David Wright is the man, and yet he is always perceived as a boy. To Mets fans, he’s a beloved son, forever the impossibly earnest rookie who charmed hearts with his childhood memories of attending Norfolk Tides games. To team ownership, he’s “A really good kid. A very good player. Not a superstar,” as Mets owner Fred Wilpon infamously remarked to The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin in 2011. (In the aftermath, Wright told reporters that his parents had texted to assure him that he was their superstar.) And on Saturday night, after appearing in the Mets starting lineup for the first time in 855 days and also for the last time, Wright stood on the field and looked like a child who had been allowed to stay up late but was now, understandably, stalling at bedtime.
On September 13, the Mets held a press conference in which Wright sat between team COO Jeff Wilpon and assistant GM John Ricco and acknowledged that, as a result of all his “debilitating” injuries and surgeries, he had reached the end of his major league baseball journey. The team also announced that Wright, who had been on a rehab assignment in the minors this August, would be activated for one last MLB homestand, and would start one final game for a couple of at-bats. On Friday night, fans got a quick peek at Wright, who pinch-hit once in the fifth inning of an eventual 8-1 Mets loss to Miami, grounding out to third base. But Saturday night was the marquee farewell event, an otherwise meaningless contest against the Marlins that drew a sellout crowd looking to say goodnight to their sweet prince. Wright made it clear that he didn’t want to be going just yet.
Alternate angle: David Wright leaves the field to a thunderous ovation pic.twitter.com/gJ5gT3X7ao— SportsNet New York (@SNYtv) September 30, 2018
When he was pulled in the fifth inning after his planned two plate appearances, he walked slowly and circuitously toward the dugout; he man-hugged everyone. He smiled and fist-bumped his heart and blinked back tears and circled back for one last wave, a curtain call to the curtain call. He didn’t want it to end, because why would he? For years, he plugged away to rehab his back, and his neck, and his shoulder, all with the goal of someday, somehow putting on a Mets uniform again. This wasn’t quite what he had in mind, though.
The great tragedy of David Wright is that behind that kid-in-a-candy-store smile, beneath that chipper boyish demeanor, is the broken body of a much older man. “It has certainly been challenging mentally,” Wright said at the September 13 press conference, “for your mind and your heart to say ‘go go go,’ and your body to say, ‘not today.’” At this very moment, he is almost certainly in a world of hurt as a result of this goodbye homestand. On an emotional level, the same could be said about all the Mets fans struggling to bid this kid adieu.
Wright was 21 when he was called up by the Mets, 23 when Carlos Beltrán struck out looking to send the Cardinals to the World Series, and 24 the following year when the team went through one of the great (“great”) late-season collapses of all time. He was still just a young lad then; he had so much in store. In 2007 and 2008—both seasons in which the Mets missed the playoff by a single game—he was both a Silver Slugger and a Gold Glover. If he kept it up, he’d be on a Hall of Fame pace. He avoided the disabled list until 2009, when he took a Matt Cain fastball to the head and missed two weeks with a concussion. In hindsight, two weeks was nothing: Leading up to this past weekend, Wright hadn’t played in the big leagues in more than two years.
Wright was an exemplary employee for his entire career, leading the Mets on the field and being an almost incomprehensibly kind-hearted and generous human in the clubhouse and in the press room and in children’s hospitals from New York to his home state of Virginia. He was also a good soldier: In the same controversial New Yorker interview in which Fred Wilpon called Wright not a superstar, Wilpon’s brother-in-law, Saul Katz, made a comment about how owning a baseball team could reap benefits in the non-baseball part of his business. “You take the chairman of the board of a bank,” Katz said, “with his grandson, on the field to meet David Wright, and make that grandfather a hero.” Wright almost never seemed to say no to these sorts of requests. (Fox Sports’ Kevin Burkhardt, who used to cover the Mets, wrote on Twitter that only once out of the “8 million times” he asked Wright for access did the player not have a few minutes to spare. “And he apologized for it that next day,” Burkhardt wrote.) And despite being part of a franchise that often couldn’t get out of its own way, he mostly resisted letting the constant drama permeate his sunny disposition. When he got injured, he had a similar emotional, if not physical, resilience.
