By Jason Keidel
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As the Mets enjoy their moment as the main act on Broadway, supplanting the Yankees as the core of the Big Apple, swathed in young, wildly gifted pitching, it’s hard to ignore an old lion looking to get his due before he bows into the dugout a final time.
David Wright has represented his name and built his game as well as anyone this side of Derek Jeter. Indeed, had Wright been blessed with a Core Four, who knows how New York history would have been written.
Wright is not Jeter, of course. But maybe he’s the Mets’ Don Mattingly — a good soldier in what was once an army of misfits.
While the Yankees won plenty of games during the 1980s, they were never in any danger of winning a World Series, at least after the 1981 Fall Classic — the swan song of the Bronx Zoo — when they plunged into the crapshoot of free agency. The Bombers signed every aging star in repose, hoping he would have one more lightning bolt in his formerly thunderous bat. And Mattingly, nose down, labored through a decade of incompetence, near-misses, and an owner gone rogue.
Likewise, Wright has had his share of heartache and heartbreak. The Yankees reached the World Series right before Mattingly arrived. The Mets lost to the Yanks in the World Series shortly before Wright arrived.
Yadier Molina doused Wright’s first dream of a world title, while Ken Griffey and the Mariners burst Mattingly’s dream bubble in 1995. While Steinbrenner got himself banned from baseball, the Wilpons went to bed with Bernie Madoff and set the franchise back several years.
Just as Mattingly was felled by back problems, Wright’s spinal stenosis has hamstrung the back-end of his career. Just as Mattingly was hanging up his pinstripes and blue collar ethic, the Yankees stormed to the World Series and into a dynasty. Wright persevered long enough to reach last year’s Fall Classic, and has an excellent chance to return.
No two players, like people, are identical, but consider the following:
Mattingly was a six-time All-Star. Wright is a seven-time All-Star.
Mattingly retired with 2,146 hits over 14 seasons. If Wright plays two more full seasons, at his current rate, he would retire with 2,112 hits — in 14 seasons.
Mattingly’s lifetime average is .307; Wright’s is .298.
Both average exactly 40 doubles per season.
Mattingly finished one RBI short of 1,100. Wright should end his 14th season with a little more than 1,100.
Mattingly retired at 34. Wright turns 34 after this season. And, considering the nature of his malady, we can’t know when any game will be his last.
The Mets were the darlings of New York for much of Mattingly’s time. The Yankees had their mail forwarded to the playoffs through most of Wright’s run.
The major difference, of course, is that the Yankees won in every decade but the one Mattingly played in. Two dynasties bookended his career, the Bronx Zoo and Joe Torre.
And, at his best, Mattingly was better than Wright. But they’ve both doubled as beacons during a dark time in their club’s history.
Mattingly is easily the greatest Yankee to never win a World Series ring. Wright hopes to avoid sharing that dubious crown with Mike Piazza, and hang around long enough to earn his much-deserved place on the podium in October.
More than numbers, what binds them is the affection of the preeminent city and media vortex of America.
Through it all, Yankees fans came to Yankee Stadium knowing they had that monolith at first base, playing through the tumult and lost Octobers. Those of us who worshiped the Yankees in that solemn decade of the ’80s could at least count on Donnie Baseball, the Hit Man, whose visage lathered many a teen wall, and whose name was always atop the charts even if his team never made the top of the standings.
Likewise, Wright has enjoyed personal riches in the shadow of team failure. Hs running mate, Jose Reyes, who was supposed to help Wright hold down the left side of the infield for 15 years, couldn’t survive the dysfunction in Flushing.
Between his bat and stellar glove, Mattingly was a surefire Hall of Famer had he put up two or three more glittering seasons. Wright didn’t quite reach that orbit, but he’s every bit the professional and person Mattingly was in Gotham.
Of course, Wright, will have three years and $47 million left on his contract after the 2017 season. But you get the sense he won’t hang around just for the cash and taint his cachet. He and Mattingly have that in common, too.
Hopefully, David Wright is just young enough and healthy enough to ride the conveyer belt of young aces the Mets will trot out this summer, and leave with the one title that seemed hopeless just two years ago — champion.
It may not make him better than Don Mattingly, but it will make his career more complete. And no one, not even Donnie Baseball, would mind.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel