Dwight Gooden referred to George Steinbrenner Tuesday as a "second father," adding that he will forever be indebted to the late Yankees owner for never giving up on him despite his off-field problems.

In an interview with Newsday, Gooden said, "When I came off my suspension in '95, a lot of people turned their back on me and had every right to do so, but he welcomed me back with open arms to recapture my career in New York and join the Yankees."

Gooden, who said he is vacationing in Las Vegas with his two oldest daughters, awoke to dozens of cell phone messages regarding Steinbrenner's death. When he heard that Steinbrenner died at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, he immediately recalled his most powerful experience with Steinbrenner.

That was the same hospital where Gooden's father, Dan, died in 1997. When Steinbrenner heard that Gooden's father was in poor health, Gooden said Steinbrenner immediately called off an organizational meeting he was running and headed to the nearby hospital to be with Gooden's family.

"He hung out with us for a couple of hours and it's moments like that you never forget," Gooden said. "My dad wasn't looking too good, but we got two more days out of him after George visited."

Gooden said he first met Steinbrenner in 1981 when Gooden's nephew, Gary Sheffield, played on a Tampa team that made it to the Little League World Series. Steinbrenner, the proud Tampa resident, celebrated their achievement by flying the team to New York and honoring them before a Yankees game.

After making his name with the Mets in the mid-80s, Gooden's problems with drug addiction derailed a promising career. Steinbrenner signed him in 1996 and Gooden famously pitched a no-hitter in pinstripes that season. He also played for the Yankees in 1997 and ultimately returned one last time in 2000.

Steinbrenner kept Gooden employed in various jobs after his retirement despite a continuing string of off-field problems ranging from drug and alcohol abuse to a domestic violence charge.

"To have somebody like that to really believe in you and really put his trust in you after all that I had been through, and after all I put him through as well, that's something," Gooden said. "He could have easily walked away as well and I would have understood. But he was always there for me.

"At times he would give me a tongue-lashing. He would let me have it. But at the end of the day I always knew he was in my corner. He had my back."

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