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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Special

July 21, 2004 was a hot and sticky day in New York, with the temperature in the high 80s and a night that didn’t promise to be much more comfortable. The Mets were bumping along around .500, and sort of battling for a National League East that no team particularly seemed to want to claim. That night at Shea they were scheduled to play the Expos, who’d escaped contraction but been reduced to Major League Baseball’s wards and were widely expected to be moved out of Montreal as soon as could be arranged.

None of that was particularly compelling, but I was going, because the Mets had called up a third baseman billed as their brightest hitting prospect in years, a Virginia kid named David Wright. The Mets had drafted Wright as compensation for Mike Hampton becoming enamored of the schools in Colorado and he’d torn up minor-league pitching, first at Binghamton and then at Norfolk. He had nothing left to prove down there; it was time to see what he could do under the bright lights.

I talked my friend Tim into going and secured seats behind home plate in the upper deck. They were the red seats, but boxes — not too far from the field and set apart from the upper reaches of Shea, which during sparsely attended games belonged to smokers, drunks, weirdos and guys who’d come to the park hoping to find someone to fight. My seat cost $23.

Wright fielded a grounder in the first, throwing over to Ty Wigginton, whose job he’d taken, to retire Jose Vidro. In the second he came to the plate for the first time in the big leagues. That first at-bat wasn’t what he’d hoped for during all those nights dreaming about what might be: he was retired on a pop-up in foul territory, with Expos catcher Brian Schneider making a nifty catch that ended with him flipped over the dugout railing. Wright made outs in his other three at-bats as well: a groundout, a pop to short and a fly ball to right. The Mets won by a single run.

Not a debut heavy on fireworks, but as Tim and I left Shea I made sure to tuck my ticket stub deeper in my pocket. When I got home, I filed it in a cubby of my desk instead of tossing it in with the recycling. Everything I’d heard and seen had convinced me this player would be special.

And he was. That’s understating things rather dramatically. Wright quickly developed into a precocious hitter who was never out of an at-bat, combining a jeweler’s eye for the strike zone with superlative natural gifts and an indomitable work ethic. Within a couple of years, he’d become the face of the franchise, and I knew that one day I’d clear my calendar to see his final game, and then again to see the Mets retire his number 5. That number had belonged to some illustrious Mets over the years: Ed Charles wore it dancing near the mound as Jerry Koosman jackknifed into Jerry Grote‘s arms, Davey Johnson had it on his back while out-scheming Whitey Herzog and John McNamara and everyone else, and John Olerud had donned it as part of the Best Infield in Baseball. But all of that was in the past — 5 belonged to David Wright now, and would never belong to any other New York Met.

It was on Wright’s back for a lot of memories. There he was, willing a drive to center over the head of Johnny Damon at Shea. And drenched in champagne next to Jose Reyes, the other young star we became used to seeing to Wright’s left. It was on his back as he flew through the air one night in San Diego, coming down with a ball in his bare hand.

Not all of those memories were happy ones. Wright wore 5 as the Mets shut down Shea in a sendoff turned funeral, and in a new park whose dimensions might as well have been engineered to undermine him as an offensive force. He was wearing it when he took a fastball to the head, and when he went sprawling in the dirt to tag a runner at third, and as his body started to balk at his commands and betray him.

But he was wearing it again the night he returned in Philadelphia and announced himself with a missile into the upper deck on the third pitch he saw. He was wearing it when he crossed the plate in D.C. and flung his fist out in exultation. He was wearing it as the Mets obliterated the Cubs in Wrigley, and when he christened Citi Field as a World Series venue with a home run.

Yeah, he was special all right — off the field as well as on. We heard innumerable stories about Wright’s kindness and fundamental decency, and for every one we learned about we knew that there were two or three more that had remained private. There was Max Rubin, the kid with Down Syndrome who asked Wright to hit a home run against the Yankees, to which David replied “I’ll try” and then did just that. After the game Max gathered Wright up in a hug, radiant with happiness — and then the camera pulled back to show that Wright’s smile was even bigger.

Or there was the story that was my favorite, because it was such a small thing: an affectionate portrait of Jay Horwitz revealed that the Mets PR legend had chronic trouble with email addresses, and his careless autocompletes meant Wright routinely got messages intended for a Horwitz colleague with a similar email address. All of which Wright dutifully ensured wound up where they belonged. What multimillionaire athlete does that? Heck, you probably have someone in your office who doesn’t care enough to do that.

