KANSAS CITY, Mo. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Gary LaRocque thought back to a spring afternoon in 2001 at Hickory High School in Chesapeake, Virginia. A touted 18-year-old came onto the field after his last class to take some batting practice.
“Every ball he hit over the fence, he went over there and picked them all up, too,” said LaRocque, then the New York Mets’ director of amateur scouting.
Reminded of the story Monday on the eve of his World Series debut, he laughed.
“Who else is going to pick ’em up?” he said. “I went out and bought the baseballs, and baseballs are expensive. I wasn’t going to lose them.”
Wright hasn’t changed much over the past 14 years. Now a seven-time All-Star and the fourth captain in Mets history, his boyish enthusiasm and puppy-like excitement invigorates his teammates.
He has organized early morning floor hockey competition that turns the clubhouse into a rec room. When he returned in August from four months on the disabled list, Wright greeted the Mets in the lobby of the Westin Philadelphia hotel. In full uniform. With cookies.
But there also is a stubborn seriousness. He’s the one who called out young pitcher Noah Syndergaard for eating lunch during a spring training game instead of watching with his teammates on the bench.
“There are a lot of us who believed he would be to the Mets what Derek Jeter was to the Yankees,” said former general manager Steve Phillips, now a broadcaster with SiriusXM. “David has always been that sort of leader and face and voice of the organization since he’s been called up.”
Wright made it to the major leagues a little more than three years after signing. When the Mets finished fourth for the fourth straight season, he signed a $138 million, eight-year contract in December 2012 instead of waiting a year to find out his worth as a free agent.
Now he’s living his dream, gushing like a fan about seeing the Mets logo next to a World Series patch as they prepared to play the Kansas City Royals.
“I knew that if you were to go somewhere else and maybe win right away, it wouldn’t have felt nearly as good or nearly as satisfying as being able to do it here for a team that I grew up rooting for, for a team that drafted me when I was 18 years old, almost like a second family,” he said.
New York has Mike Hampton to thank for Wright. New York selected Wright with the 38th overall draft pick in 2001, received as compensation when the pitcher left in December 2000 to sign with Colorado.
Wright had grown up a Mets fan, attending games of their Triple-A farm team in Norfolk. He always wanted to play for them, even as a kid.
Back when he was 9, his father coached his youth team for players ages 9-12. David was among the youngest.
“The returning team that year had some pretty good middle infielders, so I played David in the outfield,” Rhon Wright said. “To this day, he does not let me forget that, calls it one of the worst coaching decisions he’s ever seen in his life, yada, yada, yada.”
By the time he was a high school senior, Wright was attracting attention. Former major leaguer Randy Milligan, then a Mets scout, pushed for the team to draft him. Other teams were interested.
“Sometimes there were 30, 40 scouts there, sometimes GMs, sometimes assistants GMs, scouting directors,” said Keith Miller, the former Mets and Royals infielder who works for Wright’s agency, Aces Inc.
His ascent was rapid.
By his second full season in the majors, Wright topped 100 RBIs. In his third, the Mets won the NL East and came within one win of reaching the World Series.
Eight long years followed for the Mets, including a terrible start in 2011, when owner Fred Wilpon denigrated Wright with the analysis: “A really good kid. A very good player. Not a superstar.” New York’s finances were damaged by losses from the collapse of Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. The fan base was depressed.
Still, when Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon and general manager Sandy Alderson offered Wright a long-term deal, the third baseman was sure it was the right move. His three younger brothers weren’t.
“My brothers always like to play devil’s advocate,” Wright said. “They had questions, just like I had questions for Sandy. And they were very similar questions.”
Against following the path out of town taken by Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, Wright was persuaded by the team’s development of young, hard-throwing pitchers. But just when the Mets looked capable of ending their skid of six straight losing seasons, Wright injured a hamstring on April 14. On May 23, the Mets said he had been diagnosed with stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column.
Dr. David Altchek, the Mets’ medical director, delivered the news.
“The first thing he says is, ‘Just don’t Google it,'” Wright remembered. “And the first thing I do is Google it, and you see different athletes from different sports, that this has forced them into an early retirement, so of course you spend a couple of days moping around, kind of feeling sorry for yourself. But then you have a decision to make: Do I continue to do this and whine and moan? Or do you do everything you can to get back? And I’m glad I chose the second option.”
His parents were even more worried.
“Talking to my wife I was thinking to myself: Is he even going to be able to play again? Is this a career injury?” Rhon Wright said.
When the Mets visited Los Angeles in early July, Wright spoke with Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, whose career ended prematurely because of a bad back. Mattingly told Wright he could play with the condition.
“Getting that peace of mind I thought was important to me probably emotionally,” Wright said.
When Wright returned Aug. 24, he homered on his first swing in 133 days. His pregame routine had changed completely.
Now he arrives at the ballpark 6 1/2 hours before game time, catching rides with the training staff on road trips. He sets aside 90-120 minutes for exercises and stretching, with some down time in between, to get his back in shape to play. He probably will have to continue the exercises for the rest of his life, as Mattingly has.
Wright’s work ethic filters through the entire Mets roster.
“When he walks through the door, people’s heads look up,” Mets manager Terry Collins said.
Wright’s smile is extra wide this week. There’s even more excitement in his eyes than usual. He has been waiting for this since he was in his backyard, imagining walking to the plate for World Series Game 7.
His parents plan to attend Games 4 and 5. They are skipping Friday night because of a dog days of October issue. Homer, David’s 10-year-old boxer, lives with his parents.
“It’s still David’s,” Rhon Wright said. “They adore each other, but he’s had some health issues now. David understands. We can swing maybe two or three days away, but any more than that makes it real difficult for Homer.”
Homer is part of the family, and with the Wrights, family comes first — even ahead of the World Series.
(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)