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29 September, 2018

Bye-Bye, Captain. How David Wright Gave the Mets What They Were Looking For Since 1962


  It’s a long and inglorious list. 
  It’s a list laden with “Oh… I Remember Him” guys and “Who??” guys. 
  It also includes a number of “Used To Be,” “Could Have Been,” and “Never Was” guys.
  To be fair, there were a handful of “Glad He’s On Our Team” guys on the list too. 
  The "List" is the list of men who have played third base for the New York Metropolitan franchise. 170 names long. 
  Founded in 1962, the Mets came out of the gates blazing with Don Zimmer (Yup, that Don Zimmer) as their guy at third. Zim set the bar at Even The World's Greatest Limbo Artists Can't Go This Low levels by going 4-55 before he was shipped off to Cincinnati.
It didn't get much better after Zim left town. The Mets didn’t have someone play back-to-back seasons of 100+ games at the position until 1973 and 1974. Wayne Garrett did the honors. A fan favorite for sure, but Wayno wasn’t reminding anyone of Brooks Robinson or Eddie Matthews. However, when Garrett’s time as a Met ended in 1976, he was their all-time leader in games played at the position with 711. The revolving door on the hot corner was in constant motion during the ensuing seasons. Lenny Randle, Elliott Maddux Joel Youngblood, Sergio Ferer, and Joe Torre (Yup, that Joe Torre) to name a few, did the honros.
  Through all that torch-passing, the mantle was handed to Hubie Brooks in 1981. Prior to that, 66 different guys had played third for the Mets. 66! A few years later Ray Knight briefly, but gloriously, held it down with his ’86 World Series MVP campaign. Next, it was bestowed upon Howard Johnson who put up 5 strong offensive seasons, but he often played short or even in the outfield. That said, the 80s finally provided a small level of stability at the position. At the time of Brooks' departure (dealt to Montreal just like Garrett), he was 2nd to Garrett in games played at the position. Johnson would pass them both, sitting atop a large pile of nondescript, marginally accomplished players with a grand total of 835 games played at third base. (Robin Ventura and Edgardo Alfonso classed up the joint in the 90's and early 2000s with their gloves and bats, but they only played 436 and 515 games at third, respectively.)
   As for HoJo, he made his major league debut with the Detroit Tigers on April 14, 1982.  250 days later, David Allen Wright was born in Norfolk, Virginia, setting off a series of events that would lead him to the top of the mountain and the Mets to an unprecedented level of stability at the hot corner. 
   Twenty-one and a half years later, when Wright made his debut, the Mets fans were ready. The glow of back-to-back playoff seasons in ’99 and 2000 had worn off; washed away in 75 and 66 win seasons with Ty Wigginton manning third. 
   Wright was called up on July 21st, 2004. He went 0-4 in his first game, but he met expectations throughout the season, posting excellent numbers. His highlights included his first major league hit, a double. The first of a franchise record 390

and his first big league homer, #1 of 242, second only to Darryl Strawberry’s 252. Apparently, to honor Wayne Garrett and Hubie Brooks, Wright hit that historic tater north of the border in Montreal. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ks00eUSnwhg

   The fuse was lit. Wright was rocket-strapped and Mets fans were ready for the ride. Everyone could see the Mets had finally found their franchise third baseman. 

As I noted in a column I wrote back in 2012 - 

“After Wright's impressive 69 game debut in '04, when he hit .293 with 14 homers and 40 RBI, I told friends that Wright would go down as the greatest position player in franchise history. My logic was not based on the thought that Wright would be a Hall of Fame player, but more on how easy it is to climb the franchise leader ladder. It was obvious that Wright was going to be the face of the franchise moving forward and a 10-year career as a Met was likely. So let's do the math: based on the Mets franchise leaders as of 2004 if Wright had 10 years of 142 hits, 26 HR, 74 rbi, 70 runs and 22 doubles he would be first in all of those categories. Not exactly Cooperstown numbers, so it wasn't a stretch to make that claim. As of this writing, Wright is second in Mets career batting average, 2nd in runs (soon to be first), 3rd in hits (soon to be first), first in total bases, rbi and doubles, 4th in homers (55 behind Strawberry), 3rd in walks (soon to be first) and 5th in stolen bases.”