Before this week, we’d last seen Wright on a baseball field in May 2016. Every so often we’d get an update, and they were unrelentingly grim: a surgery, a period of enforced inactivity, all of them accompanied by Wright insisting that this was not the end and he was optimistic. We learned how hard he worked to fight his body to a draw, and how a draw wasn’t possible. He became a baseball Job, and though we’d learned never to bet against David Wright, we all sensed that there were some obstacles not even David Wright could overcome.

And so, simultaneously cruelly and mercifully, an endgame was crafted — a pair of cameos, an orchestrated farewell. Saturday night’s game became a sellout within a couple of hours of the plan’s announcement. The date I’d imagined as part of some distant hazy future — often I’d pictured it including my son Joshua, impossibly grown up and playing hooky from college — had arrived, far earlier than it should have and with a fair amount of bitter mixed in with the sweet.

But I knew I had to be there. I’d been there at the beginning, after all. And after David Wright had brought me so much joy, how couldn’t I be there at the end?

As it happened, my companion wasn’t Joshua but Emily. We arrived nearly an hour before game time, wary about how prepared the Mets would be for a packed house, and found ourselves amid throngs of people wearing WRIGHT 5 shirts, some of them carrying placards — to use a term I’ve only ever heard used by flight attendants and Casey Stengel — expressing thanks, love and devotion. (Let it be noted that Citi Field was fully staffed and running far more efficiently than most nights, though the cupboards were bare of food and drink by the late innings.)

We watched from the Promenade as Wright’s pregame gamboling in the outfield drew standing ovations and as he scooped up a first pitch from his daughter Olivia Shea before scooping her up as well. We stood and yelled and clapped as he ran out to his position alone, then was joined by his teammates. We looked at the big screen to see the joy on his face and that of Reyes as the two embraced — my feelings about Reyes are now complicated, to say the least, but his delight in playing beside his friend was genuine and impossible to resist. We rose again as Wright came to the plate for this first at-bat, and marveled at the patience he showed in working out a walk. We cheered madly when he fielded a grounder and threw sidearm for a putout at first. And there we were on our feet again when he led off in the fourth.

The second pitch from Miami’s Trevor Richards was a high fastball; Wright swung and popped it up outside first. I tried to will it into the seats. So did 44,000 other people. It was not to be — the ball came down in Peter O’Brien‘s glove. Wright smiled a little sheepishly, though you could see he was ticked, and headed for the dugout.

He was back at his position for the top of the fifth, and I let myself dream. I imagined that after the foul out he’d told Mickey Callaway that he was moving around fine out there and Mickey had asked him if he wanted one more at-bat. I didn’t need to wonder what the answer would have been. So I was reluctant — unwilling, almost — to register that Callaway had left the dugout and stopped near home to speak with the umpire.

That had been the plan, and there would be no reprieve. Wright hugged his teammates and waved, while the Mets and Marlins both clapped, and then he vanished into the dugout. And I realized what had pierced me most deeply that night wasn’t the highlights of heroic days, but the tiny little things that would never make a YouTube clip.

I could queue up Wright scoring in Washington or homering in Philadelphia whenever I wanted. But it would be harder to find a recording of all his little mannerisms, which I’d committed to memory years ago and could recognize even from a distant vantage point. The way he came in on a grounder, eyeing it like it was prey, or scuffed the dirt near third with his feet in a bit of nervous, meticulous grooming. The way he’d reseal his batting gloves before arriving at the plate, then raise his bat like a knight with a broadsword, exhale deeply, and get to work. Even the way he’d loosen up in the outfield before the game started, arms swinging and feet shuffling. Those were the things that crushed me on Saturday night — instantly recognizable tics and tells I’d seen a thousand times, come to take for granted, and realized I would never see again.

Wright left the field in the fifth, as planned, and the Mets and Marlins played on and on and on, a scoreless game that ground along in low gear until the Mets won by a single run. We saw the video tribute the Mets had produced — typically, it was both good-hearted and overproduced — and then Wright himself returned for a few words. He was impeccably gracious, of course — thanking all of us for coming out to thank him. He was competitive, of course — his first words were satisfaction that his team had won. And best of all, he seemed at peace with an ending he had fought so hard to avoid.

