Don Mattingly recognized the feeling. He first knew it a generation ago, at the very end of his own career as a baseball captain in New York. Never mind the standings, said Mattingly, the visiting manager at Citi Field on Saturday night. Just look at the stands.
“This is more like a playoff atmosphere,” Mattingly said as his Miami Marlins gathered for batting practice. “When you come out for B.P., there’s already people sitting in those top seats — and you know they’re going to fill up.”
The stands filled up for David Wright. He had not started a baseball game in 854 days. He will never start one again. His body has repeatedly betrayed him; he could not orchestrate the broad strokes of his baseball goodbye.
But Wright could do this much: He could find his way into the Mets’ lineup one last time, after a pinch-hitting cameo on Friday. He could add one more line to his career statistics, an everlasting reminder that he took every punch and still rose.
“He hasn’t played in two years, but I still think of him as our third baseman, our guy, our leader,” said Michael Conforto, the young outfielder who scored in the 13th inning for a 1-0 Mets victory. “Even though I didn’t play with him that long, growing up as a fan, the only thing I knew about the New York Mets was David. I knew Jose Reyes and David.”
Only Ed Kranepool played more games for the Mets than Wright. No Met has more hits than Wright — or more runs, walks, strikeouts, runs batted in or plate appearances. Wright joined the organization at 18, drafted 38th over all from Hickory High School in Chesapeake, Va., in 2001. The Mets always knew he was special.
“He could not have been more polite, and that never wavered,” said Steve Phillips, who was the Mets’ general manager then. “Throughout the minor leagues, he was always the captain of every team he played on — he always played hard, always practiced hard, always cared for his teammates. That was so consistent, right from the start.”
This was during Derek Jeter’s prime across town, and in Wright, the Mets believed they had found their own version, with Reyes as his speedy sidekick at shortstop. The duo brought the Mets to a game from the World Series in 2006, and Wright remained nine years later, when they finally broke through.
His rousing home run against Kansas City in Game 3 — the first World Series homer at Citi Field — was as good as it ever got for Wright. Two nights later, the Royals preyed on his damaged throwing arm and won the championship. After the World Series, Wright’s career would last just 39 more games.
The comparison to Mattingly is imperfect. By 1995, when he retired from the Yankees, Mattingly had learned to manage his localized back pain. He chose to leave for family reasons, not physical ones. But like Wright, Mattingly was a one-team captain whose back problems steered him off a course bound for Cooperstown.
“For me, the end of your career wasn’t what you were able to do early on; I’m sure David will have some of that,” Mattingly said. “But I think, in general, you just look back and you’re thankful and grateful. You never know what you’re going to get. You played in the big leagues, you did what you did, and the reasons are whatever the reasons.”
Wright, 35, played 1,585 games across 14 active seasons, with 1,777 hits and a .296 batting average. His reason for leaving — with two years left on his contract, mostly covered by insurance — is the scourge of spinal stenosis and the operations on his back, shoulder and neck.
Michael Cuddyer, Wright’s old friend from Virginia and his teammate on the 2015 pennant winners, showed up for the game on Saturday. He acknowledged the physical toll on Wright, but said it was not the most significant challenge.
“Everybody in the big leagues or professional sports works hard physically,” Cuddyer said. “The mental anguish that he’s had to overcome, the mental setbacks, and continue to grind through it, speaks to the character that he’s got and the grit that he has.”
All of Wright’s operations — and the crushing, failed recovery attempts that followed — happened between his last game in May 2016 and his return on Friday. But so did the birth of Wright’s two daughters, including Olivia Shea, 2, who tossed the first pitch to her father on Saturday. A beaming Wright scooped her up, with a kiss.
By then, Wright had charged to the field by himself, to his old spot at third base. He had to wave his teammates out to join him. One of them was Reyes, starting again with Wright for the 878th time, the most games together for any players in franchise history.
“I told him before the game, ‘I’m going to play the line, and you get everything else,’” Wright said.
Reyes, who is coming to the end of his contract but may not retire, led off the bottom of the first with a double. He moved to third on a sacrifice bunt, giving Wright a chance to drive in his old pal. Instead, Wright walked, and was forced out at second on a double play.
In the top of the third, Wright fielded a grounder by Bryan Holaday and slung a sidearm throw — the only kind he can still make — to first for the out. He made no more plays in the field and came to bat one more time, leading off the fourth.
Wright swung at a 1-0 fastball from the rookie Trevor Richards. He smiled as the ball climbed higher and higher, but not far enough to fall into the stands. First baseman Peter O’Brien drifted over — somewhat reluctantly, it seemed — and caught it for the out. That would be the moment that ended Wright’s career, and the fans booed O’Brien with gusto the next time he batted.
“I felt bad for the guy,” Wright said, smiling, “but I didn’t feel bad for the guy.”
As for Wright, the rest was ceremonial. He fielded one last warm-up grounder before the top of the fifth, and made one last sidearm throw to pitcher Steven Matz. Then he hugged Reyes and shook hands with the third base umpire Mike Winters as Manager Mickey Callaway switched Amed Rosario into the game.
Wright waved to the Marlins, who cheered him from their dugout. His eyes looked moist, but he never stopped smiling, embracing Rosario as he crossed the foul line and then hugging each of his teammates and coaches. It was over.
“I can’t sit here and tell you that I’m good with where I’m at right now,” Wright said. “That would be a lie and that would be false, because you love something so much and you want to continue that. I got a little taste of that, and I’m already feeling it physically. It was a wonderful night.”
Rosario took over at short, so the record will show that Reyes replaced Wright in the field. Wright spoke to the fans after the long game, repeatedly thanking them for supporting him.
Someday there may be another ceremony, to retire his No. 5. He was not quite ready to shed it as midnight dawned on the final day of his career.
“I really don’t want to go in there and get changed right now,” Wright said. “I’d like to wear the jersey a little longer.”
James Wagner contributed reporting.