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Prince Of the City

May 29, 2006
May 29, 2006

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May 29, 2006

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Prince Of the City

In David Wright the resurgent Mets have the best of all worlds: a homegrown 23-year-old they can build around and a third baseman who is-on and off the field-almost too good to be true

The two teenagegirls behind the visitors dugout at Shea Stadium are looking for Mr. Wright.The taller girl-the one in the red sweater vest, shiny black capris and aBubblicious-colored necktie-looks as if she maxed out a thrift-shop gift card.Her shorter friend, who's sporting mismatched leggings and a jean jacket worninside out, seems merely to have dressed herself in the dark. ¶ The teenssurvey the playing field, where, an hour before the first pitch, New York Metsthird baseman David Wright is taking infield practice. Mostly, they surveyWright. Their eyes-dreamy, worshipful-glow like cherries in a glass ofbuttermilk. ¶ "David Wright, I love you!" screams the tall girl. Wrightsmiles, turns toward her, waves, turns back and snares a grounder. "I loveyou, David Wright!" screams the small girl. Wright smiles, turns towardher, nods, turns back and snares another grounder. "David Wright!" thegirls scream in unison. "Will you marry us?" Wright turns a livelyshade of vermillion and spears a line drive. ¶ A few minutes later the Met ofthe Moment ruminates on the courting ritual that has become a running joke inthe clubhouse. "When I first got to the majors in 2004, female fans held upsigns asking me to marry them," Wright says, barely concealing hisembarrassment. "Those girls today were what, 13, 14? I'm 23, but that's alittle young even for me." ¶ Roughly half the unwed women in Queens-andabout a third of the unwed queens in Queens-want the budding superstar for ahusband. Many of the borough's married women would be happy just to bear hischildren. "I don't know what it is about David," says utilityman ChrisWoodward. "I mean, he's O.K. looking, but it's not like he's BradPitt."

This is an article from the May 29, 2006 issue Original Layout

What it is, isthis: Beyond his clear-eyed, pugnacious handsomeness, Wright has a combinationof talent, poise and personality that hasn't been seen in a homegrown Met sinceTom Seaver's heyday in the 1970s. This is a guy who routinely arrives at theballpark five hours early for extra BP, whose idea of fun is writing Mother'sDay cards on the team bus, who phones his parents to apologize for on-fieldtantrums, who shows compassion toward a friend stricken with multiple sclerosisby launching a foundation to fight the disease. Mets vice president of mediarelations Jay Horwitz says that in his 26 years in Flushing, Wright is the onlyplayer to start his own charity as a Met. "David never looks for credit,and he never, ever seeks attention," says Triple A catcher Joe Hietpas,Wright's roomie on three farm teams. "Wherever he's played, he's been themost dedicated, the most motivated, the most enthusiastic."

This is also aguy who last year, in his first full big league season, anchored the middle ofthe Mets' lineup by hitting .306 with 27 home runs, 17 stolen bases and ateam-high 102 RBIs. (The only player who beat him in all of those categorieswas the American League MVP, Alex Rodriguez.) "I wish I knew how to pitchthat kid," says Atlanta Braves ace John Smoltz, against whom Wright is 7for 21. "As hard as it is to fathom, he doesn't have a weakness."

This year Wright(.313 batting average, six homers, 28 RBIs and seven steals at week's end) hasemerged as the linchpin of a club with the best record in the National LeagueEast (26-17). "Most prospects who succeed at this level tend to buy intothe hype and lose perspective," says Mets pitcher Tom Glavine. "ButDavid is unlike most prospects. He's got the maturity of a 10-year veteran. Hegets it."

Picked 38th inthe 2001 draft by the Mets, Wright seems to have been built to their fans'specifications. "If you were going to start from scratch and design theperfect New York ballplayer, David is the kid you'd come up with," saysformer third baseman Howard Johnson, now the hitting coach for the NorfolkTides, the Mets' Triple A team. "New Yorkers feel cheated if you don't playhard, get dirty and spill some blood. That's what the shortstop on the Yankeesdoes, and that's what David Wright does."

