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"He takes it personally," says manager Jerry Manuel, and the team admires that quality. But they worry about him too. "Sometimes," said assistant general manager John Ricco, "the organization has to protect him from himself." That means limiting the public appearances and interviews he has a hard time turning down, giving him days off despite his protests. The Mets have always looked out for his interests—except perhaps when they conceived the stadium he now calls home.
The first time Wright tried to hit a ball out of Citi Field, tractors were still parked in center. It was September 2008 and not a blade of grass had been laid, but Wright wanted to check out his new digs. So he and a few teammates crossed the street from Shea Stadium and one by one dug into the batter's box. Wright went first. "It looked big," says outfielder Nick Evans. "But it was cold and windy that day, so you couldn't tell how big. I just remember that David wouldn't get out of the box until he hit the first home run."
It didn't come easily. Theories abound as to why Wright's power numbers were so diminished in 2009—"It's not like you just forget how to hit after five years," says rightfielder Jeff Francoeur—and the most popular one has to do with the Mets' new home. They wanted to build a pitcher's park in the tradition of Shea Stadium, and in most areas Citi Field is comparable to Shea. But in right center the designers put in a gap that ranges from 378 to 415 feet—ideal for leadoff man Jose Reyes's triples but not so conducive to Wright's opposite-field homers. According to hittrackeronline.com, Wright hit nine balls last season that would have been out at Shea but did not clear the high fences at Citi, including seven drives to center and right.
Then again, Wright mustered just five home runs on the road, proof that the ballpark was not the only factor at play. In spring training last year Manuel and Johnson implemented a subtle but significant change to the team's offensive philosophy. They urged hitters to stay inside the ball longer and catch the ball deeper in the strike zone, which would lead to more opposite-field hits. Manuel maintains that the Mets were trying to build complete hitters; it was a coincidence that they were moving into a ballpark with a massive rightfield.
In one sense the strategy worked, as New York led the NL with a .270 batting average. But it hit just 95 home runs, the fewest in the majors. "It's like we went to the golf course," Johnson says, "and never pulled out our driver." The mistake, Manuel admits, was asking everybody to conform to the new philosophy. Wright, for instance, has always naturally hit to the opposite field with power. If he were a certain breed of superstar, he might have told his coaches to shove it and kept the same approach that had served him so well. Instead he did exactly what they asked.
"He steered the ball to right," says one NL scout. "Even in hitter's counts, it's like he was trying to flip it over the second baseman's head." From 2006 to '08, 34% of the balls Wright hit to the outfield went to right, according to HitTracker. In '09, 41% went to right. "At times I did settle for punching the ball the other way," Wright said, "rather than really trying to drive it."
Still, on July 2 the Mets were only one game out of first place, even though Wright did not have Reyes in front of him or slugger Carlos Beltran behind him in the lineup. (The two players missed a combined 207 games with injuries.) Wright was, for most of the season, the only hitter in the lineup anybody had to pitch around, but the Mets needed runs, not walks, so he started to swing at pitches he would otherwise have taken. "He was out there by himself," Johnson says. "The burden was totally on him." Francoeur arrived in mid-July from Atlanta, where he had grown up a Braves fan before becoming a Braves phenomenon and finally a Braves bust. "I knew what he was feeling," Francoeur says. "He had to get back to having fun."
Then, on Aug. 15, Wright took a 94-mph fastball off his helmet's ear hole from San Francisco's Matt Cain and left Citi Field in an ambulance. By September the Mets had 13 players on the disabled list, accounting for $88 million of the payroll. Wright, who suffered a concussion, returned from the disabled list on Sept. 1 but batted .239 the rest of the way, understandably gun-shy on pitches high and tight. A stadium with an endless right centerfield alley, a mandate to aim at that alley, a lack of protection in the lineup, a responsibility to carry that lineup and finally a horrifying head injury. It was a perfect storm for a power outage.
Because this is baseball in the 21st century, home run drop-offs always prompt suspicion of something sinister. But Wright's image is as squeaky clean as it gets in professional sports. His father is the Norfolk assistant police chief and used to be the vice and narcotics captain. "Drugs have never been an option," the younger Wright says.
Wright showed up for spring training noticeably thicker through the arms and chest, the result, he said, of a winter of strenuous workouts and smarter eating. His 2010 season essentially began the week after Thanksgiving. He flew to Johnson's house in Hobe Sound, Fla., and together they scrapped the plan that had doomed '09. "It's going to be different this year," Johnson says. "We are focusing on catching the ball out in front and driving it more to leftfield."