And then he went back into the dugout, followed by the camera. Looking from the big board to the field, I could just spot the white square of his jersey, then a bit of his shoulder. I looked back at the video board and there he was, making his way down the dugout, until he reached the steps, and then he was gone. He was gone and it was time to go home.

Wright’s final at-bat wasn’t what he’d hoped for during all those days of grueling rehab work in St. Lucie: he was retired on a pop-up in foul territory. But everything that came before, between that hot July night back in 2004 and that cool September evening in 2018? It was special. That’s understating things rather dramatically. And as Emily and I left Citi Field, beneath the glow of fireworks, I made sure to tuck my printed ticket deeper into my pocket.

17 comments to Special

  • Great piece.
    Now, when you say that Reyes was to Wright’s right, do you mean looking right on? Because I always considered Reyes to be on Wright’s left. Right?

  • Curt

    The Mets seem to mess this sort of thing up so consistently that I was almost surprised that they did this so well. I didn’t know the details of the plan but thought taking him off the field during an inning would be the way to go. And I loved the O’Brien booing. Hopefully it was as good-natured as it seemed from watching at home.

    No idea until reading this that his first ML AB was also a foul out. Be nice if he’d had a hit but there’s also a synchronicity.

    He’s under contract for two more years – I hope this means he’ll be part of the team in some way.

  • Dave

    All well said, Jason, and well done, Mets…an event I feared they’d somehow screw up was done with class and dignity, fitting of the honoree. Only thing missing for me was I wondered if they were going to hang 5 up alongside 14, 31, 37 and 41 last night (note that I am not using the obviously forbidden r-word). But by not doing so last night, they’re making for a future date that can be a sellout.

    Then again this is still the Mets. There’s half a chance that Spring Training starts and some guy who’s the next Austin Jackson or Jack Reinheimer is there wearing number 5.

  • The franchise has to retire the 5 now. Then the Seaver statue, followed by Wright’s. Great reflection on a bittersweet night.

  • Mark Mehler

    Yeah, the tics and tells. The things that made him your David Wright. Beautifully written.

  • otb

    Thanks, Jason, for such an eloquent report. The night meant so much to Mets fans. It belonged to David, but perhaps even more, to us. Thanks, David, for coming back for four innings, painful though I’m sure they were, and for smiling through it all.

  • Jacobs27

    Love the symmetry.

    That foul pop sure was a frustrating way to go. I wish they had given him one more shot. But at least Wright can say that his last hit in the Major Leagues was a home run in a game the Mets ended up winning by one run — albeit more than two years ago already.

  • eric1973

    “Who are you calling a drunk?!”

  • joenunz

    Nice tribute to David. Thank you.

    But I respectfully beg to differ on “…the upper reaches of Shea, which during sparsely attended games belonged to smokers, drunks, weirdos and guys who’d come to the park hoping to find someone to fight.”

    Sure, some of that happened (and a lot of that happened when it NOT sparsely attended – the Upper Deck was a rowdy bar on Friday nights in ’84/’85/’86 ) but I’d say that during sparsely attended games in losing seasons those seats were filled with people who keep score, folks who went to a dozen ballparks a year before it was fashionable and FAFIF readers.

    #LGM

  • eric1973

    Actually, the mid-late 80s Mets were the biggest collection of underachievers in Met history, and Davey didn’t outmanage anyone except himself.

  • Orange and blue through and through

    “…they had sweated beneath the same sun. Looked up in wonder at the same moon. And wept when it was all done for being done too soon. For being done too soon.”
    Neil Diamond

  • Gil

    Outstanding. Just outstanding. Thanks for writing.

  • dmg

    beautiful.
    couldn’t make it to the ballpark, watched at a david wright party a friend hosted.
    i always called him the david, like michelangelo’s sculpture, and admired his grace on and off the field.
    it just all ended too soon.

  • Will in Central NJ

    Thanks for sharing this insightful and eloquent retrospective on Captain Wright. As one door closes, another one may be opening, unbeknownst to us, for another budding Met star of significance. Who might it be? McNeil? Alonzo? 2019 can’t come soon enough.

  • Tom C

    Watched David’s first ever game on SNY and in his first MLB at bat he fouled out to Expos catcher Brian Schneider, who had to lean far over the dugout railing to make the catch. So a little symmetry there with his last ever at bat resulting in another foul pop. Really wanted to see a hit there instead!