When A Great Fades

David Wright was one of the best players in the National League before injuries caused him to fade. (via slgckgc)

On September 13, David Wright announced his plans to hang up his cleats after the season ends. He has not played a major league game since May 27, 2016 due to a serious condition called spinal stenosis. Spinal stenosis is difficult enough to live with; playing baseball while dealing with its pains seems almost impossible. Wright will return for one last game; he is set to be activated from the disabled list today. But his career, and his body, can’t support any more innings after.

Marc Carig of The Athletic detailed Wright’s agony as he worked to rehab his back, to overcome the pain, all just to get return to playing the game he loves so much. I imagine reading Carig’s account of Wright’s travails would be difficult for anyone, regardless of the team they root for. But reading about what Wright has gone through was especially difficult for me. He is my favorite player. Long before I learned about sabermetrics, and long before I started blogging about baseball, I was just a regular Mets fan. Of course the Mets have had their fair share of great players since I was born in 1982. I love catchers, so naturally I was a big fan of Hall of Famer Mike Piazza. As a Puerto Rican, I could not have been more excited when future Hall of Famer Carlos Beltrán joined the team and had some of his best years in New York. But for some reason, David Wright stood out among the rest.

Wright has always been popular among Mets fans and the baseball media. He was the face of the franchise. He played in baseball’s biggest media market. He was seen as handsome, dignified, honorable. And of course, he was really, really good at baseball. He was no Derek Jeter, but you can see the similarities that made him a fan favorite.

I saw David Wright in person for the first time on June 5, 2010. I went with my wife and my parents for our inaugural trip to the relatively new Citi Field. I purposely got seats on the third base side to see him up close. I proudly wore my David Wright jersey, which to this day is the only Mets jersey I’ve ever owned. It was a day game and the weather was beautiful. The Mets won, beating the Marlins 6-1, and I got to watch Wright hit a home run. Things have been rockier since. The Mets finished below .500 that year and did not have a successful season until their 2015 run to the World Series. The years since have been marked by disappointment, tarnished by promise unfulfilled.

A couple of years after that game, I discovered ESPN’s Baseball Today Podcast. It revolutionized the way I saw and understood the game. It was part of a chain of discovery that is likely familiar to many readers here. I began reading FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Beyond the Box Score. I sought out new stats by which to evaluate my favorite players; to understand my Mets. It opened my eyes to prospect evaluation. I began tracking all the teams, not just my favorite one.

I’m not the Mets fan I used to be. Part of the change has stemmed from the embarrassments the organization has suffered on the field and inflicted on itself off of it. But that isn’t all. I began writing about baseball in early 2014. Not just the Mets, either. The whole sport. It is not a new observation to note that writing about a sport can alter one’s fandom. You spend your evenings staring at numbers, trying to make fact-based, logical arguments. Your experience of the sport become as much about meeting deadlines and post quotas as your favorite team’s postseason aspirations. You hunt for a good story; you care less about the identity of its characters.

When I learned about Wright’s spinal stenosis diagnosis in 2015, I felt a shift. He was already averaging just 126 games per season over the four years prior. I feared his career was over. I tried to delude myself into believing he could continue playing in a more limited capacity. At the time, it was reported that Mets doctors were optimistic, but then, they didn’t exactly have a sterling reputation. I researched spinal stenosis to try and alleviate my fears, but what I found only exacerbated them. I didn’t see how he could do anything other than retire. Wright played only 30 more games that season plus 14 more during the playoffs. He played 37 games through the end of 2016 May before hitting the DL, where he has been ever since.

Perhaps because of Wright’s diagnosis, the Mets’ magical 2015 season wasn’t as fun as it should have been. Don’t get me wrong, it was plenty fun. But my disappointment at the Mets losing the World Series was only a fraction of the heartbreak I felt when I saw Beltrán strikeout looking against an Adam Wainwright curveball to end the Mets’ 2006 season. Something had shifted again.

I haven’t watched the Mets regularly since the first half of the 2016 season, mostly because they have been so bad. I live in Boston, a city that frequently fields competitive teams, and I am married to a Red Sox fan, so I watch a lot of Red Sox baseball. There is no reason to subject myself to watch a Mets team that I don’t want to watch.

