Wright's way is right way on, off field
Teammates call Mets' young leader 'too good to be true'
The baseball sped toward his face, imperiling his good looks, his cranium and his livelihood. And 10 days later, it happened again. Each time, David Wright flinched. Each time he tried to duck away from the danger. He was 1-for-2.
What happens now, in the aftermath of his being struck in the head and suffering a concussion Saturday, is unclear even to his doctors. The pitch from Giants starter Matt Cain that struck Wright in the helmet and jeopardized the rest of his season will test his courage whenever he steps into the batter's box again. Not even he knows whether or how long he'll be batting with the side of his head in the back of his mind.
The first episode had ended with greater certainty, no consequences for Wright and far less concern for the Mets' third baseman. He had avoided a high and tight fastball from Cardinals reliever Brad Thompson. And that was the end of that. He neither charged the mound nor jawed at the opponent who had delivered a message in a most unsettling way. Not so much as a glare did Wright direct toward Thompson, though he strongly suspected intent. He merely collected himself, stepped into the batter's box and continued his at-bat.
Inaction sometimes is the wisest form of reaction and quite difficult to summon up. Courage takes different forms. The pitch from Thompson certainly moved Wright off the plate. It did not move him away from his principles, though. And the stoicism he demonstrated in that first episode was appreciated.
"There are rules on the books and my personal view. I've been hit in the head, and I take a pretty dim view of those pitchers," Bob Watson said last week. "We didn't have an on-field incident because of the way David reacted to that. I commend him for that. That's the kind of example we need to set."
Watson is baseball's law and order honcho. Cross the line, and you have crossed him. He may order you to remain seated for a few games and reach into your wallet. The authority of MLB's vice president of on-field operations, however, was only part of the reason Wright, intense as he is, reacted as he did.
"I know the right way to respond," Wright said a day later. "I always weigh the options and try to keep an even keel. Things do get under your skin. And it's tough to restrain yourself when someone is trying to injure you. But you must have restraint."
Restraint and his informed and measured reactions are integral components of the character of the Mets' de facto captain. They are parts of what makes the sound of his surname an allegory -- Daddy Warbucks, Mr. Goodbar, David Wright. But despite facetious words to the contrary -- "That dude is too good to be true," Cliff Floyd often would say when Wright was a rookie -- Wright isn't fictitious.
He is honorable, virtuous, righteous and sincere. And he can hit. He plays the game properly, keeps himself fit and partakes of the proper food groups. He opens doors for ladies, refers to a senior as Mister, honors his mother and father, wears his patriotic pride on his sleeves and says excuse me, please and thank you.
When he arrived in the big leagues and began to make his mark off the field as well as on it, a veteran reporter was asked, "Would you like to be his agent?"
The response was, "No. I'd rather be his father."
Wright runs when he's supposed to, speaks when spoken to, ducks fastballs but not issues, talks to the media after the most troubling losses, represents the Mets and other companies without misspeaking, stands for good and would have appeared on boxes of Wheaties had the Mets played in the 2006 World Series.
If that isn't leadership, it'll have to do till the real thing comes along.
Mets teammates now defer to him as Mets teammates once did to Tom Seaver, Keith Hernandez, Robin Ventura and Tom Glavine, as Wright did to Todd Zeile, Mike Piazza and Carlos Delgado. "Ask David" is an increasingly common suggestion in the clubhouse.
The highest praise a veteran player has for a plebe is what often was directed at Wright in 2004 -- "He gets it." He was 22 then. Floyd, Glavine, Zeile and always earnest Joe McEwing were upstanding baseball citizens. In his first seasons, Wright gravitated to them, and, in an understandable but unusual development, they to him.
"You weren't put off by how he conducted himself," Glavine says now.
"He plays hard and carries himself professionally. He's what you want as a teammate or, if you own the team, as an employee. No maintenance. I don't want to set off any alarms here, but the way David goes about his business on and off the field, he's like Derek Jeter -- such a professional. I was around Murph [Dale Murphy] after he'd won his MVPs, and he was the face of the organization. And I saw how he treated everyone around him. It was inspiring. David's that way. What the media sees and how it portrays him isn't any different from what he is in the locker room."