   Little did I know when I wrote that, 10 more years is all we would really get from Wright, but you could also make a case he is the greatest position player in Mets history. 
An updated look at Wright’s accomplishments shows his name littered all over the Mets career Top 10 page on Baseball Reference 
    
   



 Right from the start of his career, Wright showed an ease at handling New York both on and off the field that was rare. Across town, Yankees fans had seen it with their captain, Derek Jeter. Wright was the Mets fans’ captain, even though he hadn’t earned that title yet. His relaxed charm and demeanor, dry sense of humor and complete understanding of the Mets franchise, its history and its fan base, made him impossible not to like. He was born in the shadows of the Mets AAA team and grew up a Mets fan. He was one of us. The connection was immediate. Wright and fellow young gun, Jose Reyes, gave Mets fans hope that they had a dynamic duo for a decade plus. Their emergence thrilled me because I had a young son who could grow up watching the Wright-Reyes tandem star for the Mets for the majority of his childhood.
   In 2005, Wright delivered one of his signature plays. A bare-handed, over-the-shoulder catch in San Diego. As jaw-dropping a catch as it was, my favorite part was :05 after the catch when he allowed an “awww, shucks” smile to sneak across his face. 
   On that same trip in Seattle, Wright made a catch he prefers over the one in San Diego. There was no smile after this one, just winces of pain and our first true glimpse that Wright was willing to do whatever it took to get a W.

   While certainly capable (and later worthy) of playing Gold Glove-caliber defense, it was Wright’s offense that was opening eyes. From 2005-2009, Wright began to craft his Hall of Fame resume.

2005 - .306/.388/.523.  27 HR, 99 R, 102 RBi, 42 doubles
2006 - .311/.381/.523   26 HR, 96 R, 116 RBI, 40 doubles
2007 - .325/.416/.531.  30 HR, 113 R, 107 RBI, 42 doubles
2008 - .302/.390/.534   33 HR, 115 R, 124 RBI, 42 doubles 

   Those are eye-popping numbers. In that time frame, only A-Rod, Chipper, Miguel Cabrera and Aramis Ramirez had higher slugging percentages for third baseman. Wright was also second in hits, doubles and runs, third in RBI and 5th in homers in that window among his cornerstone peers. He established himself as a superstar and he was a Mets third baseman. Unchartered territory for sure. HoJo had a very nice 1987-1991 stretch, but it wasn’t this and it certainly wasn’t coming with the Gold Glove defense Wright was playing. Nobody in the league was better at charging the slow-roller/bunt, bare-handing the ball and throwing across their body on the run than David. As a kid, I saw clips of Brooks Robinson doing it. Mike Schmidt was the king of it in the 70s and 80s. Ventura was excellent at it as well. It was Wright’s calling card play from the get-go.  

   In 2006, Wright and Reyes helped spearhead a Mets return to the post-season. A dominant 97-win team that ran roughshod over the NL East. That season provided us with great wins, great memories and a great picture of our future enjoying the present as only a pair of 23-year-olds can. 

   Wright also made his first All-Star game in 2006. I was there in Pittsburgh. When Wright came to the plate I turned to Tim Kurkjian and said: “He’s going to double down the left field line.” I should have known better. Wright homered. 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTqr20khUEA

Earlier that season, Wright delivered a huge win for the Mets with a walk-off hit against the Yankees and the great Mariano Rivera. 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1MXG3kwlq2k&t=19s
As Mets fans, we don’t get too many chances to puff out our chest when we play the Yankees, so moments like these, delivered by our home-grown talent, give us great feelings of pride.
  
   2009 brought the Mets to a new home, Citi Field. The Mets, in their infinite wisdom, built a ballpark perfectly tailored to destroy David Wright’s power. Wright had shown himself to have a natural, opposite field power swing, consistently hitting balls to the gap, and over the wall, 371 feet away in right-center field. When Citi Field opened the gap in right-center was 415 deep. That, combined with the Great Wall of Flushing, a left field wall that was 16 feet high, saw Wright’s homer total plummet to a career-worst 10 and his slugging percentage dropped to a paltry .837. Wright did launch one homer that year that truly mattered, the first by a Met in Citi Field. We wouldn’t have it any other way. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOt2NGJEDgI

   While his regular season performance was atypical, Wright did provide a signature moment during the inaugural World Baseball Classic when he delivered the game-winning hit against Puerto Rico, sending the U.S. to the semifinals. For Mets fans, watching our guy come through for our country was a sweet nectar the likes of which we rarely get to taste… pure joy.

    
  The power returned for Wright in 2010, but not entirely at home. Wright hit 17 of his 29 homers on the road that season, and only 5 of his blasts went to the opposite field. Compare that to 2007 when 24 of his 30 homers went to center field or right field. 

   The Mets themselves went through another stagnant stretch for the next few years. From 2010-2014 the Mets averaged 76 wins a season, and Wright was equally inconsistent, thanks in part to injuries. 

