NEW YORK — The digital clock on the wall of the Mets’ clubhouse ticked from 1:10 to 1:11 as a handful of players sat at their lockers, staring into smartphones or tablets or cups half-full of protein shake. No music played, and the low murmur of quiet conversations was punctuated only by the whistling of toy footballs flying through the room as players took turns playfully pegging unsuspecting teammates. These men are professionals, among the very best in the world at their pursuit, and in a few hours’ time they would earnestly endeavor a double-header against the last-place Marlins on a dreary day in Queens. Several eons later, the clock struck 1:17, and a couple of relievers played P-I-G on a miniature basketball hoop in the middle of the room.
This is boredom. This is the agonizing grind of playing out a 162-game Major League season long after all hope for October glory is gone. This is what David Wright worked impossibly hard to get back to, and what he will now experience, as a player, for the last time in his life.
The Mets’ longtime third baseman and captain held a press conference Thursday afternoon to announce that his body will no longer permit him to play baseball. Wright will be activated for the team’s final 2018 homestand, COO Jeff Wilpon explained, and start at third base on Saturday, Sept. 29. But that’s it.
Wright’s efforts to return to the field after multiple surgeries to relieve the symptoms of spinal stenosis — neck surgery, shoulder surgery, back surgery, you name it — proved an intriguing sideshow during an otherwise moribund finish to the season, but all the minor-league rehab appearances and simulated games and pre-game batting-practice sessions ultimately only offered the cruel crush of reality.
“I needed the baseball stuff and I needed the games for my body to finally tell me, ‘It’s not happening,’” Wright said. “It’s not working. From everything the doctors have told me, there’s not going to be any improvement.
“Some days the pain could be moderate and manageable. Some days it was too much to be thinking about baseball…. It’s debilitating to play baseball.”
Wright did not formally retire on Thursday, nor will he likely do so anytime soon. The Mets still owe him $27 million across 2019 and 2020, and his remaining on the disabled list will allow the club to recoup most of it from insurance while still paying out the best position player in franchise history. But after this season ends, David Wright will be a baseball player only in the technical sense.
The back of the baseball card alone is something close to Shakespearean tragedy. A former first-round pick who grew up a Mets fan following the franchise’s longtime Class AAA affiliate in his hometown of Norfolk, Va., Wright broke into the Majors to immediate success as a 21-year-old in 2004. He earned down-ballot MVP votes in his first full season in 2005, then All-Star honors in seven of the next eight seasons. As recently as 2013, he appeared very much on a Hall of Fame trajectory.
But, by that point, injuries had already started to take their toll even if they never kept him from greatness whenever he was on the field. Wright played the better part of a month with a stress fracture in his back in 2011 after an on-field injury sustained diving to tag out Carlos Lee in a mid-April game against the Astros. His first prolonged absence from action would come only after he finally relented to getting an MRI.
“If I were to sit here and play the what-if game, it would drive me crazy,” Wright said Thursday. “Don’t think I haven’t thought about not trying to dive for Carlos Lee. It runs through my mind. What could I have done? Jon Niese, get over there and cover third — it runs through my mind. It’s impossible to not think about things that might have gotten us to this point.”
Almost nothing about the play itself suggested it might ultimately spell doom for a guy who concluded it by looking to second to check on a baserunner. And Wright would play 156 games at an elite level the following season. But complications ensued, forcing more disabled list stints and more tests and, eventually, the revelation of spinal stenosis early in the 2015 season.
Even then, Wright made it back to the field by late August and played every day in the club’s run for the NL East pennant and postseason, and spent no insignificant amount of time during the Mets’ post-NLCS celebration drenched in champagne in the cramped hallway outside the Wrigley Field visitors’ locker room repeating, “The World Series, the World Series” with a broad smile splitting his face. His Game 3 homer would provide the Mets’ biggest moment in their only Fall Classic win over the Royals that year.
But that highlight hardly masked the fact that Wright played only 52 total games that year. Even managed carefully to start the next season, he saw game action only 37 times before hitting the shelf yet again. His first appearance in 2018 will be his first since May 27, 2016.
And if you’ve had the opportunity to watch Wright’s career from fairly close up — as this author has — you know all that isn’t even the half of it.
Wright’s teammates and coaches lined the press-conference room for the Thursday announcement, a couple of them with tears in their eyes. Wright himself choked up while thanking his parents, his brothers, his wife, and the two young daughters who will get to see him play in the Majors for the first and only time later this month. He is not, at all, the type to court empathy and he is a handsome 35-year-old multi-millionaire who got to spend parts of 14 seasons in the Majors earning the respect and admiration of everyone he met along the way.
“As far as regrets go, I can’t say I have regrets,” he said. “I felt like, I knew one way to play the game, I tried to play that way, and there’s not a lot of people out there who can say they made it to the big leagues, that they got to be with one team for their entire career, and got to captain that team, and to have the success that, at least in my mind, I like to think that I had.”
The last few years demonstrate the danger of paying too much heed to the public-facing reputations of our beloved celebrities, and so it’s wise to stop short of canonizing even someone who managed to spend a decade and a half playing baseball in a ravenous media market without engendering even a shred of controversy.
But one would likely be extremely hard-pressed to find anyone who has ever met Wright with a negative word to say about him. Wright was, from the start of his career to the end of it, the guy who made time for every teammate, every reporter and every Make-A-Wish kid who came through the Mets’ clubhouse. He was the dude who faced every stupid Mets controversy with a sunny disposition and a wry smile, taking blame where he didn’t deserve it for his teammates’ failures and shrugging off whatever misplaced jeers came from the fanbase and airwaves and, at least once, the owner’s box.
The only times Wright ever seemed mad, really, were when someone tried to tell him he couldn’t play baseball. And this year, after countless hours in surgery and recovery and rehab and training, his body told him he could never play baseball again.
“I love the game,” he said. “I truly do. I love it. I love the relationships, I love the preparation, I love talking baseball. Anything about the game — I miss it. I wish that things could’ve turned out different for me physically.”
“It’ll be great to put that uniform on again, and to really feel like a player.”
It goes so fast.