David Wright, incomparable ambassador, earned every minute of his night

NEW YORK -- The boundary separating the very good from the great is wider than the third-base line, and David Wright spent most of his career on the less desirable side of the divide. He was a very good ballplayer, not a great one, and yet he deserved the Citi Field send-off he got Saturday night as much as Derek Jeter deserved his surreal farewell in the Bronx.

Jeter won five World Series titles for the New York Yankees, or five more than Wright won for the Mets, and his walk-off hit against Baltimore near the end of the 2014 season punctuated a first-ballot Hall of Fame career. Though Wright won't be following Jeter to Cooperstown, he earned his emotional goodbye against Jeter's Miami Marlins by representing his team and city with as much grace and dignity as any athlete who ever faced the challenge defined by New York, New York pressure and New York noise.

Forced into a long exile by spinal stenosis, Wright made the kind of return to the field after a 28-month absence that might have offended a purist who sees no room for ceremonial athletes in legitimate competition -- even at the end of September and at the bottom of the National League East. Wright was not the home team's best option, after all, as the No. 3 hitter and starter at third base. His stiff and surgically altered body offered few glimpses of his old athleticism. Wright was a 35-year-old man who moved at a 45-year-old's pace, and the Mets put him out there against Miami so he could play a game, his last game, in front of his two young girls.

The full house that had gathered for fireworks night and for Wright's final act stood and cheered as the Mets' captain trotted out for pregame warm-ups, and again when he ran out alone onto the field -- with his fellow starters remaining in the dugout -- and emphatically stepped on third base before waving for his teammates to join him. Wright would jog down the line, crouch behind the plate, and take a bouncing pitch from his 2-year-old daughter, Olivia Shea, before lifting her into his arms.

Having endured a grueling rehab program to make it upright to this moment, the comeback kid had a rookie's smile on his face the entire night. Wright always played the game as if he couldn't wait for the ice cream cone waiting for him afterward, and Saturday night, he acted like a boy who was planning on at least two or three scoops.

Wright walked in his first at-bat, fielded an easy chopper in the second inning and popped foul to the first-base side in his final at-bat in the fourth. Before the start of the fifth, his manager, Mickey Callaway, walked out of the dugout and ended the captain's career. All night, Wright had hugs and pats and fist bumps for teammates, opponents, umpires and the grounds crew. As he left the diamond for the last time, Wright embraced his old infield partner, Jose Reyes, pounded his chest and his glove and waved his cap to the crowd as the Mets and Marlins applauded him from their dugout rails.

Wright blew a two-handed kiss to the crowd, and the fans responded by chanting his name. After another round of hugs for teammates who had come onto the field, and then a curtain call, the man wearing No. 5 and that big, blue wristband up near his left elbow disappeared down the runway for keeps and found a place to cry in the clubhouse.

"This is amazing; I can't thank you guys enough for sticking around," Wright told the crowd as the midnight hour approached following the Mets' 1-0 victory over Miami in the 13th inning.

"This is love," he continued. "I can't say anything else. This is love."

Even though injuries and surgeries robbed him of prime years, Wright had lived the baseball life he envisioned as a child. Out of Norfolk, Virginia, chasing autographs from the local Triple-A Tides, Wright did not grow up wanting to wear Yankee pinstripes. He was the rare prospect who actually grew up wanting to be a Met.

He thanked the fans for "having my back from day one. ...You guys welcomed me, a 21-year-old kid from Virginia. You welcomed me as a New Yorker."

Wright repaid them by staying true to the big city. The man they called "Captain America" signed for $138 million after the 2012 season, but not before family members pressed him on the wisdom of staying with what had been a loserville franchise. "I think we were asking the same questions the whole city was asking," one of his brothers, Stephen, would tell ESPN.com.

"My biggest concern for David was whether he could take an outsider's point of view, whether he could take himself out of the equation. David is such a loyal guy through and through, so you had to wonder if he was just being extremely loyal to the Mets."

Of course he was being extremely loyal to the Mets -- David Allen Wright couldn't be anything else if he tried. He met with his father, Rhon, a longtime Chesapeake cop, and mother, Elisa, at 456 Fish on Granby Street in Norfolk and explained why he was betting on the Mets while all the sportswriters Rhon was reading on the internet were advising his boy to gamble on someone else. The third baseman said he believed in the franchise's vision of a sooner-rather-than-later trip to the World Series, and in 2015, that vision came to be in a five-game loss to the Kansas City Royals.

Only Wright's body had started breaking down by then, followed by the crumbling of the Mets' grand plan to build a consistent championship contender. Before pinch-hitting Friday night, Wright had last appeared in a big league game on May 27, 2016, when he homered in a victory over the Dodgers. He had asked to return to the starting lineup Saturday night to give his young family a full glimpse of what he used to be, and the Mets made the right call by granting the request.

Since he arrived in 2004, Wright had granted almost every request made by his employer that involved a charitable cause or a down-on-his-or-her-luck fan. The Mets often used their third baseman as a human shield. When they were busy fumbling and bumbling on and off the field, Wright was trotted out as the neighborly and credible face of a malfunctioning product. He never seemed to mind, of course, because David Wright knew he was living his boyhood dream. Only occasionally did he show his dismay over the Mets' place in a Yankee universe or offer the public a quick peek at the competitive fire raging within.

In 2011, owner Fred Wilpon told The New Yorker that Wright was "not a superstar," even though the third baseman was much better at his job than Wilpon was at his. Questioned about the comment at his locker for more than 15 minutes, Wright refused to speak the name of his employer and friend. Informed halfway through the interview that he was referring to the owner as only "he" and "him" and "somebody" and "the ownership group" and "the organization," and not as "Fred," Wright didn't cave. He mentioned an apology he received from Wilpon's son, Jeff, whom he named, and told reporters he deleted a short message on his cellphone left by Fred -- without speaking Fred's name.

Wright re-signed with Wilpon anyway because he wanted to retire a Met, and Saturday night, he went out in style with his parents; wife, Molly; and daughters Olivia Shea and Madison in the stands. He finished his career a little south of a .300 average, a little south of 1,000 RBIs and a little south of 250 home runs, though in his prime, Wright did drive in more than 100 runs in five out of six seasons. When healthy and surrounded with ample talent, he was one hell of a threat.

"Thank you for allowing me to live out my dream in front of you guys each and every single night," he told the Citi Field crowd.

In the end, Wright doesn't go down as a great player. He goes down as a great ambassador, as someone who did his city, his franchise and his family's name proud by treating people up and down the sport's food chain with common decency and respect.

If that isn't good enough to earn an emotional goodbye at the ballpark, what in the world is?