Dwight Gooden's No. 16 is unveiled during a pregame ceremony...

Dwight Gooden's No. 16 is unveiled during a pregame ceremony prior to the start of a game between the Mets and the Royals at Citi Field on Sunday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The No. 16 unveiled Sunday at Citi Field, now situated for Mets eternity next to Willie Mays (and very soon Darryl Strawberry) on the ballpark’s rafters, represents two different people.

There is Dr. K, the indomitable ace of a beleaguered franchise, the mythical figure with the billboard at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel, the pitching prodigy who burned as brightly (and relentlessly) as the ’80s NYC that spawned him.

And then there is Dwight Gooden, the all-too-human fallen star, a friend to everyone but opposing hitters and, ultimately, an enemy to himself.

Was it Dr. K’s air of invincibility on the field that contributed to Dwight’s downfall away from the mound? Or was it the other way around? Did Dwight’s appetite for destruction spectacularly derail what should have been an express train to Cooperstown?

Neither one could tell us for sure. Not even all these years later, three decades after Gooden fired his last pitch for the Mets in Flushing “over at the parking lot across the street,” as he referred to Shea Stadium. This “Doc”-umentary is a cautionary tale, fraught with the perils of teenage superstardom and having the world at your disposal before being old enough to order a beer.

You can’t look up at that No. 16 now without thinking of both sides. The Dr. K who spun that incredible 1985 season, at age 20, is the Dwight who missed the Mets’ ticker-tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes the following year, held hostage by his own drug-fueled demons.

But Sunday’s ceremony was about that Dwight as much as Dr. K, and the Mets welcoming one of New York’s most complex — and yes, tragic — sports heroes back to the Flushing family. That was the underlying theme of the afternoon. From Gooden surrounded by his ’86 teammates, to the presence of Gary Sheffield (more like a brother than nephew), to his children and grandkids.


This was the return of the prodigal son to Citi Field, made possible by fourth-year owner Steve Cohen — a Mets fan before earning his billions — and the healing passage of time.

While Gooden kept it together at the on-field podium, speaking to intermittent cheers amid the steady raindrops, the day’s purest display of emotion came hours earlier, when he showed incredible powers of recollection equal to his supernatural pitching skills.

Gooden was asked about his major-league debut at Houston’s Astrodome in 1984. He spurred laughter by detailing a nervous trek that involved a three-mile walk to the stadium, climbing a fence and then convincing a security guard that he was pitching for the Mets that night. But then Gooden got to the part about seeing his late parents, Dan and Ella Mae, watching from the stands, and immediately choked up. After taking a few moments to compose himself, Gooden wiped away tears as he continued.

“Seeing their joy,” Gooden said. “Me playing professional baseball, it was my dad’s dream at first that became my dream.”

That moment, from 40 years ago, churned up feelings for Gooden like no other Sunday, in a room unseen by the fans who traveled back to Flushing themselves to relive the magical snapshots he once provided.

Long before there was such a thing as “Harvey Day” or Jacob deGrom lighting up Citi Field with his two Cy Young Award seasons, Gooden created must-see TV for the Mets.

We were treated to some of that again Sunday. Gooden freezing Pete Rose with his physics-defying, knee-buckling curveball, then using the gas to blow away Barry Bonds, slimmer beyond recognition in his Pirates uniform.

What we didn’t see on the video board? The occasionally public battles with drug addiction and the lifelong struggles that made it seem as if Sunday’s number retirement would never happen — or that Gooden might not be around to participate in such an event.

Now 59, Gooden getting this far had to be considered a long shot during his darkest times.

Realizing that Gooden’s off-field foes were much tougher to punch out than Rose or Bonds, I asked Sheffield — who knows him better than anyone — what it took for his troubled uncle to make it to Sunday’s ceremony.

“The closest thing you can come to that, to understand, is I’m sure every family has a person that goes through things,” said Sheffield, 55. “And you have to be there for your family no matter what.”

Gooden credited everyone in that room for Sunday’s homecoming. The supportive texts and calls from his teammates. Members of the Mets’ organization for opening their arms to him again after decades of feeling out in the cold.

Gooden talked about his repeated attempts to pitch again for the Mets after his ’95 drug suspension, only to be told there was no room on the roster. He then turned to the Yankees, pitching a no-hitter and winning a World Series in the Bronx, two especially bitter pills for his former club to swallow.

Mentioning the Yankees at the mic was Gooden’s only mistake Sunday (the immediate boos steered him back on track). But as we all know, he is far from perfect. He’s always been a brilliantly flawed member of the Mets’ family, etched in our memories as the 20-year-old phenom who flamed out like a baseball comet.

Among his greatest Shea moments? Gooden’s first start back from drug rehab in 1987, when the sellout crowd of 51,042 gave him repeated standing ovations. Maybe that wasn’t the same Dr. K anymore, but Gooden still was a beloved Met, and now he’ll be the only No. 16 in Flushing. Forever.


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