The true grit of Greg Goossen (1945-2011)

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The Associated Press
Greg Goossen, left, hits in the New York Mets spring training batting cages under the eye of manager Casey Stengel, right, in 1965. The photo is one of many hanging on Goossen’s living room apartment wall.

In Greg Goossen’s modest second-story apartment in Sherman Oaks, about the distance of one of his home runs away from the Notre Dame High School campus where five decades later he’s still revered as one of its greatest athletes, the photographs framed all over his living room walls tell the stories of his many lives.

They’ll give you some goosebumps if you aren’t prepared for it. From an abbreviated, roller coaster six-year major league baseball career, to helping his brothers Dan and Joe run the famed Ten Goose Gym for championship fighters in Van Nuys, to movie roles that friend Gene Hackman found for him.

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Yet, if you ever started to veer off the tracks and feel some twinges of remorse hearing about how close he came to big-league fame – there is he in spring training with the Dodgers in 1964, with Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, right before the Mets snatched him away on waivers and never allowing him to play a game for his hometown team – that was quickly drowned out by the sound of him trying to get a laugh out of you instead with some dead-pan humor.

So where was Goossen and his gravely, true-grit laugh last week when his friends and family needed to hear it most?

He was late for his enshrinement in the first Notre Dame Athletic Hall of Fame banquet last Saturday night. Turns out, he suffered a fatal heart attack back at his apartment. The father of three and grandfather of four was 65.

“Doesn’t it seem like this is just the sum total of all the heartbreak he had in his life — just missing here, just missing there?” wondered Jim Bouton, speaking from his home in Massachusetts.

The man who gave Goossen his most prominent place in pop culture history as one of the main characters from the 1969 Seattle Pilots in the groundbreaking book “Ball Four” was now trying to write a final chapter in his life.

“He was sort of on the fringe of everything – an extra, but never the star,” Bouton continued. “And now, after all these years, they’re about to bestow him the highest honor for his high school, one more round of laughter, waving and thanking his family and friends . . . and he’s denied all that again?”

Goossen couldn’t even get the last, ironic laugh about his dramatic exit. The passing of Dodgers Hall of Famer Duke Snider instead stole his thunder.

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“The Good Lord couldn’t have given him just one more night?” asked Pete Rose, on the phone from Las Vegas, who had become close friends with the Goossen family since moving to Sherman Oaks. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Maybe it’s best that Josh Goossen-Brown, a sophomore on the Cal State Northridge baseball team, has been in Beaumont, Texas, playing in a tournament this week.

Uncle Greg “meant everything to me,” he said. “He was my hero. He accomplished what my dreams are – going from Notre Dame to the big leagues. Sometimes, it’d seem like he’d come out of nowhere and just be in the bleachers at my games. I’ve always wanted to make him proud.”

On the morning after Greg Goossen’s death, Josh’s Matadors had a doubleheader against Valparaiso on the CSUN campus. The 20-year-old sat out the opener, but was more than composed coming into the second game. He finished off a 5-2 win pitching 4 1/3 innings of relief, striking out six with no walks and getting his first Division-I save.

He walked off the mound as the game ended, did the sign of the cross, and pointed to his uncle in the sky. Dan Goossen, watching from the stands, broke down crying.

“A lot of people didn’t really know how humble of a person Greg was,” said Dan. “Everyone else was the star in the room instead of him.”

“Such a sweet, sweet man,” said Bouton. “He took self-deprecation to a new level.”

“He was a tough SOB, that’s why he made it,” said Rose, part of Goossen’s regular lunch crew at their favorite Italian restaurant. “He could have been in the big leagues 15 years.

“I just know Greg’s in a better place now, looking down, laughing his butt off, wishing he could chime in with all the guys at the table.”

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At a memorial service set for Thursday at the tiny St. Francis de Sales Church near his home, the sound of Goossen’s laugh will be in everyone’s hearts.

“I’ll tell you what,” added Rose, “they’re gonna have to move that service to the Rose Bowl, there’ll be so many people there.”

Enough for Goose to give everyone goosebumps one last time.

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