On Tuesday—before a 5-3 Mets loss to the Marlins, in which Jacob deGrom broke a 108-year-old MLB record by allowing three or fewer runs in his 26th straight start and also saw his record drop to 8-9 on the season—David Wright took a meeting with his team’s COO, who is the son of the team’s owner, and also took some swings against minor league pitchers Justin Dunn and David Peterson in a simulated game. Initial reports, as with Wright’s previous simulated game and throughout his 20-day minor league rehabilitation stint, were not terribly positive. He didn’t take any grounders on Tuesday but has reportedly struggled to throw across the diamond from third base even after altering his motion to reduce the strain on a surgically rebuilt shoulder, and he was so rusty at the plate that it was difficult even to evaluate what he had or hadn’t lost there. “I was going to say it’s like spring training,” Wright told Mike Puma of the New York Post while rehabbing with the Mets’ high-A affiliate, “but it’s not even spring training.” That was last month, but it was also as close as he’d come to playing baseball in some time.
Wright hasn’t played in the Majors since late May of 2016, and has managed only 15 minor league rehab games during the intervening years. His attempts to work around and through the spinal stenosis that has been squeezing the life out of his career led to a cascade of related injuries to his neck and shoulder.
During the 2015 World Series, Wright got to the ballpark before noon, well before teammates or the guys making steak sandwiches on the concourse or most anyone else, not as part of some try-hard captain routine but because that was what he needed to do to be able to play baseball that night. It took him nearly eight hours of physical preparation to be ready to play in a game at that point, and has not gotten any easier. Wright played brilliantly during that postseason, but his future was already limited and locked by his chronic spinal condition. It was never going to get any easier.
When Wright announced on Thursday afternoon that he would return to the Mets on Sept. 25 and then finally bow to that reality at season’s end, it was notable mostly because all the parties involved had finally acknowledged the reality of the end. “Physically,” Wright said, “the way I feel right now, there’s not going to be any improvement.” This was not identifying the iceberg that would sink the ship. It was admitting that the water was cold, and deep.
At his press conference, Wright sat between Mets COO Jeff Wilpon and John Ricco, one of the team’s three interim general managers. Wright wore a Mets hat, and the media room’s overhead lights and his hat’s brim cast a shadow over his eyes that landed on his face like Zorro’s mask. Wright was emotional as he laid out the facts of his present and reiterated what little anyone knew about the future—that one last start at third, possibly some other in-game action but also quite possibly not, and then a sort of unofficial liminal retirement that would allow the Mets to continue to collect on the insurance policy that reimburses the team for 75 percent of his salary while Wright is too incapacitated to earn it on the field. None of what will happen, as with everything else this organization does, will happen without the specific approval of ownership.
After a while, the conference broke down into reiteration—why Wright was happy and why he was sad, the questions he could answer and others that he couldn’t. The shadows made it hard to tell just how near tears Wright was at any given moment. Wright has always been likable and forthright in settings like this—he’s as beloved by the local media as any athlete of my lifetime—but he has also always seemed much happier and most fully himself when he was playing baseball. There are only so many things that anyone can say about something like this. People had stories to write, but even the gentle and affectionate questions started to feel cruel. He kept on with it, though, explaining how much his life in the game was worth to him, how much he had to fight to get even this close to getting some small bit of it back, how much he is already missing what’s going by and gone.
This is as good a moment as any to note that none of this matters much in the context of a lost Mets season that has been overtly dreamlike for months now—games played in swirling mists in the dead of night, grim processions of fungible and anonymous relievers trudging from the bullpen and allowing consecutive doubles for the better part of an hour, the jacknifing cadaver of José Reyes hotly disputing called third strikes, the nightmare gravity with which deGrom’s brilliant starts are reliably fumbled away and ruined. When it became clear that Wright intended to return this year, team officials pumped the brakes as only they could or would. There was some obfuscatory shit from upstairs about different medical standards for the minors and the majors, some strained language about wanting Wright back but only as “a contributor” who presumably might help the team win its 75th game at some point. There was that insurance money at stake, but also a familiar rancid principle specific to this team’s risibly petty owners. The Wilpons wanted to be seen as being in charge of whatever wound up happening. Given how strangely and how poorly it was all handled, how long it all took, and how circuitous and arbitrary and strewn with three-point turns the route to Thursday wound up being, it was clear that they were.
What is infuriating about the Mets is not that they don’t win, but that they don’t change. The team’s starting pitching has mostly been excellent and some young hitters appear to have taken some important steps forward of late; the team has probably played well enough since the All-Star break that ownership will be able to justify doing what it does every offseason and presume that things will just be different next year. The team will add two or three of the types of veterans that ownership prefers—a Proven Closer, a clean-shaven man who hit 28 homers three or four years ago, a 31-year-old reliever on a two-year deal—and then gesture heatedly at those signings for months, through a local tabloid, as proof that the owners aren’t as cheap or backwards or venal or overmatched as basically everyone believes them to be. In time the team will retire Wright’s jersey and give him some sort of ceremonial or instructional job; even they can’t fuck that up. But Wright is at least nearly free of all this. He will get to play, and then he will get to leave.
Wright gave the Mets much more than he got. He did that when he played like a Hall of Famer through the first half of his career, when he signed a discounted extension during a superheated offseason, when he broke his body trying to carry a series of hopeless and haphazard teams and when he defied that to help the team make a giddy World Series run. He did it again, on his own in empty minor league stadiums six hours or seven hours before game time. “When I really started ramping up baseball stuff,” Wright said on Thursday, and then stopped for a moment. “For me ... waking up in the morning, something is always a concern. Whether it’s my back, my neck, my shoulder. Some days the pain in those areas, or all three of the areas, can be moderate and manageable. And sometimes it was too painful to think about baseball.”
And yet it was clearly more painful to stop thinking about it. Wright did not push himself through years of pain just for the greater glory of his stupid, stupid team; he is a competitor and he found in his hardship something to push against even when the sport that’s given structure and shape to his life seemed far away. He said Thursday and many times before that he wants his two young daughters, both born after his last big-league game, to see him play. They’re very little—Madison, his youngest, was born in May—and might not remember much of it. But there is also the matter of how Wright wants to remember his career, what he did and what he made and finally what he overcame—“For your mind and your heart to say ‘go go go’,” he said on Thursday, “and your body to say ‘not today’”—to make it back even for one day. It is clearly important to the memory he wants to make that his children be there for it. It was the only moment on Thursday when he was obviously crying.
A friend of mine paid one single American dollar for club seats at a Mets game earlier this week; standing room seats for Wright’s last start currently start at $115 on StubHub. The David Wright who’ll take the field will be not be the same as the one who dignified and illuminated this dim and undignified team for so long. It is difficult to know what to expect, and probably unwise to expect too much. “I’d like to make the plays,” Wright said when asked. “And I’d like to get a hit or two.” Whatever happens in those moments will matter less to the people paying to say goodbye and I’d wager to Wright himself than everything that led to them. Not the grifty pettifoggery from management that deferred and confused it at the end; those stains just keep coming out, somehow. It’s the untouchable rest—what he gave and what he got, how he won what he won and how he finally lets it go.