David Wright’s “The Captain” is okay, but could be better

Understand this: I’m a bigger David Wright fan than anyone I know. Wright became my favorite player a few years into his career, and barring something unforeseen, he won’t relinquish the spot. Growing up, I played third base in little league, and wore number five whenever it was available. For my sixteenth birthday, my parents gifted me a beautiful David Wright game model A2K glove. In college, I had a giant cardboard cutout of Wright’s face on the wall of my dorm room. And every year on Opening Day, Wright’s blue #5 jersey is the one I wear.

So, bearing all that in mind, imagine what it must take for me to say this: David Wright’s new memoir is just okay. It’s certainly not great. It has its moments, but unfortunately, the book doesn’t measure up to the man whose career it chronicles.

If one were to construct a hierarchy of baseball books based on recognizable players, the Willie Mays of baseball books, the greatest of all time, might be “The Boys of Summer,” by Roger Kahn, or maybe one of Roger Angell’s collections. The David Wright of baseball books, one that’s really good but never quite reached completely legendary status, might be “Moneyball,” or “Ball Four,” or “The Glory of Their Times,” or any number of books that, while not absolutely perfect, are really really good. 

But David Wright’s book? It’s the Ryan Church of baseball books. It’s acceptable, and will do if you’re shorthanded, but it’s not much better than replacement level. 

“The Captain,” released October 13th from Penguin Publishing, is Wright’s memoir of his time as a Met, and takes readers from his childhood through the night in September 2018 when he played his last game in Queens. Co-written with Anthony DiComo, the Mets beat writer for MLB.com, the book is a compelling enough read, especially for Mets die-hards like myself. It’s hard to mess up a book about David Wright, after all. The book presents a few interesting anecdotes, gives some looks inside the Mets clubhouse, and reveals Wright’s thoughts during some of his most memorable moments as a player. At times, it’s funny, endearing, emotional, and profound.

But too often, it’s not. Too often, it slips into page upon page of exposition, reading less like a memoir and more like a summary of Wright’s Baseball Reference page. When the book is good — when Wright’s voice comes through, when readers learn things they didn’t already know, when Wright recounts scenes from his life beyond baseball — it’s really good. But that doesn’t happen enough.

***

In college, studying nonfiction writing, I took several classes with a jovial, red-haired professor who was hell-bent on turning his students into good writers. He had several principles that he drilled into us religiously.

First, for the sake of pacing, you need to break up information and explanation with scenes and dialogue.

Second, the specific is terrific.

Third, show, don’t tell.

Sure enough, when Wright’s book follows all three of my professor’s rules, it shines. The best, most compelling writing of the book comes when Wright narrates his many injuries. These injuries, and the resilience required to come back from them, are probably the defining feature of Wright’s career, so the book, at least, captures those important moments well.

Wright’s repeated injuries and comebacks are a large part of the reason he became my favorite player. In 2009, on a sleepaway camp trip to Bar Harbor in Maine, my group stayed up late one night, sitting around a campfire. I woke up the next morning in the hospital. Minutes after going to sleep, I’d suffered an epileptic seizure.

The doctors diagnosed me with pediatric epilepsy, thankfully nothing life-threatening. But my life did change. Now I had to take care to get enough sleep; no more staying out late. When high school came around, I would be medically forbidden from driving or partying. I started taking pills every night, a small dosage at first. But every summer I had a seizure, and every summer my dosage went up. By 2015, I was taking five pills at a time every night.

Meanwhile, also in 2009, just weeks after my diagnosis, Wright was hit in the head with a 94 mile-per-hour fastball from Matt Cain. He missed several weeks with a concussion, and when he came back, he wasn’t the same player. He says as much in the book. “Stepping back into the batter’s box, I couldn’t shake that Little League mentality of bailing out on inside pitches,” he writes. “Getting hit hurts.”

Wright and I recovered together, and as the setbacks continued for both of us, we kept at it. In 2011, I had another seizure, my third, and Wright, diving to tag Carlos Lee on a play at third base, suffered a stress fracture in his back. In 2013, I had a seizure on the last night of camp, and Wright landed on the DL after straining his hamstring. In 2015, I had another seizure after fireworks on July 4th. Meanwhile, Wright strained his hamstring again, and while he made his way back, learned that he had spinal stenosis, a chronic narrowing of the spinal cord. He missed months. 