Wright is alreadythe most popular New York ballplayer this side of Derek Jeter. Described by onebesotted Mets chat-roomer as "pure Eros and moonbeams," he mingles withfans at the players' entrance before and after games as convivially as a socialdirector in a retirement village. "The guy is almost too humble," sayscatcher Paul Lo Duca. "He's so accommodating that I sometimes tell him heneeds to take a break."

On the backs ofShea's spectators, Wright's number 5 has quickly become the jersey ofchoice-outselling those of such established stars as Glavine, Pedro Martinezand Carlos Beltran. "He's extremely polite and generous with his time,"says Dawn Caldora, a 40-year-old housewife who collects autographs whilewearing a Wright jersey and, back home in Brooklyn, keeps a Wright bobbleheaddoll in a wall-unit shrine. Curiously, Wright is a bigger local hero than hisYankees counterpart at third, A-Rod, who despite his gaudy stats and MVP awardsis more admired than embraced. "David Wright," says Caldora, "isone of us."

Wright embracesNew York City the way Woody Allen did in the opening frames of Manhattan. Whenhe coos about the parks, the people, the jagged skyline, you half expect tohear strains of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. "To me, New York is thegreatest baseball stage in the world," he says. "The fans have acertain energy, a passion, a fire that I haven't seen anywhere else."

Mets COO JeffWilpon sees the city returning Wright's affection. "David's a clean-nosedkid with a chance to be a fixture in New York for a long time," Wilponsays, perhaps alluding to two Mets phenoms from the 1980s-Dwight Gooden andDarryl Strawberry-who couldn't keep their noses clean. "David is so good,on and off the field, that he may well become the face of the franchise.Whether that happens will depend on his actions and clutch play."

Clutch play issomething the Mets' faithful came to expect of Wright in 2005, when he hit .538with the bases loaded, and he has continued his heroics this season-including atwo-out, two-run single in the bottom of the ninth inning that lifted the Metsto a 7-6 win over the Yankees last Friday night in the opener of a three-gameseries, and a mammoth homer in Sunday night's 4-3 win. Before Wright's arrival,delivering in the clutch was hardly a trait associated with the hot corner atShea, an outpost that's harbored more fugitives than Rikers Island. One hundredand thirty-one third basemen have served time in the club's 45-year history,including the immortal Sammy Drake, Rich Puig and Tucker Ashford. Don Zimmerwas one of nine who played for the original Amazin's. After he broke an0-for-34 slump with a couple of hits, manager Casey Stengel said, "We gottatrade him while he's hot." Within a few days Zimmer was swapped for Redsthird baseman Cliff Cook, whose shortcomings included an inability to bend downfor grounders.

"David isreally the first legitimate third baseman the Mets ever developed," saysJohnson, who came to New York from the Detroit Tigers after the 1984 season andbecame the Mets' alltime leader in games played at third (835). "He's anatural, with the reflexes to play the corner." Last year, among thirdbasemen, Wright tied for the major league lead with 24 errors. He responded byworking even harder, fielding thousands of extra pregame fungoes. Since the2005 All-Star break his defense has been better, including two gems that werehighlight-reel caliber-one a tumbling, Jeteresque grab of a foul pop along therailing in Seattle; the other a barehanded, over-the-shoulder catch of abroken-bat flare in San Diego.

Through Sunday,Wright had already committed seven errors, including three in one game. Indefense of his defense, however, the infield at Shea has only slightly fewerpotholes than the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. "There's an extra lip infront of the baselines," says Braves third baseman Chipper Jones."Balls that hit the lip bounce like they're on a pogo stick."

Jones likensWright to Scott Rolen, the St. Louis Cardinals' six-time Gold Glove winner."As a fielder, David is as acrobatic as Scott was at that age," Jonessays. "And he's a little ahead of Scott offensively. He can hit foraverage, hit for power and hit to all fields. David doesn't just flick singlesto right; he'll hurt you with a moon shot. For a 23-year-old that's veryrare."

