David Wright Was the Ultimate Met
The Mets third baseman has been a specter since 2015 but, before that, he was on a Hall of Fame track.
Photo by Gary Rothstein/EPA
For the moment, leave aside the insidiousness of how it came to pass Thursday that David Wright, franchise icon for the New York Mets, announced tearfully that he would be playing his final game in the major leagues on September 29.
Ignore that he gets just one day because the Mets, a team Wright was loyal to in every possible way—from taking a discounted extension, to serving as the face of the franchise through the very worst of the Bernie Madoff-related financial issues that plague them to this day—spent weeks publicly impugning the two-year comeback Wright has been authoring, delaying his return.
Forget that the Mets a franchise that seems to always rush players back from injury (or have them play through it), instead did everything possible to keep Wright off the field, seemingly because it would ruin the chances of insurance paying off 75 percent of Wright's salary while the Mets could claim all of it for public consumption of their inflated, yet still chronically underfunded payroll number.
This is the essence of David Wright's tenure with the Mets, which began with such promise in 2004, will end a decade and a half later short of the Hall of Fame track Wright once trod upon, but remains the greatest everyday career in team history. To love David Wright was to do so in the face of the very Metsiest years anyone can ever remember, to appreciate how singularly un-Mets he was through his greatest triumphs, and then to see someone who was rewarded for all his loyalty by his body betraying him.
When David Wright arrived in the major leagues back in 2004, he immediately commenced with his David Wrightness, utterly distinct from Metsness in every way, posting a .293/.332/.525 line and separating himself from the pack of Mets employed by the late Art Howe era vintage. Consider that he didn't debut until July 21, but easily led the 2004 Mets position players in both OPS+ and WAR. Even as fans revolted at the trade deadline deal that sent Scott Kazmir to Tampa Bay for Victor Zambrano, and another young prospect, Jose Reyes, was shunted aside to make room for, and you can look this up, Kazuo Matsui, the bright spot was Wright.
Even his weakness, back when he arrived, was working too hard—a story Wright confirmed for me years later had the Mets wondering why his home numbers dipped well below his road production as a prospect, until the culprit was discovered—he was taking too much BP when afforded the chance to play without the long bus ride to force him out of the batting cage hours before a game.
Over the next few years, the supporting cast improved, ownership spending what turned out to be the last of the Madoff money on Carloses (Beltran and Delgado) and closers (Billy Wagner, which worked out, J.J. Putz and Francisco Rodriguez, which, well, not so much). From 2005-2008, Wright posted a 141 OPS+, made four all star teams, stole 86 bases, won two gold gloves, and played in 160 games three of four seasons (and a still-impressive 154 games in 2006).
His Mets were young and exciting. Reyes, freed of the Matsui block, blossomed into an elite shortstop. Beltran easily outproduced his contract, playing a balletic center field. Delgado remained a dangerous power hitter at first base. The Mets won 97 games in 2006, came within a Yadier Molina home run of the World Series, before teams imperfectly built around that core lost September leads in dramatic fashion.
And yet, no one can lay the blame for those collapses at the feet of Wright. His slash line in September 2007, the year the Mets blew a seven-game lead with 17 to play? .352/.432/.602. The echo, when a Mets team with a historically poor bullpen somehow built a 3.5 game lead with 17 play, then lost that one? .340/.416/.577. Wright deserved better than those Mets teams, and yet, for much of the rest of his career, it appeared that would be his high point.
Madoff went poof in December 2008, though the effect on the Mets would not be clear for some time. But the team moved into Citi Field in 2009, and remarkably, though built around Wright, a right-handed power hitter, the dimensions of his new park were somehow maximized to penalize right-handed power hitters. Wright's home run total dropped to 10 in 2009, part of a deeply forgettable season that included Wright getting hit in the head, suffering post-concussive symptoms, then returned to the field two weeks later, a shell of himself, part of the Mets concussion protocol that may have hastened the end of careers from Jason Bay to Ryan Church.
