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Crappy Anniversary

An unwelcome thought crept into my head somewhere between the 45th reference to it being David Wright [1]‘s 10-year anniversary as a big leaguer and the moment the Mets stopped losing and crept away into the mossy Northwest night:

How many lousy nights like this [2] has David Wright gone through, anyway?

The answer, as best I can determine: 824.

The Mets are 802-824 in Wright’s tenure, which is probably a bit better than you’d expected, and should make us all stop for a moment and think about how bad we’d be without him. Which is something we don’t do nearly enough.

I was there that first night, July 21, 2004 [3] — I cajoled my friend Tim into going to see this heralded new Mets rookie at Shea. He didn’t get a hit but I recall him making a mildly perilous catch of a pop-up near the enemy dugout. That enemy was the Montreal Expos, soon to go extinct at Shea with the Mets as their final adversary. (I was there for that too.) Wright didn’t get a hit, but the Mets won, 5-4, bringing their record for the season to 47-47.

They finished the year at 71-91.

After opening the Wright Era with a win, the Mets promptly lost four in a row. Their season imploded thanks to a 2-19 horror show that spanned late August and early September, which led to the team firing Art Howe [4] and Howe agreeing to stay on until season’s end anyway, which says a lot about all involved. In retrospect, Wright should have lit out for the territories somewhere around the time the Mets were getting drubbed for a fourth straight day by the 2004 Padres, perhaps popping up on an independent-league team with a fake name and a pasted-on mustache. That way he might have landed a job with a real outfit.

He stayed, though, of course. Oh boy, did he stay. Within a year he was the heir apparent to what passes for glory in Metsian precincts, a young slugger whose ability to drive the ball was matched only by his ability to work a count and ensure he got a pitch to hit. Down the stretch of the marvelous 2006 season, I kept telling anybody and everybody that the player Wright really reminded me of was my departed favorite Edgardo Alfonzo [5] — if a pitcher got Wright in an 0-2 hole, you still had faith that he would ignore sliders diving away from him and foul off tough fastballs until the count was 2-2 or 3-2 and the pitcher finally surrendered and gave him a ball he could drive.

That David Wright doesn’t really exist anymore, and where he went is one of the more puzzling questions about the Mets. Possibly he vanished with the departure of the supporting cast that let Wright grow into the polished hitter he was. Maybe he disappeared when the Mets put Wright into a park seemingly engineered to turn his homers into doubles and his doubles into outs. Perhaps he was last sighted when Matt Cain [6] hit him in the batting helmet with a fastball. An 0-2 count on David Wright is no longer the prelude to a long at-bat — Wright goes fishing now, trying to do too much.

And that’s the way we should put it: trying to do too much. Because Wright’s work ethic and desire are unassailable even when all around him is in shambles. I suspect if I somehow woke up in Wright’s body I would immediately gasp and call for an EMT. He’s played with a broken back, a busted shoulder and all manner of non-routine baseball injuries he shrugs away as routine. He’s always been dutiful at his locker, patiently answering annoying question after annoying question after cruddy loss after cruddy loss. Behind the scenes, we’ve learned, he can be both a hard-nosed leader and a thoroughly decent employee. Recently we read about Wright yanking Matt Harvey [7] aside for a talking-to about the responsibilities that would come with rehabbing his elbow in New York instead of in St. Lucie. The key to this epic tale of Jay Horwitz’s butt-dialing [8]? It’s that Horwitz kept mistakenly sending flight itineraries intended for a Mets administrative assistant named Dianne to a Mets third baseman named David. Because he’s who he is, Wright figured out who Dianne was and patiently emailed each misdirected message to her. Stand on the field near Wright before a Mets game and what will strike you most of all is the exhausting frenzy of attention that surrounds him. Every time Wright moves, dozens of eyes follow him. Every time he pauses, voices call out his name frantically. Mets people are always at his elbow, quietly asking him to do one more thing. Which he invariably does, gracious where any of the rest of us would have snapped and put up a indignant stop sign or fled.

(My favorite David Wright memory will never make the Diamondvision, because it’s a little thing no one else remembers: Last summer the Mets were in Washington, and Wright wound up near the stands with a ball that had landed foul. He looked into the seats and looking back were a) a pretty young woman in a Nats top and b) two schlubby dudes in Mets gear. The pretty woman in the Nats top beamed at Wright. The dudes stood there being schlubby. Wright looked at the woman, hesitated … and handed the ball to one of the Mets fans.)

And hey, David Wright’s still pretty darn good. Some time next season he’ll overhaul Darryl Strawberry [9] in career home runs and claim the only all-time team batting mark that still eludes him. One can’t say he’s on his way to a Hall of Fame career, because you never say that at the 10-year mark. But you can say that if Wright comes anywhere close to his last 10 years over his next 10, he’s a shoo-in. Similarly, you can’t say he’ll finish up a storied career in our uniform, because the future remains stubbornly unwritten. But you can say that it’s clear the Mets want him to do that and Wright wants to do that.

Will he be rewarded for that decision with meaningful games in September, return trips to the playoffs and a World Series ring or two? You’d have to ask the Wilpons, the baseball gods and Sandy Alderson, in that order. One certainly hopes so, for his sake. (We’d be happy too.) I can imagine a graying, slightly thicker David Wright putting his first baseman’s glove in his locker and talking about how great the fans have been and how much he’s loved New York City. Then someone asks him if he regrets never playing in a World Series. Wright nods, his brow knits for a moment and his eyes go far away. And then he starts talking about fate and luck and enjoying the game and playing it right. His answer isn’t illuminating, but he doesn’t duck the question, and he smoothly steers the discussion back to how great the fans have been and how much he’s loved New York City. And then when nobody needs anything else from him, the lights turn off and he can finally go.