Equally rare isWright's ability to make adjustments, not only from at bat to at bat, but alsofrom pitch to pitch. He's one of the few sluggers who walks nearly as often ashe strikes out (22 free passes, 34 K's at week's end). Of the 767 pitchesWright has seen this season, he has whiffed at only 52. And Wright isparticularly dangerous with two strikes (batting .284 through Sunday, including6 for 10 with an 0-and-2 count). "David won't let a pitcher determine whathe swings at," Glavine says. "He's so disciplined that you can't pitchto him the same way twice."

"David getscompared to all the greats," says Cliff Floyd, the Mets' leftfielder."When you're that good, expectations come. Most young players would beterrified. The funny thing is, David isn't bothered at all. He had a goodupbringing, he listens well and he knows how to empty his head ofdistractions."

Wright was bornin Norfolk, home of the Mets' Triple A Tides. His father, Rhon, now anassistant chief of police, worked the detail at old Met Park in Virginia Beach.He became a dyed-in-the-gut Tides fan, rooting for the players who got calledup to New York. One of David's earliest memories is of the Mets winning the1986 World Series. "I don't recall any plays or games," he says,"but I do recall my dad's cheering and excitement. If he had his way, he'dstill be wearing the same Mets cap and ripped-up team jacket."

Rhon thinks thatbeing the oldest of four brothers gave David an early sense of responsibility,and that trawling for Tides autographs made him appreciate small kindnesses."David saw firsthand that it was easier to get the signature of a mascot ora batboy than a top prospect," he says. "He saw that it doesn't takemuch to sign a program, and that a gesture of goodwill goes a longway."

David's LittleLeague team was the Green Run Padres. It was bad enough that at nine he was theyoungest boy on the roster; worse, his old man was the coach. David wanted toplay short. Rhon stuck him in rightfield, a position David hated. "Davidwas good at short," says Rhon, "but I told him he had to earn his spotin the field and prove he could make the plays."

Clearly, Rhonwasn't your typical Little League father. He believes in time-honoredqualities: courage, perseverance, loyalty, honor. "The idea of puttingDavid in right was to instill humility," he says. Grudgingly, Davidconcedes, "Dad's plan worked." He adds, playfully, "I guess Iwasn't good enough to play infield in Little League, but I'm good enough toplay it in the big leagues."

His childhoodseems full of such stories of respectful behavior. Didn't young David ever doanything ... bad?

"Let methink," says his mother, Elisa. A long pause follows. "Once, in thehigh school cafeteria, another kid hit David with a French fry. David returnedfire with a sandwich and struck the kid right upside the head."

"David got anin-school suspension," says Rhon. "I read him the riot act."

"You madethat food fight sound like the worst thing that possibly could havehappened," Elisa says.

Rhon flashes adiabolical grin. "Yeah," he says. "And after David left thekitchen, you and I laughed about it."

David remembersthe episode with remarkable clarity. He goes into such painstaking detail thatit sounds as if he's trying to clear his conscience. "The truth is, itwasn't a sandwich," he says ruefully. "It was a hamburger."

Wright's mostrecent humiliation occurred last July, at the hands of his mentor, Floyd. Aspart of his entry-level hazing, Wright had to lug the veteran's Louis Vuittonluggage on road trips. He still cringes at one memory of taking the bagsthrough security at LaGuardia Airport and getting grilled by an airportscreener.

The agentrummaged through one of Floyd's suitcases and pulled out three pairs of tinynail scissors.

"Are theseyours?" she asked.

Wright winced."Uh, yes," he said.

The screenerreached in again and withdrew enough gold chains to buy Minneapolis and St.Paul. "Are these yours?" she asked.

"Uh,yes."

She plunged inyet again and drew forth copies of Ebony, Jet, XXL, King, Smooth, Essence,Black Enterprise, Black-Gen, Black Men's Swimsuit Extra....