That behavior pattern, his philanthropy (The David Wright Foundation) and Richie Cunningham countenance have fostered a pristine image that has kept Wright's name in the back pages of New York's three tabloids with the runs, hits and defensive misplays. The errors he makes are as a Gold Glove third baseman. His life isn't fodder for Page Six and other scandal sheets.
In that way and in others, Wright has created a reputation similar to that of Jeter, the Yankees deity. The two are symbols of their teams, unblemished faces of their organizations. Wright often has expressed admiration for Jeter, and the Yankees shortstop has reciprocated, specifically as it applies to Wright's generosity.
"He deserves a lot of credit for starting the David Wright Foundation," Jeter says. "I know how difficult it is to start a foundation at a young age, how much time it takes. I think a lot of people do great things in giving money to charity, but getting more personally involved and starting a foundation is difficult to do. He should be commended for that."
And of course, performance is a major component; .220 hitters and third basemen with less-than-supple hands seldom are leaders. The Mets third baseman has emerged as one of the game's elite players in the equivalent of five-plus seasons in the big leagues. As recently as last week, only Albert Pujols had more hits than Wright among National League players since July 21, 2004, the day Wright played his first game. Moreover, Wright already ranks fifth in career RBIs and 10th in career hits in Mets history.
His home run and run production are down this season, at least partially a function of the Mets' spacious new ballpark. But if Wright were to hit 15 home runs and drive in 75 runs this season -- no longer likely because of the concussion and his assignment to the disabled list -- he would put his averages for five full seasons at 26 home runs and 105 RBIs. His average steals per seasons already have exceeded 20. He has won two Gold Gloves. And, before the concussion, he had played virtually every day despite ailments he wants to deny.
He once was a Cal Ripken devotee. Need more be said?
But Wright is quick to say his father Rhon, a police captain, and mother Elisa, a teacher, are most responsible for how he lives his life. They believed in what Wright now characterizes as a "stern upbringing." The line between right and wrong was not thinly drawn for him and his three younger brothers.
Moreover, Wright learned his baseball and his life lessons in and around Norfolk, Va., "a military town" as he calls it. A respect for authority developed naturally.
"I have a ton of respect for those guys," he said. "A lot of the kids I graduated from high school with have gone on to serve our country. I really appreciate what those men and women do for us."
His politics rarely show. His generosity and concern for his fellow man suggest he has the Obama gene. He lists the visit he and his father made to then-President George W. Bush at the White House as "the greatest perk" away from the game. He has interest in politics, though not as it involves David Allen Wright. Leadership appeals to him and appears to be in his genetic coding.
"I learned from my parents what it was to be a leader," Wright said. "I try to bring that to the clubhouse and the baseball field. Both of my parents have tremendous leadership qualities and some of that has rubbed off on me. From Day 1, they instilled in me that it's good to be a leader. You want to be a leader and not necessarily a follower. I enjoy being the guy up front and making the decisions."
And taking a position when one needs to be taken and saying what needs to be said.
When Lastings Milledge, something of a renegade teammate, reported late to the park in 2006, Wright, as much as any player and more than most, told him what was acceptable and what wasn't. When the Mets endured painful shortfalls in the final weekends of the '07 and '08 seasons, it was Wright more than others, who was available, accountable and forthright.
The situations were trying on their own merit. It was more challenging for Wright because he felt it proper to defer to more senior team members until he recognized their absence. Then he filled the void. The Mets had grown concerned that too much responsibility had fallen to Wright. And when Delgado, hardly a team spokeman, was assigned to the disabled list in May, manager Jerry Manuel publicly urged Wright to assert himself in Delgado's absence though that had happened two years earlier.
"With each year, I feel more comfortable in that role even with the veterans we have now, the guys who have spent more time in the big leagues than I have," Wright said last week. "I think they respect me in that role, just as I respect them. If I have something to say I'm going to say it. It doesn't matter how much time they have or don't have. I think they respect me for it. I'm going to give my opinion."
And now his opinion counts more than ever.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.