The best baseball player I’ve ever seen is Barry Bonds. I get what you might say. But PEDs or not, I’m just talking about what it was like to watch him. Bonds was unstoppable. It felt like you couldn’t get him out.
The 2004 Mets certainly couldn’t, and honestly, that’s not a shot at the team. Bonds was just otherworldly. And in a three-game series versus the Mets that August, Bonds delivered one of the most awe-inspiring performances I’ve ever seen – 8-for-12, with a homer, five extra-base hits and two walks.
What I’ll remember as much as Bonds’ performance in that series, however, was David Wright.
And the 28th game he ever played in the majors.
In San Francisco on Saturday, August 21, 2004, a 21-year-old Wright went swing-for-swing with a 40-year-old Bonds, who was on the verge of his seventh MVP. Wright went 4-for-6 (his first career four-hit game) with three doubles, while Bonds went 4-for-4 with two doubles, a triple and two walks, the rookie and the legend battling back and forth over the final seven innings of the Mets’ 11-9 win in 12 innings as if they were Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
For my story in The Post, I wrote how it was two gladiators going head to head, that it was even, ahem, David vs. Goliath.
There wasn’t a ton of talent starting for the Mets that day. Want some memories, Mets fans? Eric Valent and Danny Garcia represented the right side of the infield. Jason Phillips caught. Wilson Delgado manned shortstop. Hey, did I mention that Art Howe was the manager? Regardless, they can all say they were there for what I would characterize as Wright’s breakout moment.
As The Post’s Mets beat writer for four seasons from 2004-07, plus as a general assignment reporter from 2008-13, I covered Wright from his career’s infancy through its prime. Over the past few weeks since he announced his retirement, many of the Wright tributes have focused on his character, his classiness, his accountability and his heart — all praiseworthy traits for sure.
But it feels like they’ve overshadowed just how exceptional a player he was.
Consider: From 2005-13, a span of nine seasons, Wright’s average campaign was a .302 average, 23 homers, 93 RBIs, 90 runs, 20 stolen bases, an .890 OPS and a 138 OPS-plus (which factors in league and ballpark). He also captured two Gold Gloves and earned seven All-Star berths (oh, and in his first All-Star game at-bat, he homered).
Ironically, for someone whose career was destroyed by injuries, Wright played 144 games or more in seven of those nine seasons and 154 games or more in six of them. He produced at such an elite level that even with his play dipping in his career’s final seasons, his lifetime OPS-plus is higher than that of Tony Gwynn, Joe Morgan, Wade Boggs, Rod Carew, Dave Winfield, Carl Yastrzemski and Eddie Murray. They all are in the Hall of Fame.
“Do yourself a favor and go back and peep the earlier years of that man who played third base for the Mets. Just sit there and what you know today, look back on what he was then and go, ‘Hall of Famer,’ ” Cliff Floyd, one of Wright’s former teammates, recalled this week when asked what he’d tell people who didn’t witness Wright’s prime. “That’s all I would say. You immediately think this guy’s going to the Hall of Fame.”
Beyond the statistics were Wright’s steadiness, versatility and spirit. He used to talk about how he wanted to be an all-around player. He was. Wright combined patience with extra-base power at the plate, adding speed/smarts on the bases (75 percent stolen base success rate). He was never a dazzling third baseman, but he was athletic and dependable. He also carried himself and conducted himself in a certain way — composed but passionate. High character. Captain-y.
With the Mets in the midst of Collapse Vol. 1 in 2007, infamously flushing their seven-game lead over the Phillies in the final 17 games, I remember the night they actually fell behind Philly with two games remaining. Wright stood at his locker and delivered a soliloquy to reporters, declaring, “Personally, I’m embarrassed” and calling it “pretty pathetic that we have this division within our grasp with seven home games and we can’t find a way to win one of them.”
I can’t recall him ever talking so passionately or urgently before that in his career. By the way, during the Mets’ 17-game collapse, Wright batted .397 with 11 RBIs.
“He had a respectful boy-next-door cockiness that I think is why the veterans took to him so well. He did it right,” former Mets first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz recalled. “You saw his talent obviously and all that other stuff, but he was always laughing, always giggling. He knew when you had to be serious.”
As far as Wright personally, put it this way — one offseason day, I got a text message from him, telling me he got a new cell number, in case I needed it. Think that’s normal? Think that’s even remotely normal from a player of his caliber?
It’s who Wright was, though. In 2006, at the height of his stardom — the Mets were an elite team and Wright was in his first season as an All-Star — he was to be a guest on David Letterman. I asked him if I could cover the taping, to be backstage and chronicle the appearance for The Post. He had no problem with it — in fact, several reporters were granted permission. Again — think that’s normal? Think that’s even remotely normal from a player of his caliber?
A Virginia native, Wright popped up all the time in New York City. I saw him outside Madison Square Garden after a Knicks game. A friend of mine took a spin class with him. He’d dine at a restaurant that another friend worked at. A few years ago after his neck surgery, I bumped into him and his wife Molly on a busy street. He had a huge bandage on the front of his neck, which could have made him incredibly uncomfortable. No matter — there he was, walking the public streets, chatting with me, being friendly.
Wright used to have a Giants football helmet hanging in his locker since he was a fan of theirs. He was also a big Virginia Tech football fan, so when the Giants selected Hokies running back David Wilson in the first round of the 2012 draft, I reached out to Wright. He immediately gave me not only his reaction (“Pumped. Great pick.”) but a scouting report on Wilson for Giants fans (“Great athlete. Very quick. Low center of gravity. Can run inside and fast enough to turn a corner. Beast.”).
In a sad and almost eerie coincidence, Wilson’s career ended prematurely due in part to spinal stenosis — just like Wright. Five years from now, the all-time Met will find himself on the Hall of Fame ballot. He won’t make it to Cooperstown and shouldn’t. But Wright will rank as someone who at his peak could go toe-to-toe with anyone else’s. He showed that in Game 28 of his career.