Last night’s blogger conference call took me by surprise. The Mets usually give us more than 20 minutes’ notice, but you take what you can get. Unfortunately for my fellow bloggers, it didn’t seem like most of them could get to the phone, because by the time it started — around eleven, just after the Giants-Dodgers game ended — there were only a couple of us on the line: me and Howard Megdal, to be precise.
I won’t say “just as well,” out of respect to my esteemed blolleagues, but it was the kind of call that required followups, and we don’t usually get them when there are a lot of us on the line. Last night we did…and more.
David Wright was our subject du nuit. Talk about surprise, getting the Mets’ best player on the phone, but I figured the Mets were going to seek every publicity avenue available what with them otherwise off the back page until Saturday morning (and, legendarily, nobody reads the Saturday papers). I had the opportunity to ask him a question or two at the Mets’ holiday party in December and found him thoughtful and engaging, so I tried to come up with a penetrating line of inquiry that maybe didn’t deal with the batting order or how much energy Terry Collins has. But those efforts were unnecessary, because David had arranged this call to make news of his own.
“I wanted to talk to you guys first,” David said by way of opening statement, “because you’re the fans,” he ones who’ve “supported me since I first came up” in 2004, meaning we “deserve to hear it first.”
Even though this was by phone, I could feel Howard looking at me, just as I could feel myself looking at Howard. What the hell was David talking about?
“This is going to be my last year as a New York Met.”
You would have thought the phone went dead. Nothing from me, nothing from Howard, nothing from Jay Horwitz until he let out what I swear was a literal “GASP!” Jay tried to end the call, but David told him no, that’s OK, I wanna continue.
So he did. My transcribing was sketchy (you really appreciate it when other bloggers do the nuts and bolts), but basically he went on to relate the following:
• He has one more year on his contract after this year, which is scheduled to pay him $15 million (David didn’t mention any numbers, but it’s on Cot’s Baseball Contracts); there’s also a club option for 2013 worth $16 million, or he can be bought out by the Mets for a million, assuming they have a million or more bucks at their disposal (David didn’t say that — he’s too nice).
• He knows Carlos Beltran is off the Mets no later than the end of this year. “The handwriting’s on the wall” about Jose Reyes leaving, “and I love Jose like a brother.” In all, he’s seen too many of his teammates — “the guys I play cards with, guys like Frenchy and Rod Barajas, even guys like Charlie [Samuels]” — come and go, and it’s tough to come into the clubhouse and perpetually find himself among “a bunch of strangers”.
• “Don’t get me wrong,” David insisted. “They’re nice guys, it’s just that I have to memorize like a dozen new names every year.” He admitted he keeps mistaking Taylor Buchholz (who’s on the 25-man roster) with Taylor Tankersley (who was sent down). “It’s hard,” David said.
• Plus he’s “a little embarrassed” by all the money he’s made “playing a kid’s game,” noting “my dad’s in law enforcement and he’s never seen anything like I take home for a few at-bats. I have a hard time looking at myself in the mirror.” He also said, “I’d feel bad taking any more money from the Wilpons knowing the situation they’re in. Fred and Jeff have been good enough to me.”
The point to all this was to let us, the fans (or at least Howard and me), know his plans for after this season:
David Wright is going home to Virginia to run for the about-to-be-open United States Senate seat.
More silence. Another Jay Horwitz gasp. “OK, David, I guess we can wrap it up,” Jay tried to interrupt, but then a familiar voice took over.
“Guys, guys.” It was Kevin Burkhardt of SNY. “Guys, we’re gonna keep going. Just so you guys know, I’m gonna serve as David’s press secretary when he runs for senate, so I’m gonna moderate the call the rest of the way. Jay needs to lie down anyway. Guys, here’s David.”
David thanked Kevin, not just for accepting the new position but for helping him arrive this decision. It was the SNY special, Going Home: David Wright, hosted by Burkhardt, that got Wright thinking. David said he appreciated the positive reaction to him at Hickory High School in Chesapeake, Va., and everywhere he traveled to film the documentary. “It really touched me.” At the same time, he began to realize how much he missed Virginia — “though don’t get me wrong, I’ll always love New York” — and wondered about a post-playing career.
“While I was home, I visited with Billy,” meaning Wagner, the ex-Met closer who retired last year to his alpaca farm in Virginia, “and he convinced me there’s life after baseball,” even if you “just had a great season,” which Billy did for the Braves last year. “If someone as accomplished as Billy could walk away like that,” David reasoned, who was he to keep playing “a kid’s game”?
As luck would have it, the big story in Virginia when David was “going home” was the open senate seat that’s up for grabs in 2012. Jim Webb, moderate Democrat, is stepping down after one term. George Allen, who used to be a very popular Republican before his 2006 “macaca moment,” has already declared his intention to run. Tim Kaine, who, like Allen, had been governor and is now Democratic National Committee chairman, is supposed to be eyeing his party’s nomination. That’s already a lot of political starpower. So where does David Wright fit into all this?
“I guess I’ll be running as an independent,” David said. When I finally got a chance to interrupt (he’s already a politician, what with the nonstop talking) and pointed out that that would be a pretty difficult launching point for a political neophyte, he had an answer for me.
He’s been “a member of a team” all his life, whether it was the Mets or the Norfolk Tides or “my team at Hickory,” but sometimes, according to the unofficial captain of the Mets, “you have to form your own team. I don’t want to put down the existing parties, they both have their strong points.” Still, David said, the Republicans and Democrats “have both kind of had their chances, sort of like Jerry [Manuel] and Omar [Minaya] did. Sometimes you gotta try something new.”