The 2015 injury, in particular, brings out some of the best writing of the book, instantly relatable to anyone who’s dealt with an injury or condition that just won’t seem to heal. “Each Monday, I met with Dr. Watkins in his Marina del Rey office, hoping he might clear me for more intensive activities,” Wright writes. “Each Monday, he said no.”

Look at the writing: it’s simple, specific, and to-the-point. He doesn’t explain himself to death; rather, through a simple scene, readers can instantly understand his emotional state. He doesn’t write “I was devastated” or “it frustrated me;” the scene he describes makes his frustration clear. Through two and a half simple, specific lines of text, he conjures a relatable, emotional scene. Especially for someone who went through something similar, this scene shines. Each visit to the neurologist, I wasn’t quite ready to get cleared. Each year, almost, my dosage went up. I kept going back, but wasn’t getting better. Wright, through this brief scene, perfectly communicates the same dynamic.

The Wright injury that really stands out to me, though, is what happened in 2013. I had my seizure on the last night of camp, meaning it would be at least another two years before I could drive, stay up late, start weaning off my pills, etc. Wright, meanwhile, was having his best season since 2008. On August third, Wright was two for five with a home run, his 16th; he was batting .309/.391/.512. In the tenth inning, Wright hit a slow ground ball, and his innate hustle kicked in; he knew that if he busted down the line, he could have an infield hit. Sure enough, Wright beat the throw — and strained his hamstring as he crossed first base.

***

Unfortunately, too often throughout the book, Wright does the opposite of what gives the book its best moments: he tells, instead of showing. “It was special,” he writes, or “I was elated,” or “it was a strange feeling.” Repeatedly, Wright slips into explaining how he feels, rather than demonstrating it. It’s easy, and doesn’t mean much, to write “I was happy.” It’s a lot more rewarding for a reader to read a scene and understand that the narrator is happy, without having to be told. It’s as if at the beginning of this review, instead of giving a series of illustrative, specific details and anecdotes about my connection to David Wright, I had just written “I like David Wright a lot.”

So that’s “show, don’t tell.” Wright and DiComo also violate my professor’s other two rules. At various points throughout the book, they write one page after another of game recaps, without providing anything that couldn’t be found on Baseball-Reference. Even when Wright does describe things from his point of view, too often, that point of view is only nominal. And multiple times, just when the book could benefit from scenes and dialogue from Wright’s point of view, the authors fall back into exposition. Remember: the specific is terrific.

For instance: most Mets fans will remember August 2015, when Wright finally returned after months on the DL, stepped up to the plate in Philadelphia, and hit the ball into the second deck. They’ll probably even remember the story of the night before, when Wright greeted the team at their Philadelphia hotel, dressed in full uniform, with Insomnia Cookies for everyone. But in this book, Wright finally has an opportunity to tell the full story of that night. How did the team really react? Did anything funny happen? What did people say? Which teammates were most excited to see him?

Here’s how Wright tells the story, on page 259 of the book:

“Random hotel guests shot me curious looks as I sat there waiting in the lobby, cookies in hand, before my teammates finally came crashing through the elevator doors. Their smiles and laughs proved well worth the effort. I think the only person who actually ate the cookies was long-time public relations director Jay Horwitz, who loves his desserts. It would up being a great icebreaker regardless, giving me a chance to talk to some of the new guys and feel a lot more comfortable going into a game the next day — especially knowing some of their playing time was going to suffer because of me.”

Reading this passage, we hardly learn anything new. Which teammates smiled and laughed? When Wright talked to the new guys, what did he say? What did they say that made him feel  comfortable? Which new guys did he talk to? The specific is terrific.

This, really, illustrates the biggest problem with the book: too often, Wright tells his stories in the least interesting way possible, to the point that his memoir starts to read more like a history book. We don’t get enough of what makes memoirs great: personal stories, conversations, glimpses behind the scenes. 

