By MICHAEL NITZKY
This past weekend, the 2018 season for the New York Mets mercifully came to a close, but not before their captain got one last curtain call. For the second year in a row, the Mets failed to make the playoffs; they were victorious in just 77 games.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Mets have three of the best pitchers in baseball, including the dominating Jake deGrom (who should win the Cy Young award for best pitcher in the league). Moreover, the team was projected to win more than half of its games and compete for a spot in the playoffs. Unfortunately, injuries to a bevy of key players dashed any hopes that a good season would materialize.
Thankfully, the Mets did provide their fans with a reason to cheer when the face of their franchise, longtime third baseman David Wright, was given a well-deserved final send-off.
For Mets fans, Wright was emblematic of the team: a fresh face and ultrapositive player, though not without deficiencies. Some may point to his defensive excellence as justification for his receiving two Gold Glove awards for fielding prowess. But true fans acknowledge that over most of his career, though Wright would get to a ball when hit to him, his throws were not always accurate. And clearly, the random set of players assigned to first base by the miserly ownership failed to save his errant throws.
Despite that, Wright was named to seven All-Star games, won a homerun derby, and holds most of the Mets franchise hitting records. It seemed like a dream career, but for Wright it all became a nightmare in April 2015, when a simple slide on an attempted second base turned into something much, much worse: spinal stenosis.
This horrific condition — the abnormal narrowing of the spine — would be the devastating end of a career for most professional athletes, but not Mr. Wright. The man fought back to play a handful of games in 2015 and 2016, but was sidelined during the Mets’ playoff run in 2016 and sat out all of the 2017 season and up until this last week of 2018. It has been widely reported that Wright needed as many as eight hours of stretching just to get on the field for a game.
There had been murmurs all season that he was trying to make a comeback, and while Mets fans were ready to embrace him, they never thought they’d see him. Even Mets management seemed to move on, signing Todd Frazier to play Wright’s position of third base a season after the Toms River, New Jersey, product played for that team in the Bronx.
Everything changed in early September, when Wright, along with his doctors, declared himself ready to play. Of course, because these are the Mets, they nearly botched the goodwill between the team and perhaps their second-greatest player. (Remember, this is the same ownership that should have a statue for Tom “The Franchise” Seaver, but instead has a rotunda named for Jackie Robinson, who only played for the Brooklyn Dodgers.)
In their infinite wisdom, owners forced Wright to be checked by team doctors.
After much “discussion,” they announced that Wright would finally be activated for this final homestand this past weekend. A teary-eyed Wright told the media and fans that he wanted to come back so his 2 year-old daughter, Olivia Shea, could see him play. (His second daughter, Madison, was born earlier this year.) You have to respect a player who goes as far to embrace the team as to name his firstborn “Shea.”
Last Saturday was the culmination of his return, with Wright in the starting lineup and batting in his #3 slot in the batting order. Mets fans continue to love the longtime legend, dubbed “Captain America.” One of my friends flew in from Los Angeles and arrived just in time to catch Wright’s batting practice. Many tailgated in the parking lot with their friends and family, talking about why they wanted to be there for the end of Wright’s career. They included 80-year-old Regina Cranston of Breezy Point, who has been a Mets fan from the team’s inception. Others came with their children, who weren’t even born when Wright debuted. Three generations of the Dwyer family said there was never a question about attending Wright’s final game.
“He’s been our favorite player for years, and he’s meant so much to the team and the community. He’s a tremendous player, but he’s an even better person off the field. It’s a bittersweet night for Mets fans, but it’s the send-off The Captain deserves,” said Frank Dwyer, who grew up in Glen Oaks.
Wright’s classiness was on display before the game started, when he spent nearly half an hour signing autographs and taking photographs with dozens of fans trying to catch a quick moment with their hero.
For Wright, the highlight of the game may have been when his 2-year-old daughter threw out the ceremonial first pitch. When the game actually began, the biggest crowd of the season gave him a standing ovation as he led the team onto the field.
The fans rolled out the red carpet, but the game itself was anticlimactic.
In his first at bat, Wright came to the plate with one of the players to whom he’s often linked, shortstop José Reyes, standing on third base ready to be driven home by Wright. (Reyes had an awful year in 2018, but seemed to have been kept around by Mets ownership solely for this game). But instead of an RBI — all but a given by Wright in his prime — he ended up with a disappointing walk. In his only other time at bat, Wright fouled out (in a play where fans all but begged the opposing first baseman to let the ball go by).
In the field, Wright had just one opportunity, which he converted easily, before he was removed from the game in the top of the fifth inning. That’s when the biggest ovation rained down from the capacity crowd.
While his performance didn’t live up to expectations, the fans cheered for several minutes while Wright shook hands and hugged every player, many of whom he barely knew, but all who knew him as a great teammate. Wright was humble as always, tipping his cap to the fans in recognition, the truest sign of respect in baseball.
It took the Mets several more hours and innings — four and a half hours and 13 innings in total — to finally beat the lowly Marlins, one of the worst teams in baseball. After the final out, the Mets showed a brief video highlighting Wright’s career. Then The Captain himself came out, gracious to the very end, to thank most of the 43,000+ fans, who stuck around to watch his final performance.
When asked by the media for his thoughts after the game, Wright said,“I can’t tell you I’m good where I’m at right now; that would be false…but I’m at peace with work and the time and effort I put into this, but I’m certainly not at peace with the end result. Tonight was special.”
It was indeed a special night, not only for Wright but for all Mets fans.
As Astoria’s Peter Kauffmann, who watched the game with his daughter, put it, “David Wright epitomizes everything you try to teach young players: work ethic, positive attitude and leading by example. My daughter and I had to be here to thank him — for being a role model, a class act and a great player.”
In the end, Mets fans got the hero they deserve in David Wright, both on and off the field.
Michael Nitzky is a lifelong Mets fan and is the Communications Director at StudentsFirstNY.