The Ballad of David Wright

I was only seven years old the first time I saw David Wright live and in person.  It was August, 2004, and in the third Mets game of my life — preceded, fittingly for the 2004 Mets, by two losses — I would see, for the first time, this kid that my dad had been raving about.

Wright wasn’t entirely unknown to me: I’d seen his profile in the “In The Wings” section of the 2004 yearbook, also the first Mets yearbook that I owned.  For a player who would go on to do so much, it gave surprisingly simplistic information.

“David is a solid fielding third baseman with a strong and accurate arm,” it read.  “He has a short compact stroke that drives the ball from gap to gap.  Royce shows excellent plate discipline and a strong desire to win.”

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You’re not seeing things — the writer of Wright’s profile had evidently been a little short on sleep, and had mixed our future captain up with the prospect above him, alphabetically if not talent-ranked, Royce Ring.  I guess the intern who hammered out the eighteen profiles of three sentences each was neither paid enough to care, nor copy edited by anyone of note, nor invested in the team enough to realize that a player on the verge of changing the direction of a franchise probably shouldn’t have been confused with Royce Ring.

But from the first and secondhand accounts that I’d heard, David Wright was all the rage, and now, for the first time, I would watch him in person, and make my own assessment.  From our seats in the field level on the first-base side, provisioned with sandwiches procured from a diner under the 1 train at 242nd street — somehow, security failed to confiscate these sandwiches as we entered the park, which I suppose isn’t the biggest oversight in the world, considering how little the 2004 Mets had to offer spectators anyway — we settled in for a ballgame.

Al Leiter was on the hill for the Mets — another name that I’d heard about, but not seen much of.  Leiter, I had some vague notion, had been very good in the past.  Now, he was old, and as I witnessed and repeatedly pointed out with glee, couldn’t even touch 90 on the radar gun.  Not that this was a good thing: I just really liked the radar gun.

After Leiter pitched the top of the first with the help of a double play that 2004 Mets aficionados will fawn over — Leiter to Wilson Delgado to Eric Valent — the Mets came to bat.  The Diamondbacks — 34.5 games out of their division — sent Edgar Gonzalez — 9.96 E.R.A. — to the mound.

That the game was a tough one says all you need to know about the 2004 Mets.  But I digress.

We struck right away: Valent doubled, Super Joe McEwing, in his final year with the team, bunted him to third, and Cliff Floyd singled him home.  Richard Hidalgo, soon to come to fame — at least, in my mind — for his 21 home runs in half the 2004 season, lined to left for the second out, but Mike Cameron singled.  David Wright came to the plate.

Wright, throughout his career, has seen some of the most rotten luck that anyone could realistically imagine, from freak injuries that spontaneously arise to hustle plays that turn into hamstring pulls and back fractures.  With luck on his side throughout his career, he may be a Hall of Famer.  Instead, he’s seen his career derailed again and again, constantly recovering and returning and going down again, never a chance to spend time slugging bombs and shattering records due to all the time he’s spent trying to get back on the field.  David Wright, in short, has had just about the worst luck a ballplayer can have.

So is it any surprise that in his first at-bat that I ever saw, the line drive that Wright drove towards the gap was snagged out of the air by the shortstop?

***

David Wright quickly became my baseball hero.  The same was true for thousands upon thousands of Mets fans of my age, but I made an attempt, more than most, to emulate him in the way I played.  I played third base in little league, and wore number five.  My glove was the David Wright game model, the $20 Wilson knockoff, which I would later give up, after a particularly generous haul of birthday presents, for the game model A2K.  Posters from the pages of Mets Magazine and Sports Illustrated Kids covered the walls of my room, and Wright was represented multiple times.

I don’t live in that room anymore, but David Wright’s presence has by no means vanished.  My David Wright jersey, the first I ever bought, hangs on proud display, at the front of my big-and-getting-bigger collection of Mets jerseys.  In the closet, I’ve got a full-size Wright poster rolled up and sitting on the top shelf, not out of some kind of sudden disillusionment, but simply out of a lack of wall space.  Just outside my current room, I’ve got another full-size Wright poster, knocked around almost every day by the various flying projectiles you find in the apartment of a family with sports-obsessed sons, but still stubbornly hanging in there, looking as good as ever.

I’d criticize myself for embellishing to create unrealistic symbolism, but that’s the unvarnished truth.

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In the room I lived in my freshman year, I had a third full-sized poster, this one procured as a promotional giveaway from, if my memory serves, April 19th, 2014.  Wright was on my wall, along with Billy Joel, Bill Maher, and Quentin Tarantino.