The same thing happens when Wright recounts the story of being named Mets captain, during Spring Training in 2013. The story starts on page 222 and ends on page 226, and there’s not a single line of dialogue. Wright describes dialogue, but as if he’s teasing us, he refuses to tell us what was actually said. He walks around the clubhouse talking to each player in turn, telling them that the front office wants to name him captain and urging them to say something if they have any objection. But he doesn’t reveal a single line of what anyone actually said. Later on, “the whole room broke into applause as (Terry Collins) announced that the Mets were going to name me Captain,” he writes. But “the whole room broke into applause” is the most generic description possible. Who was saying what? What was the funniest congratulations you got? Did anyone seem annoyed or put-off? Who was particularly excited? Did you celebrate that night? How? Where?

Wright doesn’t answer those questions in this scene, or in many others. Rather, again, he tells his stories in the least exciting way possible, with only barebones descriptions of what happened, unwilling or unable to fill in with color commentary. He often hints at fun, inside-the-clubhouse stories: for instance, he narrates how, as a rookie, veteran players made him stand at the front of the team bus and sing. But so many questions are left unanswered: whose idea was this? Where did it come from? How did the team react to his songs? What did the conversations sound like? Was anyone angry or annoyed? 

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Wright’s description of the 2015 World Series. I watched game five, the final game of the series, with my computer sitting on my bed in my freshman dorm room. The one other Mets fan I’d met at school stood next to me, while about five of our other friends watched us from behind, unsure whether they should laugh at us or run for cover. Down three games to one, the Mets led 2-0 going to the ninth, but the Royals tied it with two outs on a memorable play: on a grounder to Wright at third, Eric Hosmer broke for the plate as Wright threw to first, and Lucas Duda’s throw home was wild. 

“Everybody get the (expletive) out!” I shouted. Everyone but the other Mets fan left the room; he and I watched in silence, now almost certain that our season would end any minute now. Sure enough, the Royals won three innings later.

So how does Wright describe that fateful play? Believe it or not, he doesn’t. Here’s how he tells the story of innings nine through 12 of game five:

“The Royals managed to tie the game off Matt (Harvey) and Jeurys Familia. They won it in twelve innings, celebrating on our field as our fans went home unhappy.”

Really: that’s it. Nothing about throwing to first as Hosmer dashed for the plate; nothing about how the team felt in the dugout afterwards; nothing about what anyone said or did as the game continued. Not only is the most consequential Mets moment of the last decade reduced to two lines of text, but they’re lines that any fan who watched the game could have written. 

The whole point of a memoir is that it can take us into situations we’ll never experience ourselves. Most of us will never be president, but we can read presidential memoirs and know a little bit of what it’s like to sit in the Oval Office. Likewise, most of us will never sit in a dugout on the verge of losing a World Series. Wright’s book could take us there, and let us know, at least a little bit, how it felt. But for the most part, it doesn’t.

***

The problems with the book are compounded by a predictable, vaguely annoying yet also endearing fact: it’s written exactly as you’d imagine David Wright would write a book.

Fairly early on in the book, Wright takes a firm stand against PEDs. “I will never, ever have sympathy for performance-enhancing drug users,” he writes. “I advise people of all ages to stay away from them. That’s not what sportsmanship is about, and it’s certainly not how I was raised.”

It’s firm, pointed, and direct — and the criticism is also notable, because it’s almost the only time Wright is willing to criticize anything. 

Wright is so damn respectful, it becomes almost ridiculous. He has barely a bad word for anyone, even established Mets villains. Of the 2006 Cardinals, who sent the Mets home in the NLCS, Wright says, “I had tremendous respect for their entire operation.” Adam Wainwright’s stuff was “some of the best of his generation.” Tom Glavine, symbol of Mets failure, “took a lot of criticism, but he was a Hall of Famer and one of our leaders.” Growing up, Chipper Jones “was one of the third basemen I admired the most.” Cole Hamels and Jimmy Rollins bashing the Mets in 2007 and 2008 “did make for a good baseball rivalry.” Jimmy Rollins, in fact, “proved to be an excellent teammate throughout the World Baseball Classic,” and “I definitely was interested in building a relationship with him.”

