David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Ryan Zimmerman has known David Wright since the two played together as kids for the Tidewater Mets, a Virginia-based traveling team. Zimmerman was at second base, Wright third, and all these years later, the two NL East rivals remain close friends.
But there is another link, a similar burden, that haunts the two former All-Stars. The creeping sense of their own mortality. For Zimmerman, it’s a chronically-weak throwing shoulder, a condition that nudged him from third base to the outfield, then finally to first.
Wright’s decline, however, may be accelerating at a much faster rate, because of the debilitating effects of his spinal stenosis. Zimmerman, 31, arrived at his career crossroads shortly after signing a six-year, $100-million extension with the Nationals, a deal that expires in 2019.
Wright, 33, is owed roughly $80 million through 2020, but already is struggling to stay in the lineup. The night after Wright was a late scratch because his back was too sore to play, he returned to go 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in the Mets’ 7-1 loss to the Nationals. Through 31 games, Wright has 47 Ks, for a 1.52 average that far outpaces any other point in his career.
“Everything’s fine,” Wright said afterward. “But I feel like I can play at a much higher level than I’m playing at right now.”
Collins didn’t greenlight him Wednesday until Wright showed up, went through his extensive pregame routine, and felt he was fit enough to go. As for Thursday’s series finale, the decision must wait until that afternoon.
“I don’t know how he’s going to do,” Collins said, “after standing around for four hours and 200 pitches.”
Zimmerman, who says he doesn’t bring up the back issue when the two talk, can sympathize with what his friend is going through.
“He wants to play,” Zimmerman said before Wednesday’s game. “It kills us when we can’t be out there. There’s nothing more frustrating than not being able to go out there and do what you love to do. I just hope he can get out there and play on a regular basis.”
A diminished Wright obviously is a significant loss for the Mets. Beyond that, as long Collins has to wonder about Wright’s availability — or even using him off the bench — the Mets essentially have to play with a shorthanded roster.
Collins may have unwittingly damaged Wright by calling on him to pinch hit in Sunday’s game, but there’s no way of being certain. The more disturbing part is that Collins could be forced to re-think how Wright is deployed going forward. So far, the manager has been sticking to a three-games-on, one-off routine for Wright, but that might prove to be too much.
“There’s no guarantees he can do that,” Collins said. “We may need to go to two and two. I don’t know. We’ll manage as we go.”
When Wright was scratched Tuesday, he was disappointed, but also understood, saying later that night his condition had slipped from “mostly mediocre” to “more toward the bad.” Wright arguing to play, however, should not be construed as friction with the manager.
“Big game, big series, the captain, I get it,” Collins said. “But I have a responsibility to David Wright, to the other 24 guys in the clubhouse, and myself, and I just couldn’t let him play. We need him for more than one game. My relationship with David Wright is the best I’ve had with any player.”
Zimmerman has been on a similar path since 2013, only he’s twice switched positions to accommodate his deficient throwing arm, something that has yet to be broached with Wright. In his case, that probably won’t solve anything. But what’s the alternative?
“Individual stuff is whatever,” Zimmerman said. “But to be able to play somewhere on the field, to be above average, and help the team win games. I think that’s kind of what you strive for.”
Clearly, Wright isn’t there yet. The question is whether or not he’ll ever be again.