Gooden and Strawberry, Doc and Darryl, linked yet again. Each is Met first and a Yankee second, but because of Steinbrenner, the Yankees are a close second for both. The no-hitter Gooden pitched in Yankee Stadium in 1996 is a fond memory. The 11 victories he contributed to their championship run that year and the ring he was awarded are as well. But his thoughts of Steinbrenner are more precious, he said. Hence the tug of sadness after the first phone call Tuesday.
Strawberry resurrected his career in the Bronx, appeared in two World Series with the Yankees, having played in one with the Mets. He was in the Yankees' employ when he fought cancer. "George revitalized my life as much as the doctors did," Strawberry said Tuesday. "I hope people today are thinking like I am ... what an incredible man he was! A great part of my heart is aching."
Each acknowledged that their sense of Steinbrenner had changed dramatically from the time they were first- and second-year big league players in Queens in 1984. "You didn't hear too many good things about him then," Strawberry said. "But he helped me and Doc and other players. He brought me back. He told me I never should have left New York, that I belonged in New York. I've always been happy that I was able to help a little bit when the Yankees won in '96 and '99."
The two thought of The Boss in exclusively positive light on the day of his death. "He made a lot of difference in a lot of people's lives," Gooden said. "He helped me; he helped Straw. He did so much, and a lot of times, he didn't want anyone to know what he did."
Gooden recalled a lunch in Tampa with Steinbrenner. "Our waitress had a broken arm. She said she hurt it trying to open her garage door. George took her name and got the door repaired."
Gooden recalled another meeting with The Boss in a restaurant in Tampa, where both lived at the time, following the 1995 season. Gooden was under suspension for violating baseball's drug policy; his time with the Mets was done.
"We talked for two hours, and he never mentioned baseball," Gooden said. "George wanted to know about my family, how I was doing and how I was taking care of my kids. I couldn't tell on that day whether he wanted me to pitch for the Yankees. That's the way he was with me -- first the person, then the player."
Gooden had met Steinbrenner in 1981, three years before the pitcher became a force for the Mets and a threat in The Boss' thinking. The Belmont Heights Little League team from Tampa -- whose members over the years included Gooden, his nephew Gary Sheffield and Derek Bell -- was flown to New York by Steinbrenner for an appearance at Yankee Stadium.
"That was pretty cool for us," Gooden said. "He was always doing things like that."
Gooden cited another meeting with The Boss at what now is George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. "Someone told him my dad was in the hospital and not doing well," Gooden said. "He stopped the meeting, and we drove over to the hospital. He spent a lot of time talking to my dad. I think he added a few days to his life.
"Now it's ironic that he died in the same hospital my dad died in. Both my fathers died in the same place."
Strawberry's father was absent for most of his childhood. His first agent, Richie Bry, and, later, Steinbrenner and Joe Torre filled the void to some degree.
"He taught to me to be good to people, like he was," Strawberry said. "I know there were some things that people disliked about him. They couldn't see past how competitive he was.
"He had compassion for people who had problems. He would give jobs to people who didn't deserve them. There was no reason for him to give me or Doc or Steve Howe a second chance. He didn't have to let us back in baseball. But he did.
"When he brought me on board in 1995, he sat me down and said, 'Everyone has troubles. You can't let them knock you down. Just don't give up.'
"And he took care of people who were never in trouble like [Derek] Jeter. And he'd help guys who weren't real talented or big names. He made a profound difference a lot of lives; mine for sure. I'm better off today because of George."