The two most grating doses of respect, though, are reserved for two Mets nemeses: Chase Utley and Derek Jeter. Utley, of course, broke Mets’ shortstop Ruben Tejada’s leg with a flying tackle slide during the 2015 NLDS. Jeter is just generally smug and preachy and annoying. Here’s how Wright describes Utley:

“I had a lot of respect for Utley’s hard-nosed style, which I considered similar to mine. Like me, Utley was a loyal player who really cared about winning.” Later on, Wright says, when Utley apologized, “I could tell Utley was sincere, which took some of the edge off the whole situation for me.”

This pales, though, in comparison to Wright’s treatment of Jeter. “Jeter had done so much, accomplished so much, winning four World Series titles by the time he was twenty-six years old,” he writes. “I was just a dude who also happened to play in New York and hit .300 a few times.” Later, describing Jeter at the WBC: “I was transfixed. Each day, I followed him to the batting cage to try to figure out what made him so great. In the dugout during games, I joined him on the top step to hear everything he had to say. I tried to ask him as many questions as possible without seeming like a superfan.”

Still, he continues: “Derek was in constant pursuit of perfection.” Then, less than a page later: “I noticed that he wasn’t the loudest or most boisterous guy, but he didn’t have to be because his work ethic was off the charts.” Then, later on that same page: “Most days, I just tried to lead by example, as Derek did throughout his career.” Then, not even a page later: “This guy was on a completely different level, with the paparazzi snapping pictures as often as they could. But the cool part was that at the end of the day, he was still a baseball player just like us.”

The unbridled, overreaching respect is one thing. The other problem is that he’s David Wright, role model, boy scout, picture of morality and ethics. And this book doesn’t do a single thing to challenge that. In fact, at some points, it revels in just how bereft it is of anything shocking, scandalous, or revelatory.

“Despite New York’s temptations, I wasn’t much of a partier or a drinker,” Wright writes. “I didn’t spend my nights seeking out hot clubs or dates with celebrities or anything like that. I was never going to get caught doing something unsavory on TMZ or ‘Page Six’ in the New York Post. A lot of what some people enjoy about the city was lost on me.”

Going out for a burger or a steak late at night “was, essentially, my social life,” he continues. “My brother Steve liked to joke that I was twenty-three going on fifty.” After his MLB debut, Wright wanted to get to his hotel and get to sleep, but had to be dragged out to celebrate — with a bite to eat and a cigar — by Joe McEwing. 

When the Mets won the NLDS in 2015, beating the Dodgers, Wright writes: “I intended to enjoy it for a night — really, really enjoy it — and start thinking about our next-round opponent, the Chicago Cubs, in the morning.” But then he skips completely over enjoying the night; the next paragraph begins with his thoughts on the Cubs. 

Even in the minor leagues, Wright revels in how boring his life was. “Living on my own for the first time that summer (2001), I certainly could have found trouble if I wanted to,” he writes. “I never wanted to. I could have drunk away the nights, partied away the mornings. I never wanted to.” He continues in the next paragraph: “My life in Kingsport and up the minor league ladder was boring. I woke up. I went to the park early. I came home late. I went to sleep. I did it again.”

Frankly, I find this hard to believe. Maybe Wright didn’t go out drinking, but there’s just no way that his minor league baseball experience was this uneventful. I know because I asked. A few months ago, I wrote a story in Baseball Prospectus all about the Kingsport Mets. Wright talks about his host family, “an elderly couple named Peggy and Jim;” I’ve talked to Peggy, along with several other player hosts. 

I’ve heard stories of players running through Peggy’s house naked; late-night visits from unwelcome female acquaintances; dirty laundry that sat fermenting in players’ cars from Spring Training through the end of the regular season; players sleeping pressed up against their doors to barricade out the unwelcome female visitors; players who lived with other host families simply coming by one day and moving in. To be clear, none of this was about David Wright; all Peggy told me about Wright, of course, was that he “was an extremely polite and wonderful young man.” But Minor League Baseball is its own wild world, and this kind of thing has to happen. 

