The Trials of Mr. Met

March 08, 2010

Last year was hell for David Wright and his team. But the face of New York's Other Franchise has a back-to-the-future plan for 2010

The pickup came to a stop in downtown Newark at 5 a.m. on Jan. 13, and Dave Racaniello hopped out of the passenger's seat, into the morning frost. He walked around to the back of the truck and pulled his Trek mountain bike from the bed, along with a small trailer packed snug with sweaters, sandwiches and a tent, survival tools for the odyssey ahead. Racaniello climbed aboard the bike, made sure the trailer was attached, pumped his legs and headed south on Route 9—bound for baseball season.

Racaniello is the Mets' 31-year-old bullpen catcher, known to friends as Rac. He spends most of his professional life hidden behind chest protectors, face masks and outfield fences, the last person on a team from whom you would expect a grand gesture. But over the winter Racaniello mentioned to his New York roommate and Mets third baseman David Wright that he someday wanted to ride a bicycle cross-country. Wright urged him to shorten the trip and the timetable: Bike to spring training.

Wright laid out terms of the challenge and started taking wagers. Racaniello, with only $20 in his pocket and nowhere to sleep but that tent, would have three weeks to reach the Mets' spring home in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Ten Mets placed their bets. Wright was the only one who banked on Racaniello to beat the elements and the clock.

Rac faced hills that wouldn't quit in New Jersey, Labradors on the loose in North Carolina and a four-lane freeway without a shoulder in Florida. He pitched his tent on high school campuses and golf courses. In Jacksonville, first baseman Daniel Murphy was generous enough to let Racaniello stay in his yard, but the sprinklers went off at 1 a.m. Every night Racaniello checked in with Wright, who reminded him what baseball players always tell themselves: "Take it day by day."

On Jan. 26 Racaniello rolled into Fort Pierce, Fla., and sirens sounded. He thought he was under arrest. Turned out the Mets had sent a police escort to lead him the last few miles to the finish line. At 10 p.m. Racaniello churned into the parking lot at Tradition Field, eight days ahead of deadline. As Rac rushed to the clubhouse to take his first shower in two weeks, Wright rejoiced from afar.

Racaniello was not trying to set a tone for the 2010 season, though Mets players say that's exactly what he did. After enduring ugly September meltdowns that cost them playoff spots in 2007 and '08 and a disastrous 70-win season last year, the Mets are facing a long road back to respectability. And for the first time in an otherwise sterling six-year career, Wright, who is coming off his worst season, has ground to make up as well.

Wright is only 27, but this is the second time that he must lead New York out of a dark age. Five years ago, with the Mets coming off three straight losing seasons, he was a young star sifting through marriage proposals in the clubhouse, writing greeting cards on the bus, downing glasses of milk before games, providing an aimless organization with a quality in short supply—"hope," says then general manager Jim Duquette. Wright earned MVP votes every year from 2005 to '08 and won two Gold Gloves. He started a foundation at 22, wore a hard hat to the groundbreaking of Citi Field and for a few minutes back in 2006, when the Mets came within a game of the World Series, made the franchise cooler in New York than the Yankees. When his team lost 12 of its last 17 games to blow the National League East title in '07, Wright was exempt from blame because he hit .352 in September. When the Mets lost 10 of their last 17 to blow the wild-card berth in '08, Wright was absolved again because he hit .340 over the final month. "He had never really failed," says hitting coach Howard Johnson.

But last summer, as New York decomposed into 92-game losers, Wright finally went down. The one player who always seemed to transcend the Mets' misfortune suddenly looked just like them. His home run total sank from 33 to 10. His RBI total fell from 124 to 72. His slugging percentage dropped 87 points. His average rose to .307, which seemed to indicate that he was sacrificing power for contact, but he piled up a career-high 140 strikeouts. "I was never comfortable," Wright says. "I was always searching."

He was booed at home for the first time, went on the disabled list for the first time and finished with a losing record for the first time since his rookie season, 2004. As he sat stone-faced through one miserable week after another—"I love his smile," general manager Omar Minaya says, "and I didn't see it much"—'06 felt like a whole era ago. "I tell him, 'Hey, it's not the end of the world,'" said his father, Rhon. "But to him I think it does sometimes seem that important."

Like most megamarket teams, the Mets are stacked with mercenaries who come from other places, rent houses in the suburbs and skip town the day after the final pitch. But Wright grew up cheering for Mets farmhands at Triple A Norfolk. He played for a New York showcase team in high school. He lives year-round in Manhattan's Flatiron District, where the back pages slap him in the face. Besides the Wilpons, the family that owns the franchise, few have invested more in the team than Wright. So when the Yankees are celebrating and the Mets are suffering and the punch lines are flying—David Letterman reported last month that the Mets signed the Iraqi journalist who "threw the shoes at President Bush"—he feels them like shots to the midsection.

"He takes it personally," says manager Jerry Manuel, and the team admires that quality. But they worry about him too. "Sometimes," said assistant general manager John Ricco, "the organization has to protect him from himself." That means limiting the public appearances and interviews he has a hard time turning down, giving him days off despite his protests. The Mets have always looked out for his interests—except perhaps when they conceived the stadium he now calls home.

The first time Wright tried to hit a ball out of Citi Field, tractors were still parked in center. It was September 2008 and not a blade of grass had been laid, but Wright wanted to check out his new digs. So he and a few teammates crossed the street from Shea Stadium and one by one dug into the batter's box. Wright went first. "It looked big," says outfielder Nick Evans. "But it was cold and windy that day, so you couldn't tell how big. I just remember that David wouldn't get out of the box until he hit the first home run."

