NEW YORK — It was 14 years, two months, and nine days ago that David Wright debuted for the Mets, beaming and fresh-faced, against a team that doesn’t exist anymore in a stadium that would be razed a little more than four years later.
Accompanying his arrival back then, ominously, was the endless fanfare that had trailed so many Mets prospects before him. The Mets had been infamous up to that point for—well, they had been infamous for a lot of things… among them an enduring struggle to find a third baseman and a tendency to overpromise with prospects. Wright was sold as nothing less than Scott Rolen and Derek Jeter rolled into one. Disappointment, correlated as it had been with hype, loomed. Instead, within a month, the 21-year-old was the team’s best hitter. He was not only gifted but precocious, with power to all fields and a glove to depend on.
I didn’t get out to witness him until late that September. The Mets were wrapping up a third straight lost season, one that would in time claim the jobs of the manager and general manager. But I had been promised a Shea trip (my first!) for my 14th birthday, to see Wright and Jose Reyes (exiled then to second in deference to Kaz Matsui, yet another Mets never-was), and no record would have been bad enough to keep me away. I wanted to watch Wright crowhop out to third, thunder the ball over the rightfield fence, snag a grounder down the line while diving… to see things I hadn’t seen before. He went 0-for-4 on that Sunday afternoon, but I had enough fun in the field box behind first base that I prevailed upon my father to bring me to Shea another 20 times in the next few years, as Wright, Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Pedro Martinez, and all the rest dragged the team back to relevance.
A different impulse—something like duty crossed with longing—summoned nearly 44,000 of us to Citi Field Saturday night, for a game against the Marlins that was in everything but name Wright’s farewell. (It was also Fireworks Night.) This time, we didn’t expect anything new; we just wanted to see what we had seen reliably for a decade but not in years, No. 5 manning third and batting third, one last time.
Ours is an age of sports-medical miracles, of elbows resurrected and knees that will not quit; the notion that something so foreign as spinal stenosis would decimate a player so steady and vital as Wright would have seemed unthinkable had it been sprung on us all five years ago. Dependability had been Wright’s signature trait: From 2005 to 2009, he played in 634 of the Mets’ 648 games; slumps and tweaks and bruises couldn’t bump him from the lineup, not even in those seasons when his teammates would drop like flies. You could imagine him, as he aged, sliding across the diamond to first, turning into a singles hitter, needing extra days off. But retiring at 35? Battling through months of rehab to play a five-inning farewell? How could that have been the fate of David Wright?
Wright, who had sobbed two weeks prior while announcing how his career would end, declared that Saturday would be a night for celebration, not tears. He wanted his young daughters to get a chance to watch him play, and he wanted a chance to thank Mets fans.
And as the night played out, it became clear that Wright had gotten what he wanted. When he bounded out to third, as he had done 1,570 times before, the crowd clamored with October’s intensity. When he took his first turn at bat—with Reyes on third—the crowd stood for its entirety. (He walked.) When Marlins catcher Bryan Holaday bounced out to third in the second inning, retired at first by Wright’s across-the-diamond strike, it was as though the Mets had just one out left to get in a perfect-game bid. Wright fouled out to first in his second and final plate appearance; for the rest of the game fans hounded the Marlins’ Peter O’Brien for having the temerity to catch the pop-up.
The Mets pulled Wright after that at-bat. He spun around slowly, saluting each section of fans. Amed Rosario, the 22-year-old second-year shortstop tagged with expectations familiar to Wright, entered the game in his place. A “THANK YOU, DAVID!” cheer erupted, petered out, and then for a moment came back, before dying down for good.
As the pageantry gave way to a humdrum September Mets-Marlins game—an affair that remained scoreless for over four hours, at that—I began counting my regrets. Hindsight revealed how much of Wright’s career (too much!) we all had spent bemoaning what he and the team were not. Why had he become so strikeout-prone? Why can’t he stay healthy? What happened to his power? His arm? Why had he struggled in the playoffs? No one was asking those questions, or anything like them, on Saturday night.
But while watching a group of Met afterthoughts flail against Miami’s pen, a different question dogged me: How had my age managed to double since that Sunday afternoon when I first beheld Wright? How were the Mets’ elder statesmen now no more than four or five years my senior? Time had done a number not just on Wright but on every last one of us in the ballpark. The game dragged on. Austin Jackson hit a game-winning gapper in the 12th. I couldn’t wait for the fireworks to come and drown out my thoughts.