It seems like only yesterday that David Wright was entering the New York Mets' clubhouse as a highly touted rookie and his veteran teammates were subjecting him to the obligatory rites of passage. In the early days, Wright's duties consisted of playing third base and batting fifth or sixth in the order, carrying Cliff Floyd's luggage, fetching coffee for the relievers and taking an abundance of grief from a certain left-handed closer with a Brooklyn accent.
"I can remember Johnny Franco giving me a bunch of crap on a daily basis," Wright says. "You look around and think, 'It's amazing that was eight or nine years ago."'
While we're on the subject of amazing, Wright now ranks ninth among active position players in games played for a single club (see chart). Mike Piazza, Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine have passed from the scene in Flushing and are awaiting the call from Cooperstown. The Art Howe, Willie Randolph and Jerry Manuel regimes are fading memories. Former Mets general manager Omar Minaya is senior vice president of baseball operations for the San Diego Padres. And Wright is still plugging away with the Mets.
He's had his name splashed across the side of a Delta Air Lines MD-88 shuttle plane, dated a model or two, raised lots of money for charity through his foundation and sold enough Vitaminwater to fill a municipal reservoir. He's changed ballparks, tinkered with his swing, played through injuries and been maligned by Mets owner Fred Wilpon (sort of). And that bare-handed catch against Brian Giles in 2005 still ranks with anything in the Omar Vizquel catalogue.
With his next RBI, Wright will have 734 and move past Darryl Strawberry for first place among Mets. He needs 32 runs scored to break Jose Reyes' club record of 735, and 154 hits to surpass Ed Kranepool's franchise benchmark of 1,418. Life is a series of media notes and JumboTron moments.
Next week Wright's old left-side-of-the-infield mate, Reyes, will return to New York as a member of the Miami Marlins. Reyes is hitting in front of Hanley Ramirez in the batting order and playing for a club that's awash in big money and hype. Wright, meanwhile, leads the majors with a .500 batting average for a team that has exceeded expectations at 7-5. That's partly because fans have become conditioned to having no expectations for the Mets.
When Mike Pelfrey, Dillon Gee or Jonathon Niese pitches, eight of the nine players in manager Terry Collins' lineup are homegrown. That injection of youth is invigorating to Wright, who turned 29 in December and is the team's second-oldest regular behind Jason Bay while Andres Torres rehabilitates from a calf injury.
"I love it," Wright says. "Maybe we don't have the talent or experience or household names that other teams have. But give me guys that work the way these guys work and play the way we try to play the game, and I'll sign up for that."
Met for life?
Will Wright be signing anything else in the foreseeable future? In the past year, Matt Kemp, Jered Weaver, Matt Cain, Joey Votto, Andrew McCutchen, Brandon Phillips, Yadier Molina and Ryan Zimmerman, Wright's old Virginia buddy, are among the players who have signed big-money deals with their current teams to avoid free agency. The Mets even shelled out a guaranteed $25.5 million over five years on a contract extension for Niese.
But the long-term forecast for Wright in New York remains hazy. If the uncertainty drags on much longer, he might have to join Josh Hamilton, Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke, Andre Ethier and Brian McCann in a contract purgatory support group.
Wright's six-year, $55 million contract expires this winter. The Mets have a $16 million option for 2013, but Wright can void it if the team trades him during the season. He made copious mental notes last year while watching the ongoing drama surrounding Reyes. He dressed at the neighboring locker, and watched Reyes get peppered with questions about his future. To avoid that scenario, Wright summoned the media in spring training and said he would address his contract situation once and only once. Hey, it was worth a shot.
"It's hard enough playing this game," Wright says. "It's a lot harder when you're asked questions every day that you really have no control over. I'm not a free agent. I'm under contract this year and the team has control of me for next year. I have zero options right now. For me it doesn't make sense to continue to discuss something when I have no control over it and the ball is in the front office's court."
Some Mets watchers have observed that Wright is more guarded and less inclined to schmooze with the media than in recent years, but he needs to pick his spots to retain his sanity. In recent years, the Mets have probably been involved in more manufactured controversies than any team in baseball. And when reporters want a player's take on the 9/11 cap dispute or the Walter Reed hospital visit fiasco, they're conditioned to circle Wright's locker. Wright has yet to address the controversy over whether the Mets should sell kosher hot dogs at Citi Field during Friday night and Saturday afternoon games, but you never know.
