HE ARRIVED on a prop plane that was so small the pilot made him switch seats during the flight to balance the weight on board. He had only slept two hours, in that fitful sliver of subconscious where dream and reality blur. Growing up in Norfolk, David Wright pestered Mets farmhands for autographs at Tides games. In high school he played for a showcase team called the Mets that traveled along the Eastern Seaboard. And at 21 he circled LaGuardia Airport and gazed down on Shea Stadium, all those empty blue and orange seats waiting for their Jeter.
The Mets are famous for overhyping prospects, and Wright was accompanied by his own breathless backstory. Did you hear about the home run he hit when he was 16, 400 feet over the centerfield fence, smacking so hard into an old oak tree that a six-foot branch flew into a neighbor's yard? "Just like Roy Hobbs," said his travel-team coach, Ron Smith.
But Wright was different from Gregg Jefferies and Generation K. He delivered, changing the outlook of a punch-line organization from the moment he touched it. Wright debuted for the Mets in July 2004. Pedro Martínez signed that December, Carlos Beltran a month later. In '06 the Mets came within a game of the World Series, and Wright really was their Jeter.
He wrote greeting cards in the clubhouse, drank milk before games and used Met3Bagger as his email address. He received a standing ovation on the road, at Petco Park in San Diego, after a diving barehanded catch on the outfield grass. Former Mets outfielder Cliff Floyd once joked, "I read his fan mail sometimes—girls are asking to marry him—and it makes me sick. One of these days, I swear I'm going to smack him." Lathered in sweat after weight-lifting sessions, Floyd would slip into Wright's form-fitting pastel Polo shirts, stretching L's into XL's. But Wright, impossible to offend, still hauled around Floyd's Louis Vuitton luggage on the road as a rookie.
In the wake of the steroid era, Wright seemed accessible and certain not to disappoint, the son of an assistant police chief and former narcotics captain who scolded him over the price of his Flatiron District apartment and did not let him buy a new car when he reached the big leagues. His best friend on the team might have been the bullpen catcher, Dave Racaniello.
In Wright's first two seasons I was the Mets beat writer for the The New York Times, a job that required regular profiles of the young star. Before a game at Oakland, I was in the elevator outside the visitors' clubhouse, about to ride up to the press box. As the doors closed, Wright stopped them. "Hey," he started, "I wanted to thank you for the story you wrote about me the other day."
"No problem," I replied, and let the doors close. He stopped them again.
"There's just one thing," he continued. "I saw you quoted my dad in the story and he said he never talked to you."
My stomach turned. I did quote his father, and I remembered talking to him. Could I have called the wrong person? Could someone have pretended to be Rhon Wright from the Norfolk police department?
"I know this is serious," Wright went on, "so we'll obviously have to tell your bosses." The Times was two years removed from a plagiarism scandal. I'd be fired for sure. Wright must have noticed the panic on my face because he doubled over laughing. "Just messing with you," he said and let the doors close. Floyd had clearly rubbed off on him.
The Mets led the National League East by seven games with 17 to play in '07 and by 3½ games with 17 to play in '08. They collapsed both times, but Wright was not to blame, racking up Silver Sluggers and Gold Gloves both seasons. He was so young. He'd have more chances.
"Right now, everything is perfect," former Mets first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said in 2005. "He's young, he's single and he's good-looking. Everybody loves him and the world is at his feet. But one day you feel this switch and everything changes and it's never the same again."
For all, except maybe Jeter, there aren't as many chances as you think. In '09, Wright, then struggling at the plate, was booed at home for the first time, went on the disabled list for the first time and finished with a losing record for the first time since he was a rookie. He still made the All-Star team that year, and three more years afterward, but then the injuries visited in succession: shoulder, back, neck, the worst kind of Triple Crown. Diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a chronic condition, he required more than four hours of physical therapy just to take the field. The last time I wrote about Wright, for SI in 2010, the story was titled The Trials of Mr. Met, and still he called afterward to say thanks. I kept the message for a long time, to remember what grace sounds like.
Since May 2016, Wright has undergone three surgeries, had two daughters and played zero games, visible only on rehab assignments before sparse crowds at the Mets' spring home in Port St. Lucie. "I'm hopefully out of tears," he said on Sept. 13 at Citi Field, during the press conference announcing his retirement, though of course he wasn't.
Wright is 35, and if you stop at his face, you'd swear he hasn't aged since that night sprawled across the grass in San Diego. But his body was broken long ago. He started at third base on the final Saturday of the regular season, not because he was remotely qualified, but because he wanted Olivia Shea and Madison to see their dad the way baseball will see him forever: Met3Bagger.
"IN THE WAKE OF THE STEROID ERA, WRIGHT SEEMED ACCESSIBLE AND CERTAIN NOT TO DISAPPOINT, THE SON OF A POLICE OFFICER WHO SCOLDED HIM OVER THE PRICE OF HIS APARTMENT. HIS BEST FRIEND ON THE TEAM MIGHT HAVE BEEN THE BULLPEN CATCHER."
A LIFE REMEMBERED
FACES IN THE CROWD