Michael Conforto is 24 and sometimes looks as if he's all the New York Mets have right now. Conforto has a .336 batting average, 13 home runs and an OPS of 1.123 going into Memorial Day weekend. The 13 homers are a couple fewer than Aaron Judge has hit on the other side of town and a couple fewer than Mike Trout has hit for the Angels. You want to know where the Mets would be without Conforto? Flushing Bay. If you're from out of town, it's a body of water right next to Citi Field. Deep, too.
Once, at the same age, David Wright was Michael Conforto, and even more. When Wright was 24, before his body started betraying him, he played 160 games for the Mets. He had 711 plate appearances and 604 official at-bats. He finished the 2007 season with 196 hits, 30 home runs, 107 RBIs and a .325 batting average, and he finished fourth in the National League MVP Award voting. He was, in all ways, all that.
Wright had a big year the year before, too, and the Mets had made it all the way to Game 7 of the NL Championship Series before Yadier Molina's home run ended up beating them and Carlos Beltran took a third strike from Adam Wainwright with the season on the line at old Shea Stadium. But it was still all ahead of Wright, all ahead of him and the kid next to him at short, Jose Reyes, even though the Mets collapsed the way they did in September of 2007.
Wright, the son of a Virginia police officer, was going to be the Mets' Derek Jeter, and for a long time. He was that good, that popular, had that kind of grace and charm. But by the time Wright finally did make the World Series, in October and November 2015, he was already starting to break down, having been diagnosed with spinal stenosis. Played a total of 38 games in the 2015 season. Played 37 games in 2016. Hit a total of 12 home runs in those years. Hasn't played a game this year, while he continues to try to rehab his back. It is possible now that the captain of the Mets will never play another game in the big leagues.
I am with Wright the other morning. There is a golf tournament I help run every year for the Connecticut Special Olympics, an organization with which my family has been affiliated for more than 30 years. The past several years, the tournament has been run in conjunction with, and with the great support of, the Mets. Wright always shows up, even when he cannot play. Not the same player he was. Same guy.
So Wright walked around with a cup of iced coffee in his hands, chatting with the golfers, posing for pictures with the Special Olympics athletes on hand. Before the golf started, and he left for the city, we were chatting near the first tee. I have known him since he showed up in New York. I tell people all the time that in all my years covering baseball in New York City, I never met anybody nicer than David Wright.
I mention to him that I have a small understanding of what he has been going through with stenosis, because my dad was diagnosed with it several years ago.
Wright grins at me, narrows his eyes.
"How old is your dad?" he says.
"Ninety-three," I say.
Wright laughs and says, "Well, that makes me feel much better."
I talk to him about seeing shots of him in the dugout with his teammates sometimes, and ask if he feels like a kid with his nose pressed to a window.
"I look for positives," he says. "I actually feel like I'm seeing some progress."
Much has been written about the hours of prep work Wright did last season just to get himself on the field for the 37 games that he played. And he was optimistic about this season when he showed up at Spring Training. Then it turned out that he couldn't throw a baseball. So Wright is in limbo again. He really was the Mets' Jeter once. Now he looks more like their Don Mattingly, another star of New York City whose career was cut short because of a bad back, who finally retired in 1995 at the age that Wright is now, which is 34.
This is the way Ron Berler described Wright and his condition in a piece for Men's Fitness in November of last year:
"The 33-year-old missed four months of play last season after being diagnosed with lumbar spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal that compresses and inflames the nerves running through the spine, causing sharp, immobilizing pain in the lower back that in some cases extends to the legs. He hasn't had a pain-free day since -- and won't, for however long his career lasts."
Wright does not give up on the idea that he will play Major League baseball again. There has never been a moment when he has ever given anybody the idea that he feels sorry for himself. Wright never asks, "Why me?" He played his game for a high level for a long time, and got rich in the process. Then he became a young man whose career was altered, in his 30s, by a condition that is often associated with men who are 50 or older. And it is not just what is technically called lumbar spinal stenosis. There was neck surgery last year to repair a herniated disk. There was shoulder impingement this spring.
For now, David Wright watches another Mets season go on without him, watches other injuries -- to the team's best hitter, Yoenis Cespedes, to its ace Noah Syndergaard, to its closer Jeurys Familia -- contribute to a 19-26 record as the Mets head into Memorial Day weekend. You have to know that Cespedes, Syndergaard and Familia aren't the only names on the list of the Mets' wounded.
They finished last season eight games behind the Nationals in the NL East. They're 8 1/2 games behind right now. But this feels far different at Citi Field because of the record, because of what just happened on the road against the Brewers and Diamondbacks and then a homestand that saw them lose two of three to the Padres.
But Wright also watches Conforto, who somehow couldn't get into the game at the start of the season, hit the way he hits, while at the same time Aaron Judge is doing the same at Yankee Stadium. They asked Conforto about Judge the other day at Citi Field and he said, "I'm not looking over there and trying to see what's going on all the time. I've just been trying to focus on what I can do here. That's all I can do."
Conforto has become a young star of his city the way Judge has. And David Wright knows exactly what that looks like. What it feels like. He was that kind of star once. He was that kid.