PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- David Wright is easy to spot at Mets camp. In these early days of Spring Training, before position players are required to report, Wright moves around campus in an electric orange T-shirt; nearly everyone else wears blue.
Each morning, Wright carries a small iced coffee around the clubhouse as he performs his mayoral duties. He chats up coaches. He jokes with owner Jeff Wilpon. He glad-hands national television reporters if they happen to be on site.
Wright does all this while smiling, laughing, hiding the burden of losing. He has done this for enough years now that he must pause when considering them.
"It's crazy to think that I'm going to be 30," Wright said, setting the coffee atop his locker. "It's crazy to think that."
It is crazy to consider that Wright will turn 30 in December not because of his age or limitations -- "I still feel youthful," the third baseman said -- but because of what he has not accomplished. The brightest young star on baseball's brightest young team in 2006, Wright has never budged as the Mets have transformed around him. He is the longest-tenured Met now that Jose Reyes is a Marlin. Such is his reality. But this was not the plan he envisioned once upon a career, when everything was snapping into place so neatly.
"There's just this burning desire in me to win," Wright said. "I invest so much into this that this is basically -- it's my life. When I stop feeling like that, when it stops feeling that important or when I know that it's winding down, it may be time to move on and try something else. Because that fire is burning pretty good right now."
And yet here is Wright, helpless to alter circumstances as he enters the most significant crossroads of his career. He is the Mets, as Derek Jeter is the Yankees, as Chipper Jones is the Braves, as Albert Pujols was once the Cardinals. It is not just that Wright so desperately wants to win a World Series, it's that he so desperately wants to win one for the Mets.
He makes that distinction clear.
"It's something that just kind of eats at you and eats at you," Wright said. "Failure is just something that, it bothers you so much that you want to do everything that's in your power to make sure that it doesn't happen."
Daniel Murphy arrived in Flushing shortly after the Trade Deadline in 2008, at a time when the Mets were still fighting daily for a berth in baseball's postseason gala. Something always seemed to be happening with the Mets, who scored dramatic victories and suffered devastating losses almost routinely. And yet Wright never changed.
"That's what impressed me the most about him," Murphy said. "You knew how much he cared, but he had enough maturity in the game to understand that, though he may have struggled tonight, he's still got to get ready to go to battle tomorrow. To see that in the middle of a pennant race, that was impressive."
Nearly four years later, Wright is surrounded by players who grew up watching him on television. Many of the organization's brightest young talents were in middle school when the Mets selected Wright 38th overall in the 2001 Draft.
"He's the face of the team," said top pitching prospect Matt Harvey, who grew up within the Mets' sphere of influence in Connecticut. "For everybody that knows baseball, if you hear the name David Wright, you would automatically think Mets."
If this notion unsettles Wright, he does not show it. Though the Mets never named Wright captain -- and appear even more unlikely to do so now, given the murkiness of his future -- he has served as the team's de facto leader for years. His high-pitched voice carries the most weight in the clubhouse. His words carry gravitas with the media.
That has not changed despite the fact that Wright has been an inconsistent performer since 2008. The following season, his first at Citi Field, Wright struck out 140 times in 144 games, producing a career-low 10 home runs. Though he rebounded to produce 29 homers in 2010, his strikeout rate remained high while his on-base percentage plummeted.
|"There's just this burning desire in me to win. I invest so much into this that this is basically -- it's my life."|
|-- David Wright|
A stress fracture in his lower back robbed Wright of any chance to sustain quality production in 2011, sidelining him for two months and affecting him for an even longer stretch than that.
Which brings Wright to 2012, perhaps the most significant individual year of his career. How he performs could determine whether he is still here in two years, or five, or 10. Wright's stated goal is to be with the Mets for has long as he is playing, "hopefully right here with some jewelry."
"That's my dream," Wright said.
That is why he does what he does, setting his coffee aside to meet and greet and teach and lead. He does not have to do these things. Many players of his stature do not. But he is a Mets fan as much as a Mets third baseman, burning daily for the team to succeed.
"When I'm done with my playing career, I want to be able to put my head on my pillow and say I did everything I could to get the most out of my ability," Wright said. "Because I'm a realist. I look out on the field over the course of 162 games and I don't have the most ability on the field. But I feel like I'll be OK at the end of my career if I look back and say, 'You know what? I worked as hard as I could, I busted my tail and I got the most out of what I could with my body and my ability.'"
Face of the franchise
Wright's coffee is nearly empty as he roams toward the clubhouse entrance, stopping to chat with ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" crew. He meanders elsewhere and jokes about the not-so-legitimate 89 he shot on a local golf course the day before, playing alongside Wilpon.
This, too, is what it means to be the face of a franchise. It used to be a group shot, a panorama with Wright and Reyes at the center and half a dozen others posed around them. Even as the frame began shrinking, Reyes remained to share the burden, the interviews, the frustrations, the memories. Now he, too, is gone, leaving Wright alone amongst a sea of unfamiliar faces.
Wright is the one who regularly goes golfing with Mets VIPs; Wright is the one who speaks for the team; Wright is the one who attends every function, every fundraiser, every funeral. Wright is the one who deflects criticism and so often keeps his frustrations to himself. He does this despite an organization that has slashed payroll around him, an organization whose principal owner, Fred Wilpon, criticized him in a national magazine last summer.
Wright grew up a Mets fan, a quick drive from the team's Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk, Va. It is not a stretch to say that over the past decade, he has become one of the most dedicated soldiers in franchise history.
That is why Wright is so quick to deflect any talk of impending endings. The Mets hold a $16 million option on his contract for 2013, with rumors indicating that he may not last that long. It seems at once both unfathomable and quite possible. This is, after all, the same franchise that recently let Reyes defect to the rival Marlins, that once traded Tom Seaver. Perhaps in a baseball sense, Wright has not been as impactful as either of them. But from a marketing or even a sentimental perspective, he has a chance to become more significant than both.
"It would be true of any player who has been here for a number of years -- a younger player, an older player, a star player, an average player," general manager Sandy Alderson said. "The relationship grows."
This past offseason, Wright was the only Major League player whom Alderson deemed completely untouchable, though that had little to do with the third baseman's stature. The Mets knew it would have been silly to shop a player coming off a major injury and the worst offensive season of his career; his value is unlikely to do anything but rise in 2012, especially given his health and Citi Field's friendlier dimensions.
So Wright will press onward for at least another half-season before learning whether a trade is imminent. If not, the Mets will pick up his contract option and he will undoubtedly endure an ever-increasing slew of rumors. But what can he do?
"Maybe it's just the type of person I am in general -- I'm not good at making plans for the future," Wright said. "I'm not a free agent. I don't have a no-trade."
And as for the future, "I'd rather be somewhere where I want to be, and be happy, than try to drain every single dollar out of whatever organization."
In other words, Wright would rather win -- specifically with the Mets, preferably soon -- at a time when no one quite knows if that is possible to do.