Andy Martino, SNY.tv | Twitter |
"This is how a lot of American boys learn about mortality, by watching a sports figure. You see him come up as a baby, as a rookie, becoming a young man in the game, and then aging -- having to work at what came naturally. And then physically failing, and not being as good, and fading away and retiring, all in the space of 20 years. And you say, 'life is short.'"
-- Roger Angell on Ted Williams
1. The only time I've cried about baseball as an adult was on a Saturday night earlier this month. A few days before, David Wright had sobbed through a news conference announcing that he was medically unable to play baseball. After a busy week, I finally had a few minutes to tell my wife about it.
She remembered me coming home from Shea Stadium in May of 2008, after my first assignment as an intern in the sports department at the New York Daily News. There were some tough old veterans on that Mets team, from Pedro Martinez to Carlos Delgado, and my stomach churned through the whole experience.
After the game, Adam Rubin, the beat writer for the News, introduced me to Wright. I was 27, Wright was 25, and he reminded me of a friend's amiable little brother. "Oh you're at the Daily News! Congratulations!" he said. He had an excitable manner that made him sound at times like he was chirping.
For the rest of the season, Wright ribbed me constantly for asking too many follow-up questions -- and he also gave me all the time I needed. If this was covering big-time New York baseball, I thought, this wasn't so hard after all.
My wife remembered the way that he set me at ease that first night on the job, and it was always in the background of our appreciation of him.
2. One night after a game in 2012, Wright was in the middle of a long interview with an unfamiliar reporter. The guy was struggling with his questions and taking way too long.
This caught the attention of catcher Josh Thole, whose locker was nearby. "Who's that?" Thole mouthed to me. We in sports media sometimes do this ugly thing where we undermine others because of our own insecurity, and here I fell into the trap.
I shrugged and smiled at Thole, and probably giggled behind the poor guy's back. Ugh.
Once the interview ended and the guy was out of earshot, Wright turned his focus to me.
What follows aren't exact quotes, but his message and most of his words are burned into my memory:
"I remember when you first came out here, how nervous you were," Wright said, before launching an imitation of a kid with a wobbly voice. "Mr. Wright, do you have a minute, please?"
He was correct, of course, so I stood there and took it. David Wright, infinitely more accomplished at his profession than I, could give a person time and respect. And I couldn't? It was time to get over myself.
3. Teammates could hear that type of real talk, too, when it was appropriate. One spring training, a player who had signed as a free agent that winter wanted to get to his locker, but reporters were blocking it to interview Johan Santana.
The player complained to Wright, and the captain told him to suck it up. This is New York, he said, you have to deal with it.
4. Wright and Ike Davis weren't immediately close in 2010, when Davis arrived at the franchise's most-hyped phenom since Wright himself.
There was never a problem between the two, but Wright was at his least knowable during those mid-career years. Friendly and available since arriving in 2004, Wright endured a career-threatening beaning in 2009, and saw his power numbers take an alarming dip.
The Mets had moved into a new ballpark that seemed specifically designed to rob him of home runs, and a dreary period of losing had begun. Wright seemed to retreat.
He was always pleasant and professional, but struck some of his newer teammates as a bit more Jeter-like in his remoteness. Still, the garrulous Davis eventually won him over, and the two were good friends by the time the first baseman's once-promising career had taken a dreary turn.
After colliding with Wright on the infield in Colorado one night in 2011 and suffering a bone bruise in his ankle, Davis was never the same. He was one of the unlucky players whose body simply betrayed him too early.
By 2014, Davis had washed out in New York, and the Mets gave him away to the Pittsburgh Pirates. On the night of that trade, when Davis wasn't even technically a teammate anymore, Wright's leadership cut as deeply as ever.
Hours before Wright's game on Saturday, Davis texted this previously untold story:
"He came in the shower in his uniform and told me to get a towel because he wanted a hug but I didn't think that was appropriate lol. He doesn't go out very much but that night he made me choose a bar and we had a couple of beers and talked.
"He is one of the few people in baseball that I will always look up to. On and off the field. I am a better person today because I got to play with him."
5. On March 9, 2016, Wright flew from Port St. Lucie to New York to attend the memorial services for Shannon Forde, the beloved media relations staffer who died of cancer at 44. This was a devastating loss to the organization, and to Wright personally, because he'd been close with Shannon since before he was a rookie.
The team held a service in the Foxwoods Club at Citi Field, and Wright felt that he should speak, even though that was not in the original plans. He had not prepared remarks, and stepped to the lectern figuring he would wing it.
Fighting tears, Wright looked directly at Shannon's young son Nicholas and talked about her selflessness. His eulogy was as eloquent and moving as any trained public speaker's could have been, and you sat there thinking, "Where in the world did they find this guy? Where does he get these reserves of feeling and intelligence? This is not a typical ballplayer, not at all."
After he spoke, Wright took his seat and wrapped his arm around PR chief Jay Horwitz, who loved Shannon like a daughter, and he kept it there for most of the service.
6. I shared these stories with my wife that night in our living room, my voice wobbling the entire time. This melancholy was not entirely rational, because there were many beautiful elements of this month.
Wright was able to engineer his own ending, and this game brought so many nice moments, from his daughter Olivia's first pitch, to his speech at the end about love, to the several minutes he spent in a hallway with the Mets' in-game production staff, thanking them for the work they did on his tribute materials. But as even Wright admitted after midnight on Sunday morning, he was not at peace with how it ended, and he did not want to remove his jersey.
I've been bummed since early September, when I traveled to Las Vegas to interview Wright. After his final minor league rehab game, we stood in a hallway outside the locker room, and reflected on the past decade. He was sentimental but at peace, and excited about the possibility of making a brief return to the Mets. After a long conversation, we shook hands and parted.
It was in retelling this to my wife that I really started to break. Sitting in an armchair in our living room, I said that I'd marked time by covering Wright, his was as noble a career as is possible in sports, and I would miss it. That's it. I would miss it. Like Ike Davis, I was a better person for knowing David Wright.
I buried my face in my hands and cried, hard enough that my shoulders shook, and didn't feel better for a long time.