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A Special One

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series [1] in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

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 kinda maybe sorta battling for a National League East lead 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 it could be arranged.

None of those factors was particularly compelling, but I was going to game anyway, because the Mets had called up a third baseman billed as their brightest hitting prospect in years, a Virginia kid named David Wright [2]. The Mets had drafted Wright as compensation for Mike Hampton [3] becoming enamored of the schools in Colorado and Wright had 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 mostly belonged to smokers, drunks, and guys hoping to find someone to fight. My seat cost $23.

Wright fielded a grounder in the first, throwing across the diamond to Ty Wigginton [4], the man whose job he’d taken, to retire Jose Vidro [5]. 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 [6] 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 [7].

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 that David Wright would be special.

[8]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 [9] wore it dancing near the mound as Jerry Koosman [10] jackknifed into Jerry Grote [11]‘s arms, Davey Johnson [12] had it on his back while out-scheming Whitey Herzog [13] and John McNamara [14] and everyone else, and John Olerud [15] had donned it as part of the Best Infield in Baseball. But all of that was in the past — 5 belonged to 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 [16] over the head of Johnny Damon [17] at Shea. And drenched in champagne next to Jose Reyes [18], the other young star we became used to seeing to Wright’s left. It was on his back as he flew through the air [19] one night in San Diego, coming down with a ball in his bare hand.

Not all of those memories were happy ones, of course. 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, left sprawling in the Citi Field dust, and when he returned but didn’t look quite the same.

He was wearing it in 2011, the year he represents in our series and a season that wasn’t particularly a happy one. The Mets finished 77-85; Wright spent a good chunk of the late spring and early summer on the DL, shelved by a stress fracture in his lower back that he’d incurred making a diving tag play [20] at third in April. At the time it seemed like an acute malady, the kind of unfortunate injury Wright had incurred because he only knew how to play hard; later, as his body began to balk at commands and betray him, we’d see it as the beginning of the end. The injury caused calcium deposits that fueled the spinal stenosis that would eventually drive Wright from the field before his time, though genetics and the wear and tear of baseball also contributed.

But if that was the beginning of Wright’s slide into autumn, there were some wonderful summer moments along the way. Like the 2013 World Baseball Classic, where he lit up the spring stage [21] and claimed the nickname Captain America for himself. The nickname was a perfect fit, one that lent even Wright’s rare moments of pique a sheen of heroism. Take poor umpire Toby Basner, who ejected Wright the next year and was preserved for eternity glaring over at the dugout as Wright informed him that “you’re the worst.” [22] Can you imagine Captain America himself telling you you’re bad at your job in front of the country and God and everybody? I’m still a little surprised that Basner didn’t disperse into a bashful pink mist out of sheer embarrassment.

[23]And then there was 2015. Wright went on the DL in mid-April with what was thought to be a hamstring strain; while he was out, the spinal stenosis was diagnosed. He wouldn’t return until late August, but when he did it was with an exclamation mark of a moment [24], homering into Citizens Bank Park’s upper deck on the third pitch he saw. There was the moment a couple of weeks later when Wright crossed the plate in D.C. a hair before the tag, popping up to declare himself safe and flinging his fist out in exultation [25] once the good news was confirmed. He was front and center that fall as the Mets slipped past the Dodgers in Chavez Ravine, obliterated the Cubs at Wrigley, and christened Citi Field [26] 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. David replied “I’ll try,” and then did just that … but that’s not the story. The story is that after the game Max gathered Wright up in a hug [27], 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 redirected to where they belonged. What multimillionaire athlete does that? Heck, you probably have someone in your office who doesn’t care enough to do that.

In May 2016, spinal stenosis drove Wright from the game he loved. The rest of the year passed without him. So did all of 2017. 2018 began without him; the days got longer and then shorter with no sign of him in blue and orange. Every so often we’d get an update, and each one was 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, becoming the Job of baseball. And though we’d learned never to bet against him, we all sensed that there were some obstacles not even Captain America could overcome.

And so, simultaneously cruelly and mercifully, an endgame was crafted — a pair of cameos at the end of September by way of orchestrated farewell. The Saturday night game on Sept. 29, 2018 became a sellout within a couple of hours of the 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.

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 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 [28] — expressing thanks, love and devotion.

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 were complicated by then, to say the least, but Wright’s happiness at 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 [29] 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 [30]‘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 [31] 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.

[32]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 that last 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 as planned, and the Mets and Marlins played on and on and on, a scoreless game that ground along in low gear. (Eventually the Mets won by a single run.) After a video tribute, 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.

(For those keeping score at home, yes, this is a minor rewrite of the original farewell.)

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962 [33]: Richie Ashburn
1963 [34]: Ron Hunt
1964 [35]: Rod Kanehl
1965 [36]: Ron Swoboda
1966 [37]: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1967 [38]: Al Schmelz
1969 [39]: Donn Clendenon
1970 [40]: Tommie Agee
1971 [41]: Tom Seaver
1972 [42]: Gary Gentry
1973 [43]: Willie Mays
1974 [44]: Tug McGraw
1977 [45]: Lenny Randle
1978 [46]: Craig Swan
1981 [47]: Mookie Wilson
1982 [48]: Rusty Staub
1983 [49]: Darryl Strawberry
1986 [50]: Keith Hernandez
1988 [51]: Gary Carter
1990 [52]: Gregg Jefferies
1991 [53]: Rich Sauveur
1992 [54]: Todd Hundley
1993 [55]: Joe Orsulak
1994 [56]: Rico Brogna
1995 [57]: Jason Isringhausen
1996 [58]: Rey Ordoñez
1998 [59]: Todd Pratt
2000 [60]: Melvin Mora
2001 [61]: Mike Piazza
2002 [62]: Al Leiter
2003 [63]: David Cone
2004 [64]: Joe Hietpas
2005 [65]: Pedro Martinez
2007 [66]: Jose Reyes
2008 [67]: Johan Santana
2009 [68]: Angel Pagan
2010 [69]: Ike Davis
2012 [70]: R.A. Dickey
2013 [71]: Wilmer Flores
2014 [72]: Jacob deGrom
2019 [73]: Dom Smith