David Wright’s playing career is probably over. Say it enough times and with enough conviction and eventually you’ll believe it. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?
We’ve known this since July 2015, when he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis. Or June, when he underwent neck surgery for a herniated disc. At the very least we knew it in December, when Sandy Alderson revealed that Wright hadn’t done “baseball activities” since May. This latest setback, the shoulder impingement and inability to throw a baseball, shouldn’t come as a surprise. The team gave that away when he sat in the bullpen because he couldn’t turn his head or when he showed up in the desert for the Arizona Fall League looking like a man who emptied his savings account on Mets fantasy camp in Phase 2 of a midlife crisis that started with an R-rated email to his boss. They gave it away when they hid his training sessions from reporters.
Last week, I asked Twitter for a reality check because I foolishly found myself believing. I knew it was foolish, but I couldn’t help it. The responses were predictably dark, albeit accurate (the one that described his spine as “literally being held together with duct tape and Juan Uribe’s chewing tobacco spit” was particularly painful). Then he stepped into the batter’s box and everything felt like it was going to be okay after all. He could swing a bat! After months of inaction, of silence and speculation, David Wright could swing a bat! If he could swing a bat, surely he could throw a ball across the diamond. Of course he could make diving catches and leaping grabs. Yeah, he’s frail and skinny, but look! He can swing a bat!
That’s all he can do, it turns out.
There’s no designated hitter in the National League. The David Wright we knew is gone, that much I can admit. The bright-eyed, spiky-haired boy of the mid-2000s who brought faith and joy and promise is gone, lost to MRI machines and physical therapists. Lost to a chronic, degenerative back condition.
The David Wright that remains probably can’t play baseball. That doesn’t mean he will–or should–stop trying.
On Wednesday, Wright went for a second opinion on his shoulder. Best case scenario: this was a tweak, a twinge, a minor setback. Worst case scenario, and far more likely, is that this is another line in the laundry list of terrible effects of the spinal stenosis. The second opinion, or maybe the third or the fourth, may know the answer. But no one has so far.
If Wright can’t throw, he’s done. Jose Reyes takes over at third base, or Wilmer Flores or even Kelly Johnson. Maybe Wright moves to a front office job, or he starts in Columbia on the managerial track. He’d be a good manager. Maybe he stays home with his wife and baby.
We’re all growing old at an alarming rate. Wright and Reyes were wearing terrible outfits in GQ just last week. R.A. Dickey was having the season of his life last year, not five seasons ago. We’ve grown old watching boys play catch on grass and dirt, and suddenly they’re not boys anymore. We are old and they are old.
There are no guidelines on how to retire from professional sports. Don Mattingly’s career was cut short after his own congenital back injury. David Ortiz blasted out of Fenway Park in a flurry of monstrous home runs and now posts Instagram videos from the beach. Prince Fielder slipped out after a press conference, surrounded by his family and teammates, humbled by a neck brace. There’s no AARP waiting for you after 40 years in a cubicle. So how do you decide you’re done?
Wright’s still owed $67 million over the next four years. Every article about his injury reminds you that he’s still owed $67 million over the next four years. The only people who should care about that are the ones cutting his check every Friday. I don’t care that the Wilpons are out $67 million over the next four years. And whether Wright decides to keep rehabbing or not likely won’t depend on that figure either. He’s made plenty of money over his career, enough to set him and his baby and his baby’s baby up for life. The money isn’t important.
When Wright signed that eight-year, $138 million extension in December 2012, it seemed like an obscene contract (in the grand scheme of things, at least; all sports contracts seem like obscene contracts to me). But the still-bright eyed third baseman left millions on the table to stay with the team that raised him and to make sure they had room in the budget to support him. He’s not exactly going hungry so the Mets could sign Jerry Blevins three years in a row, but he made a financial decision to stay in Flushing and to do his part to get the team to October.
There was the first hit off Zach Day in July 2004 and the barehanded grab in Seattle in 2005. The walkoff single in the 2009 World Baseball Classic elimination game. The fist pump in September 2015 at Nationals Park and the home run in Game 3 of the World Series. It’s a million little moments in a career that took a wrong turn on the way to Cooperstown. He’s done everything the Mets, and Mets fans, have ever asked of him and now they owe him as long as he wants to decide what comes next.
Wright deserves a ring and a trophy and a parade down Broadway. He deserves to go out in a blaze of glory, or at least to the standing ovation that he’s earned after 13 years in orange and blue. He’s been through the best and the worst the Mets have to offer, the highest highs and the lowest lows, the hope and the despair.
He’s earned the right to keep fighting.
Photo credit: Brad Penner – USA Today Sports