The 2017 Mets might just be bound for glory. Will David Wright, the best position player in franchise history, be joining them?
Wright, now 34, was diagnosed with career-threatening spinal stenosis in 2015 (he missed 115 games that season) and had surgery on a herniated disc in '16 (and missed another 115). This spring, while preparing for a measured comeback, he was found to have an impingement in his right shoulder. At present, he cannot throw without pain and has not put a timetable on his return. His career, again, is in jeopardy; though he is under contract with the Mets until 2020, it is hard to imagine him ever rehabilitating himself to the point that he can reassume the responsibilities of an everyday third baseman.
The timing of his injury must sting further. Flush with dominant young pitching, stiffened by a brigade of credible veteran bats, the Mets—knock on wood—have not reached even the midpoint of one of the rare happy cycles in the franchise’s life.
I do mean rare: From 1989 to 2014, the Mets made all of three playoff appearances, and all but two of the 55 seasons in franchise history have ended with someone else winning the World Series. Ragged ineptitude, after all, is the franchise’s founding principle. The Mets specialize in sudden, painful and underserved reversals of fortune. They crush us, because they don’t know what else to do, and still we come back, because, well, just maybe this one time things will go another way.
The Mets' title drought hit 30 last year. I figured that 2009 stood alone among those campaigns for the futility and humiliation it produced. (I was a toddler during ’93, but I’ve heard stories.) The Mets had missed out on playoff spots in 2007 and '08 by a combined two games, but in '09 they missed by 22. From ’06 to ’08, they outscored their opponents by an average of 80 runs a season; in ’09, they were outscored by 86. It was the year the team finally moved into a new stadium (it turned out to be cavernous and charmless) and the year the bullpen’s back end was supposed to be fixed (closer Francisco Rodriguez had the worst year of his career, and setup man J.J. Putz hit the DL for good in June with an ERA over five). It was the year that Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and Jose Reyes played in a combined 143 games, and Livan Hernandez, Oliver Perez, Tim Redding and Mike Pelfrey combined for 85 starts at a 5.39 ERA. It was the year the Mets led the league in payroll but had no depth, and the year a member of the front office challenged, shirtless, the entire Double A club to a fight.
That brings me back to Wright, the only player employed continuously by the team from 2009 to the present—the link between that mess and this bunch. That 2009 season was the year I found myself on hand at Citi Field one Saturday afternoon in August, high above third base, to witness the low point of that wretched season, the cruelest injury I’ve ever seen live. I can’t forget it: In the fourth inning, a 93-mph fastball from Giants starter Matt Cain struck Wright squarely in the side of his helmet. It wasn’t intentional—the count was 0-2, and Cain hit only two other batters all season—but it was violent. The pitch tailed up and in, chasing Wright with speed and spin. He stayed down for a minute, left the game and would spend 15 days on the disabled list with a concussion.
When Wright returned, he did so wearing a so-called Great Gazoo helmet, twice as big as a normal one, in theory to protect against a second concussion. He ditched it after a few days of merciless ridicule. He was hitting .324 when he got hurt, his season the only part of that year that had gone according to plan, then hit .239 the rest of the way.
It’s too pat to say that the concussion changed Wright for good. The stenosis diagnosis is a unrelated and serious one, and he has looked at moments like the hitter he once was. In 2015, he homered in his first game back from the disabled list, and again during the first home game of the World Series. But the injury does divide Wright’s career well enough. At the end of the 2009 season, Wright had played 847 games over 5 1/2 seasons, and his career numbers stood at .309/.389/.518. In the seven seasons since, over 736 games, he’s hit .282/.362/.460. He walks less, strikes out more and almost never drives the ball. He’s not a bad player, but he is a diminished one. (Diminishment happens to be a motif on the infield’s left side; the bulk of what would have been Wright’s playing time figures to go to Reyes, the former four-time All-Star and fan favorite, who landed back on the team at a bargain price only because Colorado cut him at midseason last year after a 51-game suspension for an alleged domestic violence incident.)
Until the day Cain beaned him, Wright had passed an unimaginably charmed career. He was beloved by Mets fans and the New York media—neither is a small feat—and had developed near-mastery of the game. He had three straight top-ten MVP finishes and two straight (albeit dubious) Gold Gloves, all stunning even before accounting for New York’s decades-long inability to find a decent third baseman. Mets fans not unreasonably envisioned a plaque in Cooperstown. What he had done was unlike anything they had ever seen; it was, well, it wasn’t very Mets.
The hamstrung career that followed the beaning—replete with injuries and strikeouts, spent on a team that was rebuilding slowly and painfully and impecuniously—ought to have belonged to someone else. But it was familiar.
“If this is the most adversity I am going to have to face in my life, it’s not that bad in the grand scheme of things,” Wright told the press last week in Florida. He is hopeful. He is lining up for what will almost certainly be more indignity and pain, because maybe—just maybe—things will go another way. He is, for sure, one of us.