His list of ailments offers a glimpse into the horrors of bodily betrayal: a stress fracture near his spine in 2011; recurring hamstring issues; a diagnosis in 2015 of lumbar spinal stenosis, an unbearably painful condition that ended the career of Lenny Dykstra and is similar to the degenerative disk issue that forced Don Mattingly to retire; a herniated disk in his neck that required a season-ending surgery in 2016, which led to a shoulder flare-up that required another surgery a year later. Perhaps the saddest and most what-could-have-been details of all are the box scores from Wright’s last days as an active Met, before he was diagnosed with the neck injury in 2016: home runs in three straight games.
As a minor leaguer back in the day, Wright tended to play much better on the road than at home; when team officials tried to figure out why, they realized that he was spending too much time at the ballpark hitting and warming up before home games. More than a decade later, when the Mets made the 2015 World Series, Wright arrived at Citi Field eight hours before Game 3, but this time it was different: his preparation was no longer related to youthful exuberance, but rather to middle-aged necessity. Eight hours was about how long it took for him and a staff of trainers to cajole his poor body into game-ready shape.
Wright hit a two-run homer in his first home World Series at-bat later that night, adding one more—one last?—goosebumps moment to a career that was once full of them. There was the barehanded catch in San Diego, and the rare walk-off hit against Mariano Rivera, and the performance in the World Baseball Classic that earned him the nickname “Captain America.” There was also the time in 2015 that Wright was cleared to play again following his diagnosis of spinal stenosis. He showed up in the team hotel in Philadelphia that day, wearing his full uniform and bearing cookies for his teammates, and then went out that night and hit a 428-foot home run in his first at-bat, finishing the game 2-for-5 with three runs scored. (In fairness, he also committed two errors at third.) The Mets were inspired to finish that game with eight homers and a 16-7 victory over their NL East rival.
On Saturday night, there were no such heroics: Wright drew a walk on a full count in his first plate appearance and hit a pop-up to foul territory near first base in his second. (Miami’s Peter O’Brien, who caught the routine ball, was extremely aggressively booed by Citi Field fans for the remainder of the night.) Wright got his uniform dirty, sliding into second base; he fielded a ball at third and sidearm-threw it to first. After the game, Wright chose to look on the bright side: “At least I have an on-base percentage this year,” he said. Fittingly for the Mets organization, which this season earned the glorious distinction of completely squandering a Cy Young–worthy showcase of a year from pitcher Jacob deGrom, the game itself was abysmal. Fans who wanted to see Wright’s farewell speech had to linger for more than four hours, past midnight, and endure 12 and a half innings of 0-0 baseball until Austin Jackson’s walk-off double put a merciful end to the unimportant portion of the night.
“Man, I’m glad we won,” Wright said when he finally reappeared on the field, this time with a microphone. “This is love. I can’t say anything else. This is love.” Later, in his postgame press conference, he struck a slightly more melancholy tone. “I can’t sit here and tell you that I’m good with where I’m at right now,” he said. “That would be a lie. That would be false. You love something so much and you want to continue that.” It was the end of an era—of two eras, really. Wright was the only Met to have appeared in both of the team’s recent(ish) playoff runs, the 2006 showing that seemed, at the time, like the beginning of so, so much more; and the 2015 romp that now feels like it happened so, so long ago.
Wright was away from the Mets for such a long time that he and his wife, Molly Beers, had two daughters in the interim. He repeatedly said, in the weeks leading up to Saturday night, that one of his primary motivations as he embarked on his rehab journey was for his girls to see him as he has always seen himself: as a New York Met. His younger daughter, Madison, is just a lil baby; she won’t remember the night. But there’s a chance that his 2-year-old Olivia, whose middle name is Shea, for the stadium where her dad began his career, might one day have a few distant memories of her role in the festivities.
Olivia Shea Wright throws out tonight's first pitch. pic.twitter.com/ajFaARXxgo— SportsNet New York (@SNYtv) September 29, 2018
Walked onto the field by Wright’s parents, Rhon and Elisa, little Olivia received a baseball half the size of her head in order to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. Wright crouched behind home plate, waiting. It was mildly nerve-racking to watch: toddlers are unreliable actors, and she was as likely to throw a tantrum as she was to throw the ball. (Wright later estimated that the odds were even worse than that: “I gave that about a 10 percent chance,” he said after the game.) But with her tiny arm she hurled the ball a few feet, and Wright bounded forward, beaming, and scooped up both Olivia and the ball. There he was for the last time, in the lineup at Citi Field, baseball’s “really good kid” now holding a kid of his own, about to begin the rest of his life as someone’s goofy, grinning ol’ dad, even if he’ll always be the New York Mets’ favorite son.