It didn't come easily. Theories abound as to why Wright's power numbers were so diminished in 2009—"It's not like you just forget how to hit after five years," says rightfielder Jeff Francoeur—and the most popular one has to do with the Mets' new home. They wanted to build a pitcher's park in the tradition of Shea Stadium, and in most areas Citi Field is comparable to Shea. But in right center the designers put in a gap that ranges from 378 to 415 feet—ideal for leadoff man Jose Reyes's triples but not so conducive to Wright's opposite-field homers. According to hittrackeronline.com, Wright hit nine balls last season that would have been out at Shea but did not clear the high fences at Citi, including seven drives to center and right.

Then again, Wright mustered just five home runs on the road, proof that the ballpark was not the only factor at play. In spring training last year Manuel and Johnson implemented a subtle but significant change to the team's offensive philosophy. They urged hitters to stay inside the ball longer and catch the ball deeper in the strike zone, which would lead to more opposite-field hits. Manuel maintains that the Mets were trying to build complete hitters; it was a coincidence that they were moving into a ballpark with a massive rightfield.

In one sense the strategy worked, as New York led the NL with a .270 batting average. But it hit just 95 home runs, the fewest in the majors. "It's like we went to the golf course," Johnson says, "and never pulled out our driver." The mistake, Manuel admits, was asking everybody to conform to the new philosophy. Wright, for instance, has always naturally hit to the opposite field with power. If he were a certain breed of superstar, he might have told his coaches to shove it and kept the same approach that had served him so well. Instead he did exactly what they asked.

"He steered the ball to right," says one NL scout. "Even in hitter's counts, it's like he was trying to flip it over the second baseman's head." From 2006 to '08, 34% of the balls Wright hit to the outfield went to right, according to HitTracker. In '09, 41% went to right. "At times I did settle for punching the ball the other way," Wright said, "rather than really trying to drive it."

Still, on July 2 the Mets were only one game out of first place, even though Wright did not have Reyes in front of him or slugger Carlos Beltran behind him in the lineup. (The two players missed a combined 207 games with injuries.) Wright was, for most of the season, the only hitter in the lineup anybody had to pitch around, but the Mets needed runs, not walks, so he started to swing at pitches he would otherwise have taken. "He was out there by himself," Johnson says. "The burden was totally on him." Francoeur arrived in mid-July from Atlanta, where he had grown up a Braves fan before becoming a Braves phenomenon and finally a Braves bust. "I knew what he was feeling," Francoeur says. "He had to get back to having fun."

Then, on Aug. 15, Wright took a 94-mph fastball off his helmet's ear hole from San Francisco's Matt Cain and left Citi Field in an ambulance. By September the Mets had 13 players on the disabled list, accounting for $88 million of the payroll. Wright, who suffered a concussion, returned from the disabled list on Sept. 1 but batted .239 the rest of the way, understandably gun-shy on pitches high and tight. A stadium with an endless right centerfield alley, a mandate to aim at that alley, a lack of protection in the lineup, a responsibility to carry that lineup and finally a horrifying head injury. It was a perfect storm for a power outage.

Because this is baseball in the 21st century, home run drop-offs always prompt suspicion of something sinister. But Wright's image is as squeaky clean as it gets in professional sports. His father is the Norfolk assistant police chief and used to be the vice and narcotics captain. "Drugs have never been an option," the younger Wright says.

Wright showed up for spring training noticeably thicker through the arms and chest, the result, he said, of a winter of strenuous workouts and smarter eating. His 2010 season essentially began the week after Thanksgiving. He flew to Johnson's house in Hobe Sound, Fla., and together they scrapped the plan that had doomed '09. "It's going to be different this year," Johnson says. "We are focusing on catching the ball out in front and driving it more to leftfield."

Per tradition, Wright drove to spring training with three friends from Virginia, and they asked whether he was worth drafting for their fantasy teams. "I believe I am," he said. There is pressure on Manuel and Minaya to keep their jobs this season but also on Wright to return his team to the pennant race and himself to the MVP conversation. He will have Reyes back ahead of him in the order and newly signed leftfielder Jason Bay in the middle. (Beltran will miss at least the first month because he is still rehabbing from knee surgery.)

Twelve days before pitchers and catchers were due to report, Wright pulled into the Mets' spring complex. After more than a week of workouts, Wright ran into Manuel on a golf course, and the manager asked how he was feeling. "Ready," Wright said. The next day Wright took batting practice on Field 7, which has the same dimensions as Citi Field. Manuel stood on one side of the cage. Chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon stood on the other. Wright hit a line drive off the centerfield fence, which is still 16 feet high even though the wall at Citi was cut down to eight this winter. "That's a homer this year, right, Jeff?" Wright said with a smile. Then, as if to remove any doubt, he turned his hips, threw his hands and yanked a deep fly over the leftfield fence. "Get him ready for Josh Johnson," Manuel howled.

Opening Day against the Marlins, with Johnson on the mound, is still five weeks away. That's five more weeks to make fun of the Mets before they offer their rebuttal. "There's only one thing we can do to make it stop," Wright said. "Win."

Boos, a beaning and a severe power outage created a lost season for Wright. "I was never comfortable," he says. "I was always searching."

PHOTOPhotograph by WALTER IOOSS JR.REGAINING HIS PULL Wright thinks returning to his old power approach at the plate will help him put up numbers worthy of MVP discussion again. PHOTODAVID ZALUBOWSKI/APHEAD CASE Wright, who briefly wore a special helmet (inset) after getting hit, never got his mind right in '09.
PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON[See caption above] PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONSPRINGING FORWARD Wright (second from left) arrived early, hoping to put the Mets back in the running as a marquee brand.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)