Even without generating scandal, Wright could offer so many more interesting details about life as a minor leaguer. Peggy, sources told me, regularly hosted southern potlucks; multiple people with knowledge of the situation said that her cooking was out of this world. Another host told me that Josh Thole used to call her “grandma,” and that she had to throw Daniel Murphy out of her house over a college football rivalry. There’s a lot that goes on in minor league baseball, but again, Wright tells the barest bones of the story, and leaves out the details that might make it his own.

In “I’m Keith Hernandez,” a memoir by — well, I suppose it’s obvious — the author tells a story from his time in the minor leagues. When Hernandez was a young minor leaguer with the Tulsa Oilers, one day a tornado bore down on Tulsa. Hernandez, scared that his apartment complex would get “sucked up like a hay bale with Dorothy and Toto,” ran outside in his bathing suit and threw himself into a ditch. The ditch started to fill with water, so he ran to a teammate’s apartment. 

“I burst through the door and called for him, but got no response, so I went into his bedroom, and there he was, buns up, on top of this girl, and they were going at it,” Hernandez writes. So he went back to his apartment, when suddenly there was a knock at the door. “It was a recently divorced thirty-year-old woman every guy in the complex had been gunning for. She was scared, she said, and asked if she could come stay until the storm moved off. Obviously, my luck was changing. Being a gentleman, I said ‘sure,’ and we settled on the couch, and soon things went — well, let’s just say that survival mode kicks up the hormones a notch.”

Obviously, Wright isn’t Keith Hernandez — but he could say something. It’s not even the content itself that’s so impressive about Hernandez’s story; it’s the level of detail and specificity. Even for David Wright, life sometimes gets weird. But for one reason or another, Wright simply doesn’t include anything remotely scandalous or shocking, or all that specific. There’s even a chapter of the book called “adult stuff” — but it turns out, when you get to the end of the chapter, that the only “adult stuff” he’s talking about is leaving home and negotiating his first contract.

***

Despite my criticisms, the book turns really good when it addresses two areas. The first is the jokes and pranks he’s pulled: it turns out that when he wants to be, David Wright is really funny. The second is his wife.

These two subjects, for whatever reason, draw out Wright’s specificity; his individuality; his voice. For instance, he tells the story of being in Japan for a baseball tour after the 2006 season, and going out with Mets bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello, who plays the Costello to Wright’s Abbot in many of the book’s funniest moments. Several times, Wright writes, the two of them go out to a restaurant only to find that they don’t speak Japanese, the waiters don’t speak English, and the menus don’t have pictures. 

“Our hotel buffet saved us that week, as did one glorious meal at the Hard Rock Café in Tokyo’s Roppongi district,” he writes. “Never in my life had I felt so worldly.”

Wright is similarly funny when describing pizza- and Oreo-eating contests between his brother and Racaniello, and when he describes his first date with his future wife in New York: “She didn’t even mind when I decided to wear a baggy, two-piece blue velour tracksuit around town, though she did tell me I looked like a Smurf (I did).” We also get several laugh-out-loud moments at Jacob deGrom’s expense, which I won’t spoil. At one point very early in the book, Wright mentions that his father would “ask simple questions about things like schoolwork, allowing us to bury ourselves with our answers.” It’s a line reminiscent of comedian John Mulaney. “My dad never hit us,” Mulaney noted in his 2018 special Kid Gorgeous at Radio City. “My dad is a lawyer and he was a debate team champion. So he would pick us apart psychologically.”

The book also shines when Wright talks about his relationship with his wife, and later on, his daughters. On one level, it’s easier to write well about your wife, since love is something with which most people can identify viscerally, but even so, Wright does it really well. He does make one strange choice: after first mentioning that he’d just met his wife, although he didn’t know it yet, on page 128, she doesn’t appear again for another 78 pages. But when she does, it’s among the strongest moments of the book. Wright’s stories about staying up late talking, walking around New York together as he recovers from injury, and, ultimately, his proposal, all help drag the book out of its game-recap funk. My professor would be thrilled. They’re full of scenes, specific details, and showing without telling. 

