April 6, 2007
THE OTHER INFIELDER:
Mr. Clean: He's young! Rich! Handsome! Able to throw out a runner at first while flashing a killer smile! David Wright is the perfect New York sports star--almost too perfect. (David Amsden, New York)
David Wright is not a very good bowler. He would like you to know this, should you think that being a very good baseball player, which he is, would somehow translate to being a good bowler, which it does not. He admits to bowling frequently, bowling being one of the few leisure activities available in Port St. Lucie, Florida, home of Tradition Field, the Mets' spring-training facility. He also has his own bowling ball and shoes, which, he knows, may look a little suspicious, like signs of a highly competitive personality, which is something many people (Wright included) talk about when they talk about Wright. But no, no--it's not that. "It's for hygiene purposes more than anything," Wright says while tying his shoes at Superplay USA, a massive complex that contains a beer pub, an arcade, a laser-tag arena, a mini-golf course, batting cages, half the population of Port St. Lucie, and a 48-lane bowling alley. "I'm not like a hygiene freak or anything. I'm just not so into wearing other people's shoes and sticking my fingers in things that strangers have touched."Posted by Orrin Judd at April 6, 2007 10:57 AM
A bowling alley is a particularly fitting environment in which to spend time with Wright. At 24, he comes across as so wholesome that you suspect he was cryogenically frozen sometime around 1955 and thawed out three years ago, when he made his first start at third base in the major leagues. His friends note, almost apologetically, that he is unwaveringly polite and humble, and even those who hate him admit that ... actually, scratch that. No one hates David Wright. In fact, when people talk about him, they tend to fall back on a certain refrain: "I'm sorry, but you've just got to love the kid." To support this claim, they will point you in the direction of Wright's smile, which seems to have transformative powers. Professional athletes these days, baseball players especially, are not expected to smile. They are expected to bemoan their contracts and question their teammates' skills and act prickly with fans and lie about not using steroids. But when Wright hits a home run, or even when he doesn't, and especially when he gets ragged on in the clubhouse for being such a pretty boy, his reaction is uniform: the pinched dimples, the flash of white teeth, the brown eyes sparkling--a random combination of muscle movements offering infinite branding possibilities.
Tonight, Wright is joined by John Maine, the Mets' wiry 25-year-old pitcher, and Joe Hietpas, a 27-year-old minor-league catcher with a lumberjack's build. On the team, Wright is closest with the younger guys, those who share his non-baseball interests (PlayStation, hip-hop) but have little in common with him when it comes to their careers. Midway through last season--which ended with the Mets one heartbreaking game away from the World Series and almost eclipsing the Yankees as the New York team--Wright signed a contract for $55 million over six years. It was a lucrative and symbolic declaration on the part of franchise executives: Wright is not merely a player with the talent to anchor a team, he is a star in the old-school mold, a galvanizer, pure packaged Americana. "There have been other kids in our organization who you latch onto and like, but then, for whatever reason, they don't make it," says Mets COO Jeff Wilpon. "David is the exception. I've been lucky enough to meet guys like Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky, and I believe David has that thing, you know, that same approach to the game that made them so addicting to watch."
Everyone is settled in, prepared to bowl. Maine reaches into his back pocket for a tin of Copenhagen chewing tobacco. Hietpas orders a pitcher of Bud Light. "No thanks, I'm good," says Wright, who is not a teetotaler but often talks about drugs and alcohol as if he were auditioning for a dare commercial. ("When you're coming up, they have meetings with you about drugs, about drinking, about women. They hire these actors who come in and perform a bunch of scenarios. It's pretty funny and basic, but it sticks in the head of someone who's 18 or 19 years old.") As the game starts, there is a subtle shift in Wright: He bounces on his toes, as he does when he's playing third. He chides Hietpas--"The objective is to knock over the pins!"--but he goes easier on Maine, who's bowling left-handed to protect his throwing arm. Finally, when it's Wright's turn, a smile comes over his face--the smile--as if he already knows what's going to happen next. "That's what I'm talking about," he yells upon releasing the ball. Every pin topples in a perfect strike.
It is a strange and unpredictable thing, the combination of forces required to turn a gifted athlete into a celebrity. Historically speaking, those who have made the transition in New York have been blessed with an intangible quality that links them, intrinsically, with the era in which they play. In the fifties, there was Mickey Mantle's all-American grit. Then came Joe Namath in the sixties, the shaggy-haired playboy in a mink coat. Reggie Jackson's style of play was perfectly in line with the city's unhinged ethos of the seventies: He either struck out or hit a home run, always with a dangerous swagger. The eighties produced its share of rabid personalities--Lawrence Taylor, Mike Tyson--who, like the stock market, were destined to crash. Derek Jeter, of course, was and remains pure nineties--slick, telegenic, a winner--and it appeared that Alex Rodriguez was destined to inherit his mantle when he joined the Yankees three years ago. Handsome, bilingual, arguably the best player in baseball, Rodriguez--on paper at least--seemed created in a lab to please New Yorkers. But in person, alas, he is A-Rod: sulky and insincere and humorless, an incredible player who is almost impossible to root for.
David Wright benefits from a persona that perfectly dovetails with Bloombergian New York City. He is unthreatening, tourist- friendly, a bit corporate, but charming nonetheless. A modern-day throwback, he satisfies a retro craving for a time when growth hormones were injected only into livestock. (On the subject of Guillermo Mota, the Mets pitcher who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs last year: "We were hoping he would be a major factor, and now he's out 50 games. What good comes out of that?") Given that some of the Mets' brightest hopes peaked early (Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden) or were overhyped (Alex Ochoa, Kaz Matsui) or suddenly forgot how to play upon joining the team (Roberto Alomar, Bobby Bonilla), Wright's ascension has been especially restorative.