David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991. Show More
MIAMI — How special can the World Baseball Classic be from a player’s viewpoint? There’s probably no more qualified person to ask than Captain America, a.k.a David Wright, whose two tours with Team USA produced some of his best non-October related memories.
When Wright showed up to play in the 2013 tournament, he was fresh off signing his eight-year, $138-million extension, the richest contract ever handed out by the Mets. At the time, it almost felt like a cash reward for Wright treading water all those years in the Flushing swamp. The closest Wright had come to a World Series was the third-strike pitch to Carlos Beltran in Game 7 of the NLCS. The Mets nosedived into oblivion from that night forward.
Jetting off to Arizona to join Team USA that spring was his Get Out of Jail Free card and Wright thrived during the ’13 Classic. In four games, Wright batted .438 (7-for-16) with two doubles, a home run and 10 RBIs. The New York tabloids instantly dubbed him Captain America, after the star-spangled superhero, and his teammates rode Wright constantly about the colorful nickname.
Wright never had it so good. To be singled out on a team of fellow All-Stars, while representing his country, was an experience that didn’t come around very often, no matter a player’s level of ability. And that degree of recognition was mostly foreign to Wright, who had labored since ’06 on either losing teams or collapsing ones. To put on the uniform and become Captain America for a few hours each day was a fantasy made real.
“If you’re going to have a nickname, I can’t think of a better one,” Wright said, reflecting on his WBC experiences last week at the Mets’ spring-training complex. “I guess if that’s what everybody’s going with, I was more than happy with it.”
Noah Syndergaard became the champion of WBC-bashers everywhere last week by saying the tournament was essentially pointless because it wouldn’t help him win the World Series or reach the Hall of Fame. He wasn’t wrong. But Syndergaard didn’t really think it through. Do they really have to be mutually exclusive concepts? Can’t the World Baseball Classic be judged on its own merits rather than as a poorly-scheduled vehicle for the other two goals?
“Personally, I couldn’t say no,” said the Royals’ Danny Duffy, scheduled to start Sunday for Team USA. “If I feel good, if I’m ready to go for the season, give my team 200 innings, I couldn’t say no. And if I wasn’t ready, I wouldn’t have batted an eye at this. I’m just being honest. So, I’m very fortunate. I’m humbled with the opportunity, and I’m excited to go out there and play some playoff-atmosphere baseball in March.”
Count Wright in Duffy’s camp, even if his comet-like streak crashed too soon. And while he does have fond memories, Wright also was forced to leave abruptly from the ’13 tournament due to a strained rib cage. The timing was especially bad after signing his new deal and it was another black eye for the WBC, who already had sent Mark Teixeira back to the Yankees due to a forearm strain suffered during the first day of batting practice.
Typical of Wright, he tried to play through the discomfort, which teams trust their players not to do while out on loan to the Classic. Once the Mets got wind of it, however, they summoned him home immediately. That appeared to be the only way Captain American could be defeated that spring and Wright remembered being heartbroken by it.
“The worst conversation that I had was when [Team USA manager] Joe Torre called me into his office and said that he couldn’t let me play that last game,” Wright recalled. “It was right before game time. That was a very tough conversation because you feel like, in a very small way, kind of letting your country down. I was playing well. It was a very important game for us. And now all of a sudden you can’t play. You feel like you’re letting your teammates down. You feel like you’re letting the fans down. You’re letting people down.”
That painful twist transformed the Wright’s Captain America legacy into more of a cautionary tale, which could be used to deter players from signing up. But Wright also has plenty of positive takeaways, including a lineup card from the ’09 club that he had framed for its significance.
As Wright recalled, he started an exhibition game that year as the DH, but was later replaced by Derek Jeter, who wanted a few tuneup at-bats in that spot. Just having Jeter be his “caddy” on that card, basically spelling him as a bench player, was then a career thrill for Wright, who asked the Yankees’ captain to autograph it for him, which Jeter did.
“I thought that was one of the coolest things,” Wright said.
Talking smack to his Mets’ teammates on competing WBC clubs was another fun part that was unique to the tournament. In 2009, Wright hit a walk-off, two-run single to that not only beat Puerto Rico, 6-5, but eliminated from the Classic in the second round. As Wright circled first, he spotted Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado dejectedly trot to the dugout before jumping into the USA dogpile.
“I got to jaw with them for a while,” Wright said.
Four years later, also against Puerto Rico, Wright was amused as he watched the Mets’ Ricky Bones, then the PR pitching coach, come out to the mound to have Joe Mauer intentionally walked to load the bases for him. Wright followed with a three-run double that cemented Team USA’s 7-1 victory as chants of “U-S-A!” rocked Marlins Park.
“Ricky was smiling at me, and I’m smiling at him, shaking my head, saying, Don’t do it,” said Wright, who had five RBIs that day. “After the double, I flipped my bat over towards him. Just stuff like that, getting to trash talk guys from your team back home.”
Still, the overriding motivation for Wright was playing for the USA, whether it was wearing the same flag patch as the troops to hearing from visiting military officers about the significance of representing your country in the world arena. That message resonated with Wright, and made him a bit more proud to carry the Captain America label.
“The very beginning, when you have your first team meeting, and someone from the Armed Forces is speaking to us, they’re showing us the correct way to stand for the National Anthem, and why the flag is backwards on our sleeves,” Wright said. “Then you have these Hall of Famers and All-Stars completely mesmerized by it and locked in. That’s when I first felt that pride of putting the jersey on and playing for my country. When you had a hero that served our country saying that to us, that was when it really hit me like, Man, this is really cool.”