In May 2011, at the height of the Bernie Madoff mess, Wilpon did an interview with Jeffrey Toobin for The New Yorker. Among other things, he observed that Reyes didn't deserve Carl Crawford money, Carlos Beltran was overpaid, and Wright's ability didn't match his golden-boy reputation.
"A really good kid," Wilpon told the magazine. "A very good player. Not a superstar."
That wasn't exactly the confidence boost Wright needed, given that he was on the DL with a back injury and the Mets were muddling along below .500 at the time. But he sent a very polite and courteous email to The Wall Street Journal and tried to remain above the fray.
"It was like a week-long thing," Wright says in hindsight. "Every day people would ask, 'What do you feel about it today?' Then the next day they would say, 'How do you feel today? Has it sunk in yet?'
"I've been through enough in New York to know you need to have thick skin. You'd prefer that your owner not say those types of things. But we started out awful, we were losing game after game, and I understand the frustration. The comments really, truly didn't hurt my feelings in any way. The biggest thing is, I would rather just prepare to play baseball and not have to answer questions about what kind of player I am."
The same old Wright
Wright seemed like such a nice, grounded, family-oriented kid when he arrived in New York, and he tries to stay true to his roots. Each offseason, he goes home to his native Virginia to clear his head and prepare for the season in a distraction-free environment. Wright has worked with the same trainer, Robert Reyes, since he was 18, and each winter he returns to the same high school field and focuses on hitting basics with Nick Boothe, the coach at Virginia Wesleyan University.
The early results are encouraging, to put it mildly. In a 14-6 loss to Atlanta on Wednesday, Wright singled, doubled and reached base at least twice for the ninth straight game. The last player to put together a streak that long to begin a season: Mike Cameron of the 2002 Seattle Mariners.
Wright, by all accounts, altered his approach and became more pull-happy in his first two seasons at Citi Field, but Mets hitting coach Dave Hudgens has made two helpful changes this spring. Last year, Wright was over-rotating his hips and driving his left shoulder toward first base to the extent that his back was almost facing the pitcher as he prepared to swing. He's eliminated much of that excess movement, and it's allowed him to be quicker and see the ball better as it leaves the pitcher's hand. At Hudgens' suggestion, Wright has also lowered his hands slightly in his stance.
It's a small sample size, but so far, so good. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Wright has chased about one of every 5.5 pitches outside the strike zone -- compared to about one in four from 2009-11. He's seen a total of 40 curveballs, changeups and sliders from right-handed pitchers this season and been very discerning. He has only three misses on his 20 swings against the off-speed stuff.
Wright knows he can get himself in trouble when he swings "a thousand miles an hour," as he puts it. Four games into the season, he suffered a broken right pinky against the Washington Nationals. When he gets overzealous at the plate, the shooting pain in the finger reminds him that he needs to tone it down a little bit. The Mets moved in the fences at Citi Field this year to make life more equitable for hitters. But regardless of ballpark dimensions, Wright is at his best when he's not so pull-happy. Of Wright's first 17 hits this season, seven have been right up the middle. Only 28 of his 99 hits last season fit that description.
"That's his game," says an AL scout. "He has power to right-center, but balls that used to go out at Shea were dying in the new park. He still has to stay with that approach and get his doubles. It's going to make him a better hitter if he's using the whole field, because you want to take that same approach when you go on the road."
As Wright waits for his future to play out, the kids on the New York roster watch him on and off the field and take their cues on how to compartmentalize and focus on the business at hand.
"You can't please everybody," says Mets first baseman Ike Davis. "You can't sign every autograph. You can't talk to everybody. You can't do that or you'd never have time to be yourself. But he does it unbelievably well. He handles a huge load, and I'm sure that can be stressful and take away from the time when he wants to relax and just think about what he needs to do. All us young guys listen to what he says."
It's not easy being the franchise face in Flushing. When Robinson Cano broke in with the Yankees in 2005, he had the luxury of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera and other veteran players dominating the headlines and giving him cover. Wright, in contrast, watched all the Mets' veterans gradually leave the premises, anointing him as clubhouse spokesman by default. The role of team leader can be a burden at times. But after eight-plus years and 1,115 games in New York, he retains a healthy perspective about the place.
"Everybody enjoys and loves the perks that come along with playing in New York," Wright says, "but you have to be willing to accept that you're going to be in that fishbowl and under that microscope, especially when things aren't going so well. I understood that at a relatively young age."
Wright has emerged from the character test as an older and wiser Met. Two weeks don't make a season. But he just might be better than ever.