Howard — who knows a few things about politics after running for Mets GM in 2010 — jumped in with a great question about one of John McCain’s Virginia supporters in 2008 trying to differentiate the “real Virginia,” meaning the southern portion of the state from the allegedly not-so-real portion of Virginia — the D.C. suburbs — that was tipping the Old Dominion State’s 13 electoral votes to Barack Obama, making him the first Democratic presidential candidate to capture Virginia since LBJ did it in 1964. “I remember that ‘real Virginia’ comment,” David said. “That kind of bothered me.” Though he supported McCain three years ago, he didn’t care for that kind of “divisiveness” in the land he loved. “We’re all Virginians down there, just like all New Yorkers are New Yorkers, whether they’re Mets fans or Yankees fans or don’t even like baseball. I want to bring everybody together.”
I asked if he’d ever thought about running for office in New York, where his roots are pretty deep after seven going on eight seasons as a Met. He laughed. “New York? I’d get killed. I know some people can move here from somewhere else” — a sly dig at our former senator, Hillary Clinton, I took it — “but I couldn’t do that. All I know about New York is the nightclubs, the hospitals where I visit kids and Citi Field.”
This change of career doesn’t appear to be about money or negotiating. Just for fun, I asked him if he was going to try to moonlight as “Ryan Zimmerman’s backup on the Nationals” when the senate’s not in session. David turned all serious and said, “This isn’t a joke or a hobby or anything. If the people of Virginia see fit to elect me, I’m going to Washington to serve them. I love baseball, it’s been a great thing for me, but sometimes you have to move on.”
Howard followed up by asking about the Capitol Hill softball leagues, and what team he’d “caucus with” as an independent, but David didn’t bite: “I don’t want to look that far ahead. I haven’t even filed the papers to run yet.”
There was some good-natured banter and a few more details as the hour grew later. Yes, he did the math and knows he has to be 30 when he takes the oath of office, which he will be should he be elected, even though he’ll still be 29 when the election takes place in November 2012. (Joe Biden was first elected as a senator from Delaware under similar age circumstances.) Yes, Howard Johnson will be one of his advisers — “he’s like a second father to me and I value what he has to say.” No, he hasn’t spoken to fellow Virginian and former teammate John Maine. Yes, he will be “sensitive” to immigration issues “because I played with so many great guys from so many different places, whether it was Jose from the Dominican Republic or Ollie [Perez] from Mexico or J-Bay from Canada or Kaz Matsui from Japan when I first came up.” No, he doesn’t want to raise taxes (“I’ve made too much money by playing too hard”). No, he’s not going to start smoking just because they’ve traditionally grown tobacco in Virginia. And, yes, of course he’s pulling for the VCU Rams this weekend in the Final Four versus Butler. “I love all Virginia teams,” he laughed, before clarifying, “I mean it. I do.”
Oh, and he’s in it to win. “When they put my name on the All-Star ballot every year, I take that very seriously,” David said. “It’s more than a popularity contest to me. It’s about value and worthiness, and I’ve always tried to give it to the Mets fans. That’s how I view serving the people of Virginia.” I tried to get in a question about those foam fingers the Mets gave out to push his third base candidacy last summer and whether he was going to use those in his senate campaign, but Burkhardt cut me off. “Guys, that’s enough questions,” he said. “Thanks guys.”
The call was over. Now the big question for those of us who don’t live in the Commonwealth of Virginia is, is David Wright’s Mets career also really over?
Obviously this isn’t what Howard or I or any Mets fan was expecting to be hearing right before the 2011 season started. There’s been so much weirdness surrounding this franchise in the last few years, and David was the one thing we could count on. Still, if you listened between the lines you could hear the frustration in David’s voice, that he has given it his all, and that it just hasn’t happened for him the way he wants it to. I thought back to December when he dismissed my interest in his eventually owning all the Met hitting records. At the time, he said he didn’t care about that stuff, that he had “unfinished business” in the way of a championship.
My sense is that what David Wright was too characteristically polite to say last night was his business is about finished here. He’ll give it his all in 2011 while his exploratory committee lays the groundwork in Virginia, and maybe together, David and Jose and Carlos can finally close the deal and they can all go out winners the way we imagined they’d be every year going back to 2006. Or maybe we’ll just have to appreciate them all in the here and now, no matter what their future holds. Beltran’s playing days may be numbered because of his knees. Reyes may not be a Met because he’ll be a free agent. And Wright hears another calling altogether. I’ll miss him, but I have to admit I admire that he’s being very classy about the whole thing.
When he was a Knick, everybody said Bill Bradley would someday be president. He didn’t get there, but he was a three-term senator from New Jersey and did make one decent run for the White House. They used to call Al Leiter “Senator Al” for his political interest, but he never tried to make the moniker a reality. David Wright…it never occurred to me he’d go in this direction, but he’s an intelligent, sincere young man. I may not ultimately agree with him on all the issues (and anyway, I’m not a Virginian), but it’s never stopped me from punching out his name repeatedly at All-Star time. From a Mets standpoint, he’s giving the club plenty of notice. Maybe Daniel Murphy, a natural third baseman, will finally have a position to call his own, and with Beltran’s, Reyes’s and Wright’s contracts off the books, maybe Albert Pujols as a Met isn’t such a crazy idea after all. (Come to think of it, didn’t Albert used to play third?)
In a way I can’t believe David Wright is going to leave the Mets after this year to run for senate from Virginia. But today, after last night’s blogger conference call and before tonight, when the fiftieth Mets campaign commences, anything seems like it could be true.