John Harper, for SNY.tv | Twitter |
David Wright was 18 years old when Howard Johnson first coached him in the fall of 2001 during Instructional League workouts, and for the next decade no one in baseball had a closer relationship with the Mets' rising young third baseman than HoJo.
Year by year they advanced through the minors together, hitting coach and star pupil, and they spent many of Wright's best years in the majors together as well, forming a bond so tight that each compared it to a father-son relationship.
Throw in HoJo's background as the most accomplished third baseman in Mets' history, pre-Wright, and if anyone was sure of what he was seeing in the kid from Virginia Beach, it was the retired old pro.
"It wasn't long into his career that I remember thinking, 'Man, this guy is going to be a Hall of Famer,' " Johnson said by phone this week. "He did everything right. He was the kind of kid you love to coach because of how hard he worked, how quickly he picked up anything you suggested to him, and how humble he was.
"He had the ability, obviously, but I've been a lot of guys with ability, and it takes more than that. David took great care of himself, physically, mentally…there was no way he wasn't going to be a Hall of Famer, but then, for some reason his body gave out on him.
"Maybe it's because he played so hard every night. That's what you loved about him, but when your body gives out, there's nothing you can do. I went through that myself, so I appreciate how hard he's had to work to get back to play again. I know it means the world to him."
As the Texas Rangers' Triple-A hitting coach these days, up with the big club for the final weekend of the season in Seattle, HoJo said he will try to watch Wright via TV in his celebrated start Saturday night at Citi Field, hoping for the best.
Yet he admits it will be bittersweet, noting that Wright said at his recent press conference he doesn't believe his injuries will allow him to play on a regular basis again.
"I think playing again will give him great satisfaction for a lot of reasons," Johnson said, "but if this is the end it will be very difficult for anybody who knows him, and for David too because this isn't something he thought would happen to him.
"The good thing is no matter what he does (Saturday night), I think everybody in their mind is going to have the vision of him as that young David Wright, the great player, the leader. He's one of the greatest Mets of all time.''
Yes, with better health in recent years (he's played in only 75 regular-season games since the beginning of the 2015 season), the 35-year old Wright almost certainly would have made good on HoJo's vision of a Hall of Fame career, after putting up big numbers in his 20s.
Yet Johnson chuckled when asked if reaching the Hall of Fame was something the two of them ever discussed.
"No, his only goal was to beat me in every statistic he could," HoJo said. "He loved it every time he passed me in another category, and I was more than happy to see him do it, because he was truly like a son to me."
Wright did pass his mentor in almost every offensive category at the top of the list of Mets' third basemen, many of them while HoJo was the team's hitting coach through the 2010 season.
As such the two men shared a lot of great times, on and off the field, competing in golf and bowling during spring training and the off-season, spending time together fishing and jet-skiing as well.
"We were super-competitive," Johnson recalled. "David loved to get under my skin on the golf course. He'd make me putt everything out, even from a foot away. We had a lot of fun together, and it made it that much more rewarding to see him turn into the great player everyone in the organization thought he could be."
Looking back, HoJo cited two accomplishments as being perhaps most important to them as a duo: the first was Wright's 30-30 season in 2007, when he hit 30 home runs and stole 34 bases, joining Johnson, who did it three different times, in that exclusive club.
"That was a cool thing and a big deal," HoJo said. "David wanted to be pushed to do it. In spring training that year it was like, 'ok, we're going to do this.' "
The second was more poignant: in his first at-bat of the 2010 season, Wright hit a home run off the Marlins' Josh Johnson, then a hard-throwing righthander. It resonated with HoJo because he had watched Wright struggle to come back the previous September, after being beaned by a Matt Cain fastball in August and missing time while on the disabled list.
"I was almost in tears when he hit that ball out," HoJo said. "Not many people know how far that Cain beaning got to him. Nobody comes back from something like that easy. There were demons he had to work through.
"I don't want to get into it too deep because a lot of it was very personal. But it was a difficult time for him and to see him get through it was a tribute to him. When he hit that home run, I knew he'd have a great year."
Wright went on to hit 29 home runs that season, even though his natural power to right-center was compromised by the spacious dimensions of Citi Field, which had opened in 2009, and as he turned 28 years old that December he seemed very much on his way to having a day in Cooperstown in his future.
Injuries to his back, neck and shoulder have robbed Wright of that shot at baseball immortality, but as HoJo said, it shouldn't diminish the appreciation for what he did as a player and how he carried himself on and off the field.
"We're so statistics-oriented now in baseball," Johnson said, "that I think one of the things that gets lost is how hard a guy plays. Does he answer the ball every night and give 100 percent?
"As a coach that's what you look for because when the difficult times come, that's what's going to get you to the next level. Nobody came more ready to play every day, with a higher level of concentration, than David.
"He never changed, either. He never got blown away by the fame or the money. He always felt like he owed it to the fans, to the people he worked for, to be that kind of player every day.
"So whatever he does Saturday night, whatever happens from there, he'll always be that same David Wright to me."