2016 was also the last time I went to Citi Field. It was that year’s Baseball Prospectus event. I’m not saying that I regret going, but a lot of things worked against me that day. It was rainy. The walk from my hotel to the ballpark wasn’t enjoyable. Even though there was an 80 percent chance that I would get to see Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, or Steven Matz pitch the game when I made my plans, it was Logan Verrett who was slated to toe the rubber that night. Neither Michael Conforto nor Yoenis Céspedes played. The Mets lost, as they often do. The best parts of my evening were getting to watch Max Scherzer pitch, and listening to some great prospect talk from Baseball Prospectus’ prospect team. Even when the Mets inspired, it was with talk of the future, far out and uncertain, and decidedly removed from the moment.

I didn’t think of Wright much after he receded into the agony of his diagnosis. My Mets fandom had been chipped away; I have been preoccupied with much more interesting baseball. There were occasional reminders, though. The subject of Wright came briefly back into my life when I attended a book signing event held by Jay Jaffe and Keith Law during All-Star weekend. Jaffe and Law hosted a Q&A before signing books, and one man in attendance asked if they believed Wright to be a Hall of Famer.

I agreed with their answer: No, David Wright is not worthy of the Hall of Fame. Had he been able to play a long, healthy career, maybe things would be different. But his career and his situation, sympathetic almost to the point of tragedy, doesn’t support a Hall of Fame case. As I heard the answer, I found myself strangely unmoved by the fact that my favorite player, a player in whose candidacy I was once very invested, was never going to get to Cooperstown.

The Physics of Being Hit by a Pitch
It may still leave a bruise, but physics suggests a few ways to lessen the impact of a hit-by-pitch.

So when the news broke of David Wright retiring, I was shocked by how sad I was. I hadn’t seen him play in well over two years. I had assumed that I would never see him play again. I had prepared for this news since his diagnosis in 2015. After all, how can somebody play baseball with that condition? There are people who have trouble living normal lives with spinal stenosis.

Not baseball lives, everyday lives, pick up your kids lives. And yet sadness struck me.

None of this should make me feel the way I do. I shouldn’t be surprised at the news, but I am. I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m this sad, but I am. It’s like my inner Mets fan had been temporarily resurrected. Thinking about David Wright retiring brought me back to that 11-year-old kid excited to go to Shea Stadium for the first time and see Bobby Bonilla play. It brought me back to that person who was excited to go to Citi Field for the first time to see his favorite player, a person that didn’t know or care about wRC+ or WAR or FIP or sample size. It brought me back to a person who utterly lost it when Johan Santana threw a no-hitter and called his dad to share the news even though it was late, a person who didn’t know or care that no-hitters are mostly luck.

I’ve picked myself back up by reminding myself that Wright will make his way into the Mets Hall of Fame one day. It’s a smaller Hall, less grand than Cooperstown, but right there, close to home, near to those who loved him best.I look forward to one day having my picture taken with his plaque at Citi Field.

Once Wright’s final game comes and goes and enough time passes, I’m sure I’ll go back to being the same curmudgeonly Mets fan I’ve been of late, largely disinterested. They’ll do a Mets thing- it probably won’t take long- and the fandom will wane again. I will still be writing about baseball. But I’ll still feel sadness when I think of Wright. I suppose emotional attachments to players don’t ever fully fade. They might change, feel less immediate, less urgent. They shift to the side to make room for other things. But they never fully fade. I don’t know that I will be able to make it to Wright’s final game, but I promise I’ll at least be watching while wearing my Wright jersey. I still have it.


Luis Torres is a chemist with over 11 years experience specializing in organic and medicinal chemistry. He also writes about baseball at Beyond the Box Score. Follow him on Twitter @chemtorres21.
newest oldest most voted
yaboynate
Member
yaboynate

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light

Jim
Member
Member
Jim

Very, very nice, Chem.

gblasius
Member
gblasius
Meh. DW was a great player for a period of time, a star whose character made him a fan favorite. He was a true captain whose biggest sacrifice was signing the extension during the depths of only the latest Metsian despair. That was a shot in the arm to all suffering Met fans. As a lifelong Met fan who idolized Tom Seaver, I differ with the author on a few points. The 2015 pennant race and WS was perhaps the BEST time to watch DW. What Met fan can forget DW’s home run in his FIRST at-bat upon return from… Read more »
pedeysRSox
Member
pedeysRSox

Wishing DW gets a home run and lots of happiness to help not think about the pain.

Barney Coolio
Member
Barney Coolio

Today I learned that Don Henley of the Eagles was always in tremendous back pain because of trying to play the drums while straining to reach the microphone. I would think that nowadays, he would have a microphone headset.