Koufax's NL record for strikeouts in consecutive starts (with 32) last year isn't nearly as unfathomable as the fact that he didn't walk anybody in either game. He didn't go to three balls on a hitter in one of them, with 92 strikes on 120 pitches.

It's taken a year for baseball to get a line on Gooden, but now he's beginning to seem comprehensible. Looked at from a certain perspective, it almost seems Gooden has had every circumstance of life that might contribute to him being what he is.

Born and raised in Tampa, Fla., he was exposed to half the teams in baseball as a child during spring training. He saw major leaguers not as mythic figures glimpsed from the bleachers of some big league stadium, but up close as human-sized folks on the tacky practice diamonds of Florida.

Gooden's father, Dan, was a baseball fan of the first order and the game was what he shared with his son. By the time Dwight went to school, Al Kaline was his hero. Not only did Gooden grow up in a family that prized the game and in a sunbelt play-year-around town that hosted the grapefruit leaguers, but Tampa also started one of America's most successful youth leagues a couple of years after Gooden was born.

After Tampa's race riots of 1967, the Belmont Heights Little League, which has made four appearances in the Little League World Series, was formed. By the time Gooden was ready for a hot kid's league, it was waiting for him. The same coach, Billy Reed, who was instrumental at that level also guided Gooden at high-powered Hillsborough High where a dozen scouts might attend a game.

Nowhere could Gooden have met better coaching, better competition or a more baseball-saturated town than in Tampa in the 1970s and '80s.

Besides a tough work-ethic father, Gooden also had a strong mother, Ella Mae, who worked in a nursing home, and plenty of female relatives who gave the family's only male child constant attention.

Solid family, top coach, big town but simple values, sunbelt season, spring training site. Gooden was blessed but never spoiled. Although he always was the special child -- the one who was going to make the family's mark -- the rod was not spared.

Did his parents worry about him heading to big bad New York City last year? "Oh, never," Gooden says. "Well, maybe a little at first. But once they came up and saw it, where I was living, how I was set, how people were taking care of me, they just loved it."

All that crosses Gooden's mind is that his parents would worry about him eating well, having friends, being comfortable. The idea that he might get into mischief, cause himself harm -- or that his family might think he would -- does not even come onto his radar screen.

Just when we think this is the limit, just when everything about the 6-foot-3, 198-pound Gooden seems too good to believe, we find out we haven't reached the bottom of the pot yet.

Gooden isn't just composed, intense and dedicated, he isn't just swift and mechanically sound, he's also old.

Old for his age. Almost wise.

"Playing in the majors is a lot more fun than I thought it would be," said Gooden recently.

The money? The crowds? The steaks?

"What I like most is there's always something you can learn. As long as you're listening. The older players know a lotta ways to get people out.

"Like last night I didn't have my outstanding curve ball. They were waiting for the fast ball and got two runs. But (coach) Mel Stottlemyre told me that I had to keep showing them the curve, even if it wasn't for strikes. If nobody'd told me, I'd have thrown fast balls all night," said Gooden, who didn't allow a run after the first inning.

Last year, 47 of 50 runners stole successfully on him. Now, he has a better pickoff move.

He was told that someday -- about the year 2000 -- he'd need a change-up. He's got it now.

His hitting was weak. "My only goal this year," he says, "is to hit .250." He's become a good and tricky bunter, and last week, Gooden had three hits in one game off Los Angeles' Fernando Valenzuela.

Other pitchers with a fraction of Gooden's ability, fame and accomplishments fall in love with themselves, gaze into the mirror of their public image and forget the central goal of games.


The surest proof that Gooden's still on this track is that he's already gotten over the Ks.

Scalzitti and his band don't know it yet, but Gooden already has seen through the chimera of strikeouts and even of no-hitters. It took Nolan Ryan a dozen years to have this insight and Sudden Sam McDowell never got it.

"Wins keep you around longer than strikeouts," says Gooden, who wasn't much impressed with his 17-9 record last year and thinks his current 8-3 mark (and a 1.72 ERA) should get even better. "If you can get an out on one pitch, take it. Let the strikeouts come on the outstanding pitches. Winning is the big thing. If you throw a lot of pitches (trying for strikeouts), before you know it, your arm's gone."

This sounds so simple, so obvious. Haven't Jim Palmer and Tom Seaver said it for years? Yet for a 20-year-old to believe it and act on it makes veteran players rub their temples in disbelief. Just as others pronounce Gooden an immortal, he senses his mortality and guards himself against the dangers of believing yourself invincible.

What about the K Korner? What about that game for the ages when (who knows) maybe he'd pitch a perfect game and strike out 20? How can he resist that addictive rush of adulation?

Gooden shrugs. "Strikeouts just give the fans something to do."

Scalzitti is standing on a seat, jumping up and down, waving his arms, leading tens of thousands of people in chants and cheers. Although he says, "No drugs, no liquor, natural high," he looks like he might take off from that perilous railing and try to fly.

"I work for an IBM dealership, sellin' typewriters. But I'm hopin' for the movies. This could be my break," says Scalzitti, who wears a headband that says Divine Wind Kamikaze. "If the Mets go to the World Series, everybody in the whole world will know who we are.

"On the way to the game tonight, we smashed into a taxi cab. But the driver knew who we were, didn't even take our insurance policy number, just said, 'Get goin'. You're late for the game.' "

Already Scalzitti, just by remote association with Gooden, has gotten his picture on national TV many times, has been on the cover of a book, has been interviewed by New York TV stations and has to "give away about 10 of these K signs to fans after each game."

He autographs the Ks.

Already a self-appointed group of K Korner surrogates, led by a couple of Yonkers brothers named John and Steve Wieder, has taken up residence by the left field foul pole. They hope that one night Scalzitti and friends will ram a taxi too hard and then they'll be able to horn in on the Gooden act and have their sniff of fame.

"This whole experience freaks me out," says Scalzitti. "So outrageous."

When the K Korner crowd got to meet Gooden, he told them that he appreciated what they were doing to get the crowd behind him. "Dwight was shy," Scalzitti says, surprised that a hero would be almost ashamed at the thought of having worshippers. "We said, 'Just put us in your book.' And he did."

The fame that Scalzitti has tasted, Gooden must eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. "It's been pretty tough," says Gooden of his celebrity. "If you jump for everything, it will just take up all your time.

"I can't be too much to the press. I'm not really outspoken. That's not my nature. But it's easier for me now."

Around the edges, Gooden shows the strain. Since last winter, he's missed some appointments, skipped some scheduled interviews. In spring training, many were shocked when a player so supposedly phlegmatic was ejected from a game by umpire Bob Davidson.

To relieve pressure, the Mets have established that Gooden will talk to the press only after he pitches. This is the most protective and restricted possible arrangement, one usually reserved for players hot in pursuit of some great record.

Contrast Gooden and those K Korner fans, who actually are a few years older than he is. They'd do almost anything for fame. He seems to know it's not worth having. They seem out of control. He's in control. They wear garish outfits. He wears jeans. They can't stop talking and self-promoting. He seldom talks about himself.

Between innings, Gooden sits motionless in the Mets dugout. Nine Ks already hang from the upper-deck rail. He can't stop the flow of strikeouts that he no longer cherishes. From the K Korner, Gooden is barely a speck. Through binoculars, he comes into focus. While his teammates bat in a tight game, he never changes expression.

Only one muscle moves. Gooden's foot is tapping constantly.

Who's in there? What manner of man is growing slowly inside the husk of a famous-but-barely-formed kid?

What will he do. What will be done to him? Who will he finally be?

Wait and see.