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The pickup came to a stop in downtown Newark at 5 a.m. on Jan. 13, and Dave Racaniello hopped out of the passenger's seat, into the morning frost. He walked around to the back of the truck and pulled his Trek mountain bike from the bed, along with a small trailer packed snug with sweaters, sandwiches and a tent, survival tools for the odyssey ahead. Racaniello climbed aboard the bike, made sure the trailer was attached, pumped his legs and headed south on Route 9—bound for baseball season.
Racaniello is the Mets' 31-year-old bullpen catcher, known to friends as Rac. He spends most of his professional life hidden behind chest protectors, face masks and outfield fences, the last person on a team from whom you would expect a grand gesture. But over the winter Racaniello mentioned to his New York roommate and Mets third baseman David Wright that he someday wanted to ride a bicycle cross-country. Wright urged him to shorten the trip and the timetable: Bike to spring training.
Wright laid out terms of the challenge and started taking wagers. Racaniello, with only $20 in his pocket and nowhere to sleep but that tent, would have three weeks to reach the Mets' spring home in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Ten Mets placed their bets. Wright was the only one who banked on Racaniello to beat the elements and the clock.
Rac faced hills that wouldn't quit in New Jersey, Labradors on the loose in North Carolina and a four-lane freeway without a shoulder in Florida. He pitched his tent on high school campuses and golf courses. In Jacksonville, first baseman Daniel Murphy was generous enough to let Racaniello stay in his yard, but the sprinklers went off at 1 a.m. Every night Racaniello checked in with Wright, who reminded him what baseball players always tell themselves: "Take it day by day."
On Jan. 26 Racaniello rolled into Fort Pierce, Fla., and sirens sounded. He thought he was under arrest. Turned out the Mets had sent a police escort to lead him the last few miles to the finish line. At 10 p.m. Racaniello churned into the parking lot at Tradition Field, eight days ahead of deadline. As Rac rushed to the clubhouse to take his first shower in two weeks, Wright rejoiced from afar.
Racaniello was not trying to set a tone for the 2010 season, though Mets players say that's exactly what he did. After enduring ugly September meltdowns that cost them playoff spots in 2007 and '08 and a disastrous 70-win season last year, the Mets are facing a long road back to respectability. And for the first time in an otherwise sterling six-year career, Wright, who is coming off his worst season, has ground to make up as well.
Wright is only 27, but this is the second time that he must lead New York out of a dark age. Five years ago, with the Mets coming off three straight losing seasons, he was a young star sifting through marriage proposals in the clubhouse, writing greeting cards on the bus, downing glasses of milk before games, providing an aimless organization with a quality in short supply—"hope," says then general manager Jim Duquette. Wright earned MVP votes every year from 2005 to '08 and won two Gold Gloves. He started a foundation at 22, wore a hard hat to the groundbreaking of Citi Field and for a few minutes back in 2006, when the Mets came within a game of the World Series, made the franchise cooler in New York than the Yankees. When his team lost 12 of its last 17 games to blow the National League East title in '07, Wright was exempt from blame because he hit .352 in September. When the Mets lost 10 of their last 17 to blow the wild-card berth in '08, Wright was absolved again because he hit .340 over the final month. "He had never really failed," says hitting coach Howard Johnson.
But last summer, as New York decomposed into 92-game losers, Wright finally went down. The one player who always seemed to transcend the Mets' misfortune suddenly looked just like them. His home run total sank from 33 to 10. His RBI total fell from 124 to 72. His slugging percentage dropped 87 points. His average rose to .307, which seemed to indicate that he was sacrificing power for contact, but he piled up a career-high 140 strikeouts. "I was never comfortable," Wright says. "I was always searching."
He was booed at home for the first time, went on the disabled list for the first time and finished with a losing record for the first time since his rookie season, 2004. As he sat stone-faced through one miserable week after another—"I love his smile," general manager Omar Minaya says, "and I didn't see it much"—'06 felt like a whole era ago. "I tell him, 'Hey, it's not the end of the world,'" said his father, Rhon. "But to him I think it does sometimes seem that important."
Like most megamarket teams, the Mets are stacked with mercenaries who come from other places, rent houses in the suburbs and skip town the day after the final pitch. But Wright grew up cheering for Mets farmhands at Triple A Norfolk. He played for a New York showcase team in high school. He lives year-round in Manhattan's Flatiron District, where the back pages slap him in the face. Besides the Wilpons, the family that owns the franchise, few have invested more in the team than Wright. So when the Yankees are celebrating and the Mets are suffering and the punch lines are flying—David Letterman reported last month that the Mets signed the Iraqi journalist who "threw the shoes at President Bush"—he feels them like shots to the midsection.