Saturday, September 29, 2018

Our Captain My Captain

It was late March 2004 (I don't know the exact date), at the Mets Spring Training ballpark in Port St. Lucie, Florida. It was late in a game (maybe the 7th inning). Art Howe had brought in minor league players to fill out the lineup late in the game because the regular major leaguers don't play all 9 innings of exhibition games. Back then, I wasn't really in tune to the pipeline of prospects in the Mets system, so I didn't really know who I was watching at that point in the game. I was there to root for the laundry and get some March sun, so it didn't matter to me anyway. And someone leaned over to me, pointed towards third base, and said that this kid is going to be the next third baseman for the New York Mets. Not knowing any better, and remembering the ongoing counting of third basemen in Mets history, I kind of laughed this guy off. And I couldn't have been less Wright with that reaction if I had tried.

That was 14 1/2 years ago. For Mets announcer Gary Cohen, that's half of his tenure calling games in Flushing. For me (who became a fan 2 years before Gary Cohen arrived in the Mets booth), that's slightly less than half of my time as a fan. In other words, that's basically an entire generation of Mets fans who have had David Wright in their respective Mets vocabularies. This is also the same new generation of fans that doesn't remember Bob Murphy calling Mets games (like I'm in the generation of fans that doesn't remember Lindsey Nelson calling games). Wright goes back to the end of the Mike Piazza-Al Leiter era. His time in New York dates back to the end of the Art Howe era. John Franco's last decision as a Met (a Loss) was this game, in which David Wright had his first hit.

And now the David Wright era informally comes to a close with his last appearances in the big leagues. He'll serve out the remainder of his guaranteed contract on the 60-Day DL and then officially retire at the end of the 2020 season.

There were definitely times over his career when I wasn't so high on him. Some unclutch hitting, and his throwing mechanics from third base always made me nervous. I can't tell you how many times he got bailed out by a good first baseman. I won't even bring up the one he should have simply put in his pocket on that warm November evening in 2015. But he always smiled. When he would sign autographs (and sometimes there were big crowds so it wasn't for very long or very often), he always gave you quality work. He was the constant (at least until his injuries). He became "The Captain". He was there when the Mets were building up in 2005 (he was definitely part of it) culminating in that Game 7 loss in the 2006 NLCS. He was also there for the "Fool me once" collapse in 2007 followed by the "Fool me twice" collapse in 2008. He was the star of the new ballpark in 2009 and the team fell back into the abyss. And he was still there, a shell of his former self, when the Mets built back up in 2015. He finally got to play in the World Series that year.

It took the Mets a while to catch on, but they should have moved on from him after 2015. That was when I thought he should have hung up his spikes (after that season), knowing his physical quality would never improve. He didn't. They weren't ready to move on and find a full-time third baseman. He tried to play and it didn't last very long. He tried to come back, and it didn't go well the first time. But he kept at it, working hard to improve his baseball physical quality and his general physical quality. And he made it back, even if only for a cameo appearance with the Mets in order to have a proper goodbye.

I have a lot of respect for an athlete who decides to push himself back from a career-ending injury just to be able to take a final bow, instead of simply disappearing in the end. Basically, don't retire from the disabled list. Retire from the field. To use a word that Gary Cohen used on Friday night's broadcast, this is "closure" for David Wright.

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