  In 2013, Wright added two titles to his resume: Captain and Captain America. 
For the Mets, naming Wright captain was a no-brainer. He had signed a 7-year contract extension in November 2012 and had been the face of the franchise for quite some time. (He would win an MLB contest and be named baseball’s #1 Face of the Franchise in 2014). 
  The Captain America designation came during the World Baseball Classic when Wright delivered a signature grand slam against Italy and continued his WBC “clutchness” from 4 years prior. 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOWkXAzwCPk

*** Fun fact - Wright is presently the only captain in MLB ***

   Also in 2013, Wright would start in the All-Star game at Citi Field, making his 7th and final All-Star game appearance. Only three other Mets have appeared in that many. (Seaver, Strawberry, Piazza). While Matt Harvey got the big roar as the starting pitcher for the N.L and hometown team, it was Wright who got the heartfelt ovations. 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2h6jIv18Sc

   The remainder of Wright’s hero journey was sidetracked by injury. Hamstring, shoulder, hamstring again and then the big one, the spinal stenosis. It was difficult to watch him on the field as he sidearm lollipopped throws to first and his opposite field power drained. It was equally painful not watching him on the field most of the 2015 season as the Mets marched to the playoffs. 
  Over the last few seasons, Wright has worked incredibly hard to stay on the field, putting in hours of pre-game prep in order to play. So when Wright came through against the Dodgers and then the Cubs in the first two rounds of the 2015 playoffs, it was extra sweet for Mets fans. We were all thrilled for him when the Mets advanced to the World Series against the Royals. It was a trip Wright had earned. It was a trip Wright deserved. And no, it didn’t provide the result Wright and all Mets fans hoped for, but it did provide him with a moment that he will certainly remember forever… a game 3 blast that brought Citi Field to its knees. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPUZVWD0iOE

  I know it can’t be proven, and I’m sure others will disagree, but for my money, Citi Field has never been louder nor happier than at that moment. 

  Feelings.
  We all have them.
  We don’t all like to talk about them. 
  Some of us hide them. 
  Some of us wear them on our sleeves. 
  In the macho world of sports where adrenaline and competitiveness are the lifeblood, our feelings are the nerves and connective tissue that take us on the rollercoaster of emotions when we watch our teams and players play. 

   When Wright made that diving catch in San Diego, I felt amazed. 
   When Wright and Reyes helped lead the ’06 Mets to the playoffs, I felt elation. 
   When Wright hit the walk-off against Rivera, I felt emboldened. 
   When Wright had his big moments for team USA in the ’09 and ’13 WBCs, I felt pride of team and country. 
   When Wright clobbered this moon shot in Philly in his return from a 4-month DL stint in 2015 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTi4NbJ_NSg I felt, well I felt the interior roof of my car against my fist. I was at my son’s baseball game, watching him but listening to the Mets on the radio in my car. When Howie Rose described the Captain’s blast, “Holy smokes!! The Captain is back!!”,  I thrust my hand into the air, or rather directly into the car’s roof. No matter. I was so fired up I’m surprised I didn’t put my hand through the roof. 
   When Wright hit that homer in the World Series, I felt... everything. Joy. Thrilled. Amazed. Pumped. Mostly I just felt so good for him. He deserved that moment so much. It was the cherry on top of his career cake and a great payoff for all the rehab work he had endured just to get back on the field. 

  So today, when David Wright makes his last major league start, my feelings will be splattered around my den like a Jackson Pollock painting. Nostalgic, sad, proud, nervous, but mostly happy. Happy that I got to watch his career. Happy that the Mets had him for as long as they did. Happy that he not only gave my son someone to grow with as a baseball fan but someone to admire both on and off the field. And happy for him to finish his career not exactly on his terms, but on the terms the current situation best afforded him.
   And when he and Reyes stand side-by-side on the infield and then leave it for the last time, well... let's just say I'll be doing my best Wilmer Flores impression. 

   In the end, David Wright climbed to the top of the Mets third base mountain and stuck a #5 flag firmly atop it with the same emphasis he executed his famous fist-pump in D.C. during the 2015 pennant run. 

 His number will be retired some day and besides #41, it’s arguably the most important in Mets history. Sure, many other great players have had terrific careers for the Mets, some won a championship, but the Mets have only had 3 players play 10+ years in the majors and only play for them. Ed Kranepool, Ron Hodges and David Wright. It's pretty clear who the most important and accomplished player on that list is. 

   Tom Seaver will always be The Franchise, but for a generation of Mets fans, Wright represented our franchise in the best possible way. It won't be enough to get him to Cooperstown, but it did earn him a place in Mets fans hearts forever. 


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