He returned to Wright form in 2010, a beacon amid lineups filled with players like Luis Castillo and Bay, Jeff Francoeur and Rod Barajas, and after missing a bunch of time in 2011 after suffering a broken back, then continuing to play on it for nearly a month (the Mets, again, exhibiting the opposite of their injury caution of late with Wright in every instance where insurance payouts weren't at risk), made two more all star teams in 2012 and, at Citi Field, in 2013.
Through his age-30 season, Wright had a career slash line of .301/.382/.506, and that stands up well as a pretty consistent representation of what you could expect his production to be at any given point in the season if you had glanced up at a major league scoreboard during a game Wright was playing in for a decade. How good is that? Well, it was worth an OPS+ of 137, good for seventh among third basemen with at least 800 games logged by age 30 since 1900. The only names ahead of him, you'll recognize: Eddie Mathews, Wade Boggs, Home Run Baker, Mike Schmidt, Chipper Jones, George Brett. That was the company David Wright kept through age 30. Hall of Fame company.
To love David Wright was to do so in the face of the very Metsiest years anyone can ever remember, to appreciate how singularly un-Mets he was through his greatest triumphs, and then to see someone who was rewarded for all his loyalty by his body betraying him.
Then came the awful reality of 2014, when Wright's production dropped to .269/.324/.374—still, somehow, just above league average playing through maladies that eventually led to three separate surgeries. He missed most of 2015, before returning in August and doing this in his first at-bat, part of a two-month period in which the Mets packed the entirety of their decade's best emotional moments—a tradeoff, at some level, every Mets fan knew would mean subsequent misery.
Wright and the Mets stampeded the Nationals to reach the playoffs, bested the Dodgers and Cubs, before falling to the Royals in the World Series. But it felt like a victory for everyone: Wright even homered in a World Series game at Citi Field, long since reconstituted to alleviate right-handed power struggles, though Wright was seldom around anymore to enjoy it. Joyful World Series David Wright lifted the mood of those around him, and a loss felt like a win, because the Mets in the World Series and, specifically, David Wright in the World Series felt so much like found money.
And since then, for 37 games total, over three seasons, Wright's been a specter, occasionally showing up, like when he appeared with the other Mets on Opening Day 2018, looking so gaunt that my wife gasped. He is a member of the family, and everyone inquired after him. His career's felt terminal long before the official diagnosis came yesterday, all of which made the cruelty of team-imposed artificial limitations, when he'd made it all the way back, so acutely felt. One suspects even Jeff Wilpon understood it to be a PR bridge too far.
No one knows precisely how much the dance of the past few weeks is legitimately about the limitations of David Wright at this point in his life—who can say what the limitations are for a man who has spent the past two years waking up to a checklist of which part of his surgically-repaired body will fail him, spending hours just getting his body ready enough for things like batting practice, simply for the chance to play major league ball one more time so his daughters can see him?
At any rate, whatever deal was struck privately between Wilpon and Wright—the latter, ever the good soldier, going out to sell it through tears on Thursday, seemingly giving up the remaining two seasons on his contract because the one thing he couldn't win in a protracted legal struggle with the Mets (though, to be fair, the very thought of Wright doing that is antithetical to all we know about him) would have been the chance to play baseball in a Mets uniform again—Wright will play, at least once more, on September 29.
Wilpon gets his precious home date, presumably incentive enough to stop skirting the outer limits of insurance fraud, and advance ticket sales to go with it—tickets were standing room only just a few hours after Wright's announcement, with the secondary market seeing numbers that Mets tickets hadn't sold for since, well, Wright was last playing. That is the sound of a collective fan base ignoring current circumstances and who will receive their ticket revenue, because honoring David Wright is more important to them than any of that.
And David Wright, ultimate Met, whose 50.4 WAR rates well ahead of any other position player in franchise history, will have a final chance to hear those cheers he's earned, literally giving over his body to the cause, letting the memory of that lodge forever in the mind of his children. It feels like the kind of feel-good moment that might even be Mets-proof.