"And Isuppose these are yours, too?"

Wright loweredhis head and whispered, "Yes, ma'am."

Floyd was at theback of the line and missed the interrogation. "When David told me what hadhappened," he says, "I laughed and laughed and laughed." Still,Wright carried Floyd's bags the rest of the season without complaint."David told me he was happy to," says Floyd. "Nothing fazes thekid."

Even a salarysnub. In March the Mets stuck to their structured pay formula and renewedWright's contract at $374,000, not much above the league minimum. "I didn'tagree, but that's life," he says with a small sigh. "I make a lot moremoney than both my parents combined, so, to my mind, I've got it pretty good.How many other 23-year-olds get to play a game for a living and act like a kid?The worst day on a ball field is better than the best day in anyoffice."

What will happenif Wright grows up and the game grows old? "I refuse to have a bitter tastein my mouth about this game," he says, flatly. "As soon as baseballbecomes a job, as soon as I stop caring, as soon as the smile goes away, I'llhang up my spikes and do something else."

A thousandplayers have said that, but this one makes it sound like a promise.

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

Paying Dividends

After lookinglike a $119 million bust in his first season with the Mets, Carlos Beltran ishaving what could be a career year

WHILE DAVIDWRIGHT is emerging as the face of the Mets, centerfielder Carlos Beltran(right) still commands the better part of the franchise's wallet: Theseven-year, $119 million deal he signed in January 2005 is the richest in teamhistory. Though he had a disappointing debut season in New York (.266, 16 homeruns, .330 OBP), Beltran's start this year has made the Mets' hefty investmentseem sound. Despite missing 10 games with a strained right hamstring, he had 11homers through Sunday-putting him on pace to surpass his career high of 38-aswell as more walks (27) than strikeouts (26), a feat he has never pulled off inhis eight-year career. Beltran's .588 slugging percentage would also be apersonal best. And after being caught stealing six times in 23 tries last year,he has resumed his highly effective ways on the base paths: He was 6 for 6 instolen base attempts, raising his career success rate to 88.1%, by far the bestin major league history (below). Beltran had done all this while batting just.252, which would be his lowest average since 2000. If he can hit 25 pointsbetter while maintaining his home run and walk rates, the 29-year-old Beltranwill join Jim Edmonds and Andruw Jones as the National League's best all-aroundcenterfielders.

HIGHEST CAREERSTOLEN BASE PERCENTAGE (MINIMUM 100 ATTEMPTS)

PLAYER, SEASONSSBCS*SB%
CARLOS BELTRAN, 1998-20062152988.1%
POKEY REESE, 1997-20041442684.7%
TIM RAINES, 1979-200280814684.7%
ERIC DAVIS, 1984-20013496684.1%
HENRY COTTO, 1984-931302683.3%

*Caught stealing was not regularly kept in the AL until 1920 and in the NLuntil 1951

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See where the Mets are in John Donovan's PowerRankings every Monday at SI.com/baseball.

Says Johnson, "If you were going to start fromscratch and design the PERFECT New York ballplayer, David is the kid you'd comeup with."
"David gets compared to ALL THE GREATS," Floydsays. "Most young players would be terrified. David isn't bothered atall."
TWO PHOTOSPhotograph by Walter Iooss Jr.; ROBERT BECK STILLGROWING
Wright hit .306 with 102 RBIs in his first full season; he's on pace to betterthose numbers this year.
PHOTOROBERT BECK (WRIGHT) GLOVECHILD
Wright has shown a penchant for making acrobatic defensive plays, and he'sworking hard to improve his consistency.
TWO PHOTOSJP VERNI/NY METS (TOP); DAMIAN STROHMEYER SMASHING
Wright (above, with Floyd and MTV's Vanessa Minnillo on TRL) has been a hit inNew York since Day One.
PHOTOMITCHELL LAYTON/GETTY IMAGES (BELTRAN)