Anthony McCarron, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Dwight Gooden, fresh off being released by the then-Devil Rays, was working out at the Yankees' minor-league complex in Tampa in 2000, eager to author a better coda to his career. Gooden was 35 at the time, knew his career was in its late stages, but wanted one more taste.
Billy Connors, the Yanks' "pitching guru," who had been tweaking Gooden's pitching mechanics, called Gooden into his office and gave him the "there's good news and bad news" conundrum:
"What's the good news?" Gooden recalled asking.
"You're going to New York," Connors replied. The bad news was simple, too: "I don't think you're ready," Connors said frankly.
That was Connors, who died this week at 76. "He was a straight shooter," Gooden said. "What a great baseball man."
Connors was a famed big-league pitching coach, longtime Yankee executive, George Steinbrenner's confidant, and a ribald raconteur who pitched briefly in the majors, including for the Mets in 1967-68. Connors gained notoriety not only for his mound acumen, but for his off-the-field exploits, too.
He famously dated the adult film star known as Seka. At the time, he worked for the Cubs and the relationship so rankled the club that Connors was told not to leave tickets for her at Wrigley Field or be seen in public with her, according to a 2004 story in the Chicago Tribune. Connors counted Hugh Hefner among his pals, too.
"Yeah, he dated Seka," Gooden said, chuckling. "He showed me pictures. He was a good-looking guy when he was younger."
Connors once had a home zoo of sorts, including mules named "El Duque" and "Mo" after famous pitching pupils. He picked up a talking exotic bird during a winter ball stint, too.
His humor and broad experiences -- Connors played basketball and baseball at Syracuse, won a Little League World Championship in 1954 with Schenectady, pitched for Leo Durocher in Chicago and toiled in Tidewater for the whole 1969 season as the Mets' miracle parent club shocked the world -- helped Connors reach players.
While Connors might not have thought Gooden's stuff was quite big-league ready back in 2000, he offered the pitcher encouragement that worked.
"The Boss wants you to pitch," Connors told Gooden. "I can't say to George, 'I need more time.' This is it. You have to go for it."
Over time, Roger Clemens beaning Mike Piazza is what everyone remembers from the day Gooden returned -- July 8, the two-ballpark, Subway Series doubleheader. But the opening act for that drama was Gooden going back to Shea Stadium as a Yankee and beating the Mets. He allowed two runs in five innings and said, "Once I got back home at Shea, everything clicked.
"Billy gave me a boost of confidence," Gooden added. "When you get released, teams don't want you, you lose that. Everyone thought I was done. I had my doubts, too. I owe a lot to Billy."
Gooden finished the season with the Yankees, going 4-2 with a 3.36 ERA in 18 games (five starts). It wasn't vintage Doctor K, but it gave Gooden a career ending he liked. He got a World Series ring, too.
So did Connors, who subbed for Yankee pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre when Stottlemyre took a leave for medical reasons. The next year, Gooden took a job in player development with the Yankees and worked alongside Connors in Tampa. The Yankees flew the two men to New York together to get their World Series jewelry.
"I always thought that was great," Gooden said.
Connors was close with Steinbrenner and the two often socialized, going to Tampa Bay Lightning games or out to eat. There was sometimes a divide between the Yankees' seats of power in New York and Tampa back then and some in the organization believed Connors wielded too much power because of his friendship with Steinbrenner.
That nearness had its drawbacks, too. Gooden remembered a meal with Steinbrenner and Connors at Steinbrenner's favorite Tampa eatery, Malio's, in which The Boss was ranting about the Yankees' recent performance.
Connors had ordered pork chops. When they arrived, Steinbrenner sent them back. "He doesn't need them," Gooden recalled The Boss saying. "He wouldn't let Billy have his pork chops. If the big club wasn't doing well, he would take a beating from George."
It was part of the job, one of many in the game Connors had. Connors was the pitching coach for the Royals' 1980 World Series team and tutored Cy Young winners such as Greg Maddux and Rick Sutcliffe with the Cubs. He served as Yanks' pitching coach from 1998-90, 1994-95 and part of 2000. He advised both Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte on the nuances of the cutter and got Orlando Hernandez big-league ready.
"He loved baseball, loved having fun," Gooden said. "I never saw him in a bad mood. He'd talk baseball from the time he woke up to the time he went to bed. The knowledge Billy had was incredible."