The House That Wright Built?
The Mets' third baseman hit a three-run home run -- the first official homer by a Met at Citi Field -- to tie the game and send the paid crowd of 41,007 into a frenzy. This was it. This was the defining moment of the new ballpark, on its very first night. The face of the franchise had authored the comeback, and all of the ghosts of miserable Met seasons past could just stay buried under the rubble of Shea Stadium, a parking lot away.
But then came ... the rest of the game.
A three-base error by Ryan Church. A balk by Pedro Feliciano. Scoreless eighth and ninth innings by former Met relievers Duaner Sanchez and Heath Bell to lock down a 6-5 win for the Padres. All sobering reminders that these are still the Mets, and nothing ever comes easy.
"We've had a rough go of it the last few years, and we've gotten a certain type of reputation around the game because of that," Wright said. "And we need to go out there and change that."
These are the words of a team leader, which is what people in and around the Mets have been begging Wright to become for the past couple of years. As the clubhouse disintegrated around then-manager Willie Randolph last spring, players and some coaches (including then-bench coach and current manager Jerry Manuel) pulled Wright aside and told him how huge it would be if he stepped forward and took on the role of team leader. Wright, who didn't turn 26 until December, took a couple of steps in that direction, but they were halting steps. He always worried, in a room full of accomplished veterans, about stepping on toes.
Now, though, there's a different feel about Wright. He looked around the clubhouse in the wake of the disappointing home-opener loss and talked of the ways in which he thinks this year's Mets are different -- the ways in which he, personally, will expect them to be different.
"I think we have a chance to win a lot of games this year," Wright said. "But we need to stay fully focused for nine innings. We need to do the little things right. I'm going to boot plenty of balls this year, but I'm going to try and preach in here how to limit the mental mistakes, not take that bad at-bat out into the field with you, and just be tough. Be a more mentally tough team this year."
Having coughed up large division leads the past two Septembers, the Mets have been labeled around the game as chokers. That is the "reputation" to which Wright referred in that first quote. That's why the fans boo when the starter gives up four runs in the first two innings of the seventh game of the season. That's why it's tempting for the players in that room to want to get off to a red-hot start, run away with things and prove everybody wrong.
And that's why it's important that a voice like Wright's, reflecting the voice of Manuel, is ringing out across that clubhouse, telling the team that it's a good team and will be a better one, as long as it continues to do its mundane work every day.
"We're not quite where I'd like for us to be, but we are where we should be at this point," Manuel said. "I think there are a lot of good things we're doing that are going to manifest themselves into wins. Unfortunately, they're not doing that right now. But I still feel very good about who we are, where we're going and what we're going to accomplish."
As long as they understand they have to keep working at it. That's why Manuel had his entire starting infield out for early infield practice at 3 PM Monday, four hours before game time and almost an hour and a half before batting practice. Manuel wanted to make a point to his veteran infielders about the way they were fielding double-play groundballs. He feels, from watching them, that they're often too careful with a double-play grounder -- that they're thinking about making sure they get one out, rather than trying to get two. He wants double-play grounders to turn into double plays. Calls it a "pet peeve" of his. Says it has nothing to do with a fear that it might be tough to score runs in the new ballpark.
"I'm not satisfied with one out in those situations," Manuel said. "I think that's a mindset that we have to gain as a team. Because we have good defensive players, but I don't want them to be statistical defensive players. I think we have to be focused on winning ballgames."
These little lessons, they're there every day. Wright said the infielders are going to do that early extra work once or twice a week, before batting practice, because it's nice to take groundballs "without line drives whizzing by your ears." There is constant teaching, and a focus on the fundamentals, and a shared belief that, if the work is done right, things will be different this time around, because things just feel different than they used to.
"It comes from what we see and what we feel as a team," center fielder Carlos Beltran said. "You look around, you have guys in here like Francisco Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield. They're confident, veteran players. They've won the World Series. They bring something big to this room."
The Mets would like things to be different at Citi Field. Shea Stadium was the place where Beltran didn't swing in 2006 and where the Marlins knocked them out in 2007 and 2008, and they'd like those memories to stay buried under the rubble. Monday night, in the bottom of the fifth, there was a David Wright moment that made it all seem possible.
If it's going to happen, it's going to be Wright who leads them. And he finally seems to understand that.
"I think the guys that have been through the last couple of years just seem tougher this year," Wright said. "They just seem more focused this year. And I really think that's going to make the difference for us."
Spoken like a true leader.