David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
LOS ANGELES - As plot twists go, the one connecting David Wright and Don Mattingly in this Division Series is appropriate for Hollywood.
If Wright becomes a force in this playoff round, he'll have Mattingly, the manager of the Mets' opponent -- and former Yankees captain -- to thank.
With the pair's history of back issues and Wright's diagnosis of spinal stenosis this season, Mattingly spoke to the rehabbing third baseman during the Mets' July visit to Dodger Stadium. The meeting was brokered by Mets hitting coach Kevin Long, a friend of Mattingly's from his Yankees days, and that conversation helped Wright resume his baseball life six weeks later.StoryThere's a lot of Yogi Berra in Don Mattingly
So it's not a stretch to say that without Mattingly's advice, Wright might not be starting in Friday night's Game 1, his first postseason appearance in nine years. And who knows if he would be as productive as he is now, having returned from the disabled list to hit .277 with four homers and an .818 OPS in 30 games.
"It was a combination of a lot of things," Wright said after 's workout at Dodger Stadium. "I asked him questions about his routine moving forward. I asked him questions about how he felt on a daily basis. There are things I do now that are similar to what he still does. He put my mind at ease and also got me somewhat into the routine that I'm in now."
That daily process, an involved pregame regimen, is what allows him to play on a regular basis. The stretching, the therapy, the medicine -- to him, it's as necessary, and perhaps more so, than batting practice.
Few appreciate the rigors of that maintenance as much as Mattingly does. He has battled a degenerative disc condition in his lower back since high school, and in 1990 he even worked with L.A.-based specialists -- as Wright did -- to extend his career by another five years.
"At this moment, I don't have a lot of sympathy for him," Mattingly said, smiling. "So that's great."
One way to interpret Mattingly's answer is that he views Wright as a Dodgers hurdle for the week ahead, an obstacle that could prevent them from advancing to a second NLCS in three years. But knowing Mattingly, we're assuming it was Wright's remarkable progress that changed his sentiment.
Away from Chavez Ravine, Mattingly has got to be a Wright fan. The two are kindred spirits, bound by their captaincy in New York, along with a vexing career arc in their respective boroughs. For a generation of Yankees fans -- the ones who suffered along with Mattingly during a playoff drought that endured until the last of his 14 seasons -- he's a beloved figure, a tragic hero.
The Mattingly refrain? He deserved better. And to think he's still continuing his quest for a World Series ring only amplifies that rooting interest.
The extremely popular Wright, strongly loyal to his own club, also has seen his talent squandered through plenty of humbling seasons in Flushing.
By reaching this Division Series, Wright, 32, has doubled Mattingly's postseason trips as a player. But as Mattingly discovered, it's hard to predict a future altered by a back ailment.
Four months ago, Wright was a spectator in the Mets' dugout, still unsure of his return -- or what kind of player he would be if he did come back. On Thursday, fresh from batting practice, he knew the answer.
"I feel like a baseball player now," he said, "instead of feeling like a patient. I'm thinking about the game -- the ins and outs of it -- rather than what time my appointment is. Trying to do the math what time the Mets game is on so I can get home to watch it."
We can't imagine how tough it had to be for Wright to sit on his L.A. couch, remote in hand, back aching, and follow the Mets through their schedule, as any fan would. But unlike the rest of us, Wright knew exactly what he was missing. The competition, the camaraderie. Maybe another shot at the playoffs, a dream that has eluded him for too long.
When Mattingly and Wright see each other again Friday, it will be under much different circumstances -- yet born of shared experience.