That’s a tough group to keep up with.  But of the four, there was only one that I didn’t think twice about.

All this to say what?  That we don’t leave our heroes behind, or at least, we shouldn’t, just as David Wright, despite multiple opportunities, has never let us down.  And I’m not talking about that one time he struck out with two men on, or that bad throw he made that you just can’t get over, or whatever other bad memories bitter fans like to drudge up for some reason, seemingly with no other purpose than to spoil everyone’s good time.

No, David Wright has never let us down when it’s really mattered, or to put it another way, when it could have actual, concrete, irreversible consequences.  I’m talking off the field, as much as or more than on it.  His two-RBI single to ice game one of the NLDS comes to mind, but so does his taking a massive pay cut to stay in New York.  He’s the all-time franchise leader in RBI, hits, runs, walks, extra-base hits, and doubles, and second in home runs only to Darryl Strawberry — hardly anything you could call a let-down.  But equally important is the way he plays the game, which you can see, from the stands or on TV, is the right way.

Don’t give up on a ball, even if it’s in the stands or behind you to your barehand side.  Get down and ready before every pitch, and field every ball carefully.  Don’t chase pitches out of the strike zone; a walk is just fine.  Run everything out.  Be smart.  Work hard; do whatever it takes to get out on that field.

And again, equally off the field: be nice.  Be respectful.  Set an example.  Be a leader.  Play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the one on the back.  Keep out of trouble.  Use your influence as a sports star to create positive change.  Don’t shirk responsibility, give credit where credit is due, and don’t be afraid to let your emotions show.

You could assemble a player in a video game, with every positive asset turned up to the max and all character negatives minimized or eliminated.  Or, you could just watch David Wright play.

Or to put it another way, as Howie Rose wrote in his 2012 memoir, “David Wright is the guy you want your daughter to marry.”

***

But for me, what puts David Wright a step ahead of all the other heroes is something else.  Something that not many people tend to consider, because it’s rarely the center of attention, but something that, if it were only given a spotlight, could — should — become more inspiring and respectable than anything else that Wright has done.

After a summer 2009 diagnosis of Pediatric Epilepsy, I needed, somehow, to return to normalcy, to forget about making sure to stay extra hydrated and get enough sleep and whatever else I was being told to do.  And in Queens, David Wright was doing the same.  Beaned by Matt Cain, he was working to come back.

He came back from the beaning, and when obstacles kept piling up, he dispatched them, one after another.  Even as his luck turned sour and never corrected itself, he always came back.

After the beaning, he kept it up.  He came back from a broken finger in 2011 to hit a home run in his first at-bat back, and then, after injuries ruined the rest of the 2011 season, he came back in 2012 with his best season since 2008.  His 2013 season was even better.  When goddamned rotten luck ended that one prematurely, he worked back again.  When injuries ruined 2014 just as they’d ruined 2011, he came back in 2015 to hit .289 with five home runs, despite missing 115 games with Spinal Stenosis, which he also worked back from to hit a home run in his first at-bat in four and a half months.  Working back from spinal stenosis, he A) homered with his first swing since April, into the upper deck in Philadelphia, B) homered to ice the clincher, and drew tears from my eyes as he rounded the bases C) drove in two crucial runs to help win the NLDS opener D) hit the first World Series home run of his career.

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And for a kid dealing with Epilepsy — which meant no driver’s license, no late-night partying, daily doses of medication that started out big and increased every year — that’s what separated David Wright from the rest.  His resilience.

It hasn’t gone completely unnoticed: in fact, you have to think that it’s at least part of the reason that the honor of captaincy was bestowed upon him, for only the fourth time in Mets history.  We’ve had plenty of offensive players, although, by now, none with Wright’s numbers.  But Wright is different.  First, of course, he’s different in that he’s homegrown, and has not played for any team but ours since he was eighteen years old.  That tends to endear a player to a fanbase, and in this case, obviously, hasn’t hurt.  But second, and perhaps more importantly, was the respect he earned from players and coaches alike as he recovered from his various injuries, and did so with the grace and determination of a champion.

Wright was named captain before the 2013 season.  By that time, he’d already recovered from the ’09 beaning, the broken finger of May 2011, and the shoulder and back broken 2011 season as a whole.  That’s already a lot of injuries, but David fought through them to put up a superstar season in 2012, and, after being named captain, an even better one in 2013.  After that, injuries — even more of them — would set in, and his numbers would sink.  But this didn’t detract from his captaincy; rather, his recovery reinforced how much he had deserved it.

