Last month, I put David Wright into plastic. He lives beside my desk, the leadoff hitter in a stack of Mets baseball cards that I fiddle with when I get bored. He sat there for two years—tongue out, eyeblack smudged, swing just starting—before I bothered with the plastic sleeve. Until now, it never seemed worth doing. But it's 2016, and David Wright needs to be protected.
This week, Wright began his first full season playing through spinal stenosis, a cruel back condition that drastically limits his physical activity, and will probably, someday, end his career. Last season, his back problems were a troubling mystery. This year they are a prosaic new fact, and they will inform every word that is spoken or written or thought about him from now until he retires. It only took one game this season to get a taste of what that will feel like. It was ugly, and sad.
Wright had the winning hit in the first Mets game I ever attended—against the Dodgers at the end of 2006. He went 3-for-3, and the hit I remember was a single, clean and sharp, through the gap into center field. It was the first time I remember thinking baseball could be beautiful.
Wright kept hitting like that even after ownership built a ballpark that crippled his power, even after Matt Cain beaned him and Ike Davis stomped on his foot and the team's stars left him alone to carry an increasingly strapped and shabby franchise on an increasingly broken back. Sometime soon, he will not be able to do it anymore.
When Wright signed the contract that will keep him in a Mets uniform through 2020, fans knew how it would end. At 37—his age when the contract ends—Wright's average would have fallen off. His speed would be gone, and perhaps his power, too. Talk radio screamheads would howl for him to be benched, sentimentalists would still smile when they saw him in the lineup, but he would not quite be David Wright anymore. He would be beloved, but not great, and when the contract ended he would either retire a Met or spend a year or two DH'ing and platooning in unfamiliar uniforms. David Wright, pinch hitting for the Marlins. David Wright, fighting for a comeback, in minor league camp with the Rays. Baseball doesn't afford a player any more dignity than he's willing to keep.
The decline has come faster than expected, and it may continue to pick up speed. Given the constraints forced upon him by the back condition, Wright needs many hours just to get ready to play; it seems impossible that he will still be playing in 2020. When he does quit, I doubt he'll get the yearlong retirement tour that has become customary for stars at the end of the line. Wright's end, I think, will come as a surprise. He'll take a day off, to clear his head in the middle of an 0-34 slump, and he'll never return to the lineup. Or he'll go down with a tweaked hamstring that turns into a tight quad that turns into two weeks on the DL, then a month, then the rest of the season, and that will be the end.
His last year will be one of those ugly curiosities, like Babe Ruth's 28 games in 1935, or Roy Halladay's grisly 13 starts in 2013, that mark the sudden end to a long career. He will keep trying until the minute he can't any more, and then it will be done.
A few days after I put David's card into plastic, he let a ground ball go under his glove. It shouldn't have meant anything—this was a spring training game—but before the ball cleared the infield dirt, I was doubting him. Was he too stiff to reach for it? Was he saving himself for a game that mattered? Had something popped in his fragile, narrowing spine? That or it was simply an error, an ordinary spring training error that didn't mean anything at all.
Spinal stenosis has not robbed us of the chance to watch David Wright, but it has spoiled the Eagle Scout shine that made Captain America such an easy nickname. The man who holds so many Mets records finally feels, in his parlous imperfection, like a Met.
His season started badly. In the bottom of the fifth on Sunday night in Kansas City, a ground ball from Omar Infante dragged Wright nearly to the foul line. Wright made the long throw to first, but Infante was safe. For most third basemen, this is April rust, a bad grip, a lapse in concentration, or just getting beat. The Mets captain gets no such leeway. ESPN commentator Aaron Boone said Wright looked "too careful" on the play, as if he were made of glass, and was trying not to shatter.
Wright batted in the top of the ninth with the winning run on base, and a tie game just a sac fly away. Once, I would have begged for a home run. This time I just wanted him to get under one, and put enough loft under it to tie the game. "Come on, David," I found myself saying.
It's a good mantra. Often, it's worked. Sunday night, it didn't. Wade Davis eviscerated Wright, who finished the night hitless, and the Mets lost 4-3. For most hitters, even great hitters, there is no shame in losing a battle to Davis, whose ERA last year was 0.94. For Wright, the porcelain god, this was another hairline crack. The next day, on the digital hellscape known as #MetsTwitter, reactionaries called for him to be kicked down the batting order, or to just go ahead and retire. This was not just the braying of idiots. These are people who have loved watching Wright for a decade now, and who don't have the stomach to watch him slip.
In the second game of the season, Wright worked a first inning walk.
"I don't know how much base-stealing David's gonna do this year," said Gary Cohen.
"I would think zip," said Keith Hernandez.
It was a safe bet. Although my baseball card informs me that Wright is the only third baseman since 1900 with nine straight seasons of ten or more steals, I was certain that his 2017 card, if he even has one, will show a 0 under SB.
Two pitches later, Wright stole second, socks high and arms outstretched, looking every inch an immortal. A few innings later, he did it again. In one game, he stole as many bases as he did in all of 2015. His obituary will be written a dozen times before he finally retires, whether that's this year or next, or 2020 or 2023. David Wright is not as fragile as we imagine; he is, without a doubt, better than we think. He will continue to surprise.