Friday June 26th, 2009

So often, David Wright can seem unflappable. It comes from the confidence of youth, the arrogance of success and the competitiveness of all great athletes, who are always measuring their performance against not just what their peers do but what they think they should be doing.

For a moment during a game last week against the Tampa Bay Rays at Citi Field, it seemed Wright, the Mets All-Star third baseman, had at last let his guard down long enough to reveal some genuine confusion and frustration over his continuing power drought. He ripped a long double off the right-field wall at Citi Field, mere inches from a home run. After sliding into second, he wore a pained expression on his face and bent over, hands on knees for several seconds, the picture of defeat. He later brushed off concerns that he was in pain at that moment or he had hurt himself, and when asked if he was frustrated that he had just missed an elusive home run, a big smile crossed his face, "I'm never frustrated with a double," he said merrily.

If Wright thinks he should have hit more home runs than his shockingly low current total of four, he isn't showing it. In fact, he isn't the only hitter for whom Citi Field has become a graveyard. Getting a ball out of the Mets' new home these days is starting to feel as challenging as staging a prison break. Like the inmate who can see open terrain only to get shot as he tries to scale the wall in the prison yard, batters have watched helplessly as dozens of balls have died on the warning track or bounced off the high left-field wall or been swallowed up in the park's cavernous outfield gaps. One Met said he "could get a ball out of any park" but that his chances at Citi were only good "if I start swinging from second base."

It is a dilemma that stands in stark contrast to their New York City neighbors as the Yankees prepare to invade Citi Field this weekend for the final installment of the 2009 Subway Series. While the new Yankee Stadium has played as if in a jet stream -- 119 home runs have been hit there in just 35 games this year, 13 more than any other ballpark -- Citi Field has played as if in a wind tunnel. Only 60 home runs have been hit there in 36 games this season, the fifth fewest of any park in baseball, and the Mets have hit just 46 home runs all year, only one more than the Giants, who have hit a big league-low 45. Part of it is due to the injuries that have landed top sluggers like Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran on the disabled list, leaving the Mets with an almost powerless lineup with no player having yet to hit more than eight home runs. But even visiting players are not immune. St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols, who leads the majors in at-bats per home run with one every 9.62 ABs, just played four games at Citi Field and failed to hit a ball out in any of his 17 plate appearances. He watched dejectedly at one point as he launched a drive over 400 feet to right-center field only to see it die on the warning track and land in the glove of Mets outfielder Ryan Church.

Church can relate to Pujols' frustration. The first time he saw Citi Field, the first thing he noticed was the not-so-inviting 415-foot signs on the right-center-field wall. His eyes arched, and his heart sank, if only a little. "We had hit that at spring training, where they had a cut out of Citi Field," says Church. "But it just looked so much bigger here."

The Mets have spent the first three months of the season finding out just how big. At one time or another, virtually every player has encountered the same frustrations Wright and Pujols felt as they try to figure out how to hit here. Mets outfielder Gary Sheffield, who is tied for the team lead with eight home runs and is a member of the vaunted 500 Home Run Club, said, "I played in Dodger Stadium and Turner Field, and those are pitchers' parks, but once you play there you learn how the ball carries. If you look at the size, it gets in your head. The smart way to attack this park is not to try to place it. Hit it where it's pitched, learn to take your doubles and the home runs will come."

The field's dimensions are far different Shea Stadium (the team's home from 1964-2008), with deeper power alleys. Mets manager Jerry Manuel said his club has adapted well to its spacious new stadium, which was clearly designed with pitching, traditionally the Mets' biggest strength, in mind. "Our pitchers have pitched intelligently enough to keep the ball in the ballpark and give us a chance to win, and offensively we're not a team designed right now with a lot of power, so I'd say it fits us very well."

Manuel also thinks the dreary spring weather in New York has depressed the home run total, and is waiting for warmer weather to fully determine how the park plays. All of those explanations certainly make sense, but they don't fully explain what has become of David Wright's power stroke. Over the past four seasons at Shea, a noted pitcher's park, Wright hit 27, 26, 30 and 33 home runs. Of his four this year, three have come at home, including the first Mets home run in the ballpark's history. He is averaging one home run every 66 at-bats, more than triple his average from the past four seasons.

Certainly the rest of Wright's offensive game has not suffered. He leads the National League with a .356 batting average, is first in hits with 94 and ranks in the top 10 in doubles, triples, runs, stolen bases, on-base percentage, OPS and walks. He has learned to use Citi Field to his advantage, spraying balls from gap to gap. During a four-hit game against the Cardinals last week, he got two hits to left, one to center and one to right. "This is a big park and there are advantages to playing here," said Wright. "There's a lot of room in the outfield and singles can become doubles and doubles can become triples."

Wright did admit that he has been frustrated at times by the ballpark's size, but added, "I enjoy hitting home runs, but I don't need it in my game to be a success; it's going to all fields to be a situational hitter. This ballpark has allowed us as a team to find what we need to do to be successful and that's taking extra bases. I can be just as successful hitting the ball in the gap."

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