Most ballplayers don’t have opportunities to showcase resilience, because the amount of players who have faced injury burdens similar to David Wright’s can be counted on one hand, and maybe on one finger.  Spinal Stenosis, two pulled hamstrings, a beaning, a broken finger, a herniated disk, fractures in the back and shoulder…and that’s only the better-known part of the list.  So, Wright’s injury history is almost unprecedented, especially since Spinal Stenosis by itself has only afflicted a handful of players in baseball history.

But if his injury history is unprecedented, so is his recovery — or more accurately, his multiple recoveries, one after another, working to get back on the field even when it seemed that his body had quit on him.  The reason you don’t see many players with injury histories like David Wright is that most of them have retired by the second or third back or shoulder injury.  There aren’t many who make it through four and keep right on going.  And even fewer are those who fight through the injuries, keep on playing, and keep right on smiling through them, maintaining a child’s happiness at playing baseball for a living even as they avoid the bitterness and cynicism that can come with repeated injuries.

With the medical obstacles that he’s faced, David Wright may well be one of the most unlucky ballplayers of all time.  But for watching him fight his way through them time after time, and gaining respect for him not only as a player but as a gritty, determined human being, I can’t help thinking that as fans, we’re among the luckiest.

***

Before he went down with the herniated disk, I saw Wright a handful of times this season.  I saw a diminished player, working harder than I could imagine to bring himself back to the top of his game, but still not quite there.  I saw a player who might have lost a step, or maybe he just needed some playing time to get going, seeing as Spring Training with a chronic back injury can’t have been very effective.

But most of all, I saw the determination that had brought our captain back from the brink of retirement to help us reach the playoffs, then the NLCS, then the World Series.  And for David Wright, I can’t help but think that that same determination, that hasn’t been deterred by more injuries than most people suffer in their lives, will keep him around and keep him productive for a few more years to come.

They say Spinal Stenosis is a career-ender.  Well, it has been, for others.  But they’ve never seen Spinal Stenosis take on David Wright before.  And eventually, it will probably win.  But Wright will give it a hell of a battle, just as he’s done for everything else he’s faced.

Wright is currently rehabbing a herniated disk, yet another back injury, probably a byproduct of playing with a back that’s trying to knock him down.  He’ll be back…when?  Six to eight weeks?  Three months?  No one knows, because no one has been through what David Wright has been through.

But he’ll be back; that much I just know.  He’ll come back to the lineup, and based on what he’s done the last few times he’s made a triumphant return, he’ll drive the first or second pitch he sees over the fence.

David Wright’s body has aged; that much is beyond doubt.  But with his play, and more importantly, his dedication and resilience in being able to play again, he’s done nothing if not illustrate the size of the gap between body and mind.  And when you’ve got a mind with the determination of David Wright’s, the body can do anything it damn well wants.

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David Wright may be an old 33, a shadow of his former self, a once-great hitter reduced to barely a threat.  But inside, he’s different.  David Wright is still my baseball hero, and despite everything his body has been through, on the inside, he’s still the young gun, the energetic, grinning superstar plastered over the walls of the room where I used to live.  A lot has changed for the captain over the years, but at his core, at the most meaningful level, David Wright is still that same 24-year-old phenom, with that same smile on his face, happy to be playing baseball, and looking ahead to whatever the future may bring.

And if you want, then by all means, grouse about diminished production, or whatever it is you people are complaining about these days.  I won’t be listening; you’ve lost me.  While you complain and whine and reduce David Wright’s career to a handful of numbers, I’ll celebrate what the captain has given us.  I’ll celebrate his offensive prowess, his repeated recoveries, and his still-youthful enthusiasm for the game.  I’ll celebrate his quiet dignity, his burning competition, and his happiness at the simple joy of playing baseball.  I’ll celebrate a lifelong Met, a captain on whom the title is not wasted, and the greatest third baseman, and, probably, the greatest position player, in franchise history.

In short, I’ll celebrate the career – or, the career so far, because it ain’t over yet – of David Wright.  Because when you step back and look at his career, the negatives paling in comparison to the enormous contributions he’s made to the franchise, the captain has been nothing short of a joy to watch.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Ballad of David Wright

  1. Pingback: It Shouldn’t Surprise You At All « Faith and Fear in Flushing

  2. Pingback: That Was Pretty Good – Shea Bridge Report

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