Glory Days

David Wright, The Smiling Assassin

At present, Major League Baseball is a young man’s game. All around, newly-intelligent teams are reticent to sign ageing free agents to long-term contracts, and, instead, are placing more value than ever in the stock of youthful, cost-controlled prospects. To that end, an entire industry has been spawned to cover, in fine detail, the trials and tribulations of young players, with journalists and fans charting their rise from high school to the big leagues.

But looking back a little, into what I call the glory days, such an approach was seemingly unconventional. A decade ago, teams preferred older, more proven superstars to raw, green neophytes, which, in retrospect, is exactly why David Wright, the homegrown captain of the New York Mets, stood out so much, and made such a lasting and inspirational impression.

Wright was promoted to the Majors in 2004, at the age of 21. He was an immediate star, an immediate sensation. I had the pleasure of watching his early years, when David produced one of the most blisteringly hot starts to a career in modern baseball history. Wright hit at least .300, with at least 26 home runs and 100 RBI, in each of his first four full seasons, creating for himself a huge, almost mystical aura. By 2008, he was the smouldering face of a fairytale Mets team, rivalling even the great Derek Jeter for popularity and eminence in New York.

Now, sitting here in the year 2015, the story of David Wright is tinged with pathos. Since his amazing peak, when platitudes and video game endorsements arrived at every turn, Wright has endured a steady decline, punctuated by injury and the apparent loss of his power stroke. Accordingly, where once we thought the autumn of David’s career would be a procession of demolished records on the road to Cooperstown, the sad reality is that, now, he’s just another slightly above-average player on another slightly above-average team.

Yet that doesn’t mean his earlier contributions should be discounted. For a few years during the glorious 2000s, David Wright was one of the very best players in baseball. He was perhaps the most exhilarating and believable young phenom that side of Mike Trout and, here at Glory Days, that image, and that impact on a fine epoch in the game’s history, will never be forgotten.

I will always remember the young David Wright; the David Wright who had the world at his feet as a young and sophisticated star. He had utmost confidence in his own ability, yet carried himself so well. There was a knowingness to his style, as if he understood the hero machine and was able to slow it down, manage its dramas, and reap its rewards. Everything David Wright did was fast, flashy, spectacular. He’d lash a home run with that lyrical swing or dive smoothly to his left to take away a base hit, then carry on like it was no big deal, like it met the least of his expectations. To the best of a young player’s ability, David was in control of an uncontrollable game. And, to that end, he lit up baseball, with those deep, azure eyes and that wide, infectious smile.

A lifelong Met, Wright has enjoyed a career lined with silver. He’s a seven-time All-Star, a two-time Gold Glove winner, a member of the 30-30 club, and, for good measure, a two-time Silver Slugger. Moreover, David has more hits, doubles, RBI, total bases, runs scored, walks and extra-base hits than anybody in Mets history, at the age of 32. Throughout his Major League career, now in its twelfth year, Wright has averaged 25 home runs, 40 doubles, 101 RBI, 21 stolen bases and a remarkable .298/.377/.494 slash-line. Quite frankly, he was one of the very best players of his generation, which we should never forget.

Wright became a huge celebrity during his peak years, even gracing the cover of MLB The Show 07 and winning multiple endorsement deals. In many respects, he was viewed as a central pillar in supporting a new era for baseball. David was the face of the Mets, the poster boy of the National League, and the first genuine superstar to emerge from the Derek Jeter school of rectitude. Just like Jeter, David had grace and elegance. Just like Jeter, David had skill and talent. And, just like Jeter, David became the homegrown Captain of a New York baseball team. Wright even earned the ‘Captain America’ moniker for his heroic exploits with Team USA at the World Baseball Classic, further fuelling his mystique.

All told, the agile third baseman was a very big deal from a very early age, and it’s to his eternal credit that he was able to manage that fame and fortune in such an exemplary manner. A standout High School athlete, Wright was selected by the Mets in the complementary round of the 2001 Draft and, over the subsequent three years, he progressed steadily through the team’s minor league system, before debuting against the Montreal Expos at Shea Stadium in July 2004.

That year, Wright hit .293 with 14 home runs and 40 RBI, establishing himself as a Major League star at the tender age of 21. With stunning aptitude, he settled quickly into the role as the Mets’ defining figurehead, on whom the burden to deliver was greatest. And deliver he did, with a wonderful batting eye and a general instinctive feel for the game.

Slowly, a downtrodden Mets organisation came to life under his aegis. After losing 91 games in his debut campaign, the Amazin’s edged above .500 in 2005, before morphing into a juggernaut in 2006, as Wright hit .311/.381/.531 and drove in 116 runs.

That specific team has a special plate in my heart, because, here in Britain, we were treated to many of their games through Channel Five. As the Mets soared into the playoffs for the first time in six years, it was a pleasure to watch Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado and Bobby Wager; Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine and Carlos Beltran. But David Wright, the smiling assassin, stood out the most, with those diving defensive plays and those sweet home runs. Alas, the 2006 Mets came within one win of the National League pennant, memorably losing Game 7 of the NLCS when Yadier Molina, then a glove-first banjo hitter, launched a ninth-inning bomb to send the St Louis Cardinals to the World Series.

In many respects, that October was a fine encapsulation of David Wright’s career: close, but never quite close enough. His 6-year, $55 million contract extension came into effect prior to the 2007 season, but, sadly, each of those years would prove fruitless for the Mets, who slipped gradually back to mediocrity as their core players retired.

In ’07 and ’08, Wright reached his sensational peak, hitting .313/.403/.540 with 63 home runs, 84 doubles, and 231 RBI over a 320-game stretch that defined his legacy as a bonafide superstar.

Unfortunately, in subsequent years, David was never able to replicate that absurd level of performance. Wright hit the first home run in Citi Field history when the Mets moved to their new ballpark in 2009, but that was just one of ten round-trippers he managed that year. David remained a brilliant hitter, and an on-base machine, but, save for a 29-homer resurgence in 2010, his power became greatly diminished. This, in turn, detracted from Wright’s perception within the game. He was still a savant within the batters box, capable of hitting over .300 with a .400 OBP, but when the home runs vanished in favour of singles and walks, casual observers thought Wright was broken and, thus, stopped viewing him in the absolute elite echelon of Major League players.

Then, to compound this fallacy, Wright saw the second half of his career blighted by injury. First there was a concussion, then fractures within the back and on the hand. Soon thereafter, hamstring injuries began to niggle at David, limiting his mobility, before shoulder and rotator cuff ailments hampered his defence. All told, Wright missed an average of 36 games per season between 2011 and 2014 and, even when he was on the field, some kind of malady prevented him from playing at full pace. Ever the selfless gamer, David always wants to play, which, undoubtedly, has been a hindrance to his own health in recent years.

This season, Wright, now in the third year of an 8-year, $138 million extension, finally looked to be back to full strength, ready to once again lead a young and vibrant Mets team to glory. He hit .333 with 1 home runs, 4 RBI and 2 stolen bases through the first eight games, before once again landing on the disabled list with a tweaked hamstring. Then, to compound matters, Wright was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal cord that can put painful pressure on the nerves which run through it.

Thus, the whole baseball world once again finds itself in a familiar position, waiting for David Wright to finally get healthy and scale the heights he once so easily graced. At his best, the Mets’ Captain is a studious hitter with a dangerous power stroke; a brilliant teammate who would do anything to help his club win. But, sadly, I cannot accurately recall the last time I saw David at his best; the last time I witnessed that same level of stupendous performance which once so illuminated my youth. And that, I’m afraid to say, is the greatest tragedy of all.

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