In the same way, the book starts to shine in the last chapters, when Wright gets closer to returning to the field for a final time. It’s probably for similar reasons: like a wife, when an entire section of a book is based on memories of one game, it’s a lot easier to be specific. Wright’s voice starts to be sharper and clearer; he begins using words in surprising, refreshing ways, and reflecting on specific, detailed memories. Playing cards and ping pong in the clubhouse; playing against opponents like Dustin Pedroia and Ryan Zimmerman for the last time; even taking a few last batting practice swings. Wright describes emerging from the dugout to pinch-hit the night before his official last game to a “paralyzing ovation,” then returning to the dugout with a “sheepish look” on his face; the next day, taking the field for the last time, he gives third base a “respectful kick.” The refreshing, surprising adjectives give readers the sense that Wright is finally coming into his own.

The night before Wright’s final game, I took the train from Providence, where I was in my senior year of college, to New York. I had three tickets to the game, for me, my girlfriend, who was flying in from Michigan, and my brother. We set out early the next day, and got to Citi Field hours early.

As we walked around the field level, we saw a crowd on the first base side, pressing down towards the field. And then, like it was nothing, David Wright walked over and started signing autographs.

With Wright on the sideline that season, and about to play for the last time, I’d figured I would need a new favorite active Met, so I’d found one: Brandon Nimmo, a hustling, always-smiling outfielder who could also get on base like he was born to do it. But there was David Wright, my all-time favorite Met and personal hero, signing autographs. We pushed through the crowd. Wright was standing at the edge of a tunnel under the right-field stands and into the innards of the stadium; I leaned over as far as I could, holding the Mets Magazine I’d just bought. It wasn’t without risk for me. I’d just dislocated my shoulder in a softball game that summer.  

Like it was nothing, like he wasn’t writing a major chapter in my life, Wright took the magazine and scrawled a signature vertically across a page. I reached down as far as I could and he handed it back to me, and then time unfroze and life went on, and I was holding a magazine autographed by David Wright.

We walked across the stadium, stood in line for burgers, got our food and kept walking around to our seats. I looked down at the first base side fifteen minutes later, and there was Wright, still signing.

The 2018 Mets were a pretty bad team. They certainly weren’t going to make the playoffs. The day was all about Wright. In the first inning, he walked, thereby assuring that, for the first time since 2016, he would at least have an On-Base Percentage. In the fourth, he fouled out along the first-base line; Peter O’Brien, the Marlins first baseman, could have let it drop, but opted not to. The plan had been for Wright to take two at-bats and then leave the game, so that, we assumed, was that. 

Sure enough, in the fifth, after Wright took the field, Mets manager Mickey Callaway came out to pull him. As the entire stadium cried and the “Captain America” theme played, Wright waved to the crowd, hugged each of his teammates, waved some more, hugged his coaches, waved one last time…then walked down the dugout steps and up the tunnel to the clubhouse, leaving the field for the last time.

The game was sort of secondary after that, even though it turned into a nail biter. It stayed scoreless for far too long, when all the crowd wanted was for the game to end so Wright could come back out and speak. Career minor leaguer Jack Reinheimer briefly became a Mets hero, but that’s a story for another day. Finally, in the 12th, Austin Jackson won it for the Mets with a walk-off hit. The Mets celebrated on the field. Wright led the charge.

Then Wright spoke. He thanked the crowd again, thanked Mets fans everywhere for making him one of our own. Then we went home, and everything was the same, except that David Wright had left the field, and would never play again.

The play that really stands out to me about that game, though, came in the seventh inning. Long after David Wright, my favorite Met of all time, had left the game, my new favorite player, Brandon Nimmo, stepped up to the plate. His .404 OBP was the highest full-season mark a Met had posted since Wright’s .416 in 2007. Leading off the inning, Nimmo lined a single to right — and pulled his hamstring as he crossed first base.

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One thought on “David Wright’s “The Captain” is okay, but could be better

  1. Denise Castillo says:

    How can I buy this book about DAVID WRIGHT. He was and always will be my FAVORITE 3 THIRD BASEMAN. Still wear his shirts and jerseys. MISS YOU 😘 MY METS PLAYER 🧡💙🧡💙🧡💙🧡💙🧡💙

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