David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — David Wright sat on the dugout bench Friday morning at Tradition Field and, for 20 minutes, responded to every question about his spinal stenosis, from the tentative plan for spring training to how he may deal with the chronic back ailment during the regular season.
What Wright didn’t provide, however, was answers.
Not that the Mets’ captain was being evasive. It’s just that for all the time he’s spent consulting with medical experts — “some of the best doctors in the world,” as Wright described them — there’s simply no way of knowing with any degree of certainty, here in mid-February, what type of impact player he will be for the Mets.
That can’t be easy for Wright, the backbone of the franchise for most of the past decade. And especially now, with the Mets a World Series contender again after being one of the NL’s piñatas for too long. At 33, Wright is running out of these chances, and remains unsure how much the spinal stenosis might possibly speed up the sand in that hourglass.
For the short term, however, Wright is more concerned with helping the Mets get back to the Fall Classic. But no one seems ready to predict what he’ll be able to contribute toward that goal — including Wright himself. Sandy Alderson has backed away from his early estimation of 130 games for Wright this season, and the seven-time All-Star also is hesitant to attach a specific number.
That’s because the sinister part of this back condition is its unpredictability. Unlike a broken bone or muscle tear, this isn’t a case of waiting six to eight weeks for the injury to heal. As Wright explained, it’s more a matter of how he feels when he wakes up in the morning. Or after driving to the ballpark. Or even after he takes batting practice.
If it’s a good day, Wright plays. If it’s a bad day, the best he can do is cross his fingers, get a little more treatment, and hope the discomfort passes quickly enough to be ready for the next game. For that reason, dealing with this particular back condition seems to be a mental grind as well as present a physical conundrum, and Wright is just trying to get the best grip on the problem as he can.
“It’s a combination of some bad luck, some wear-and-tear of playing baseball, and my parents giving me a smaller spinal canal than they should have,” Wright said, smiling. “No sense in whining about it. I certainly hung my head and moped around for a few days after the diagnosis, but then I got back to work and made the best of it.
“It sucks, but it’s manageable. And that’s my goal this year, to manage it the best I can.”
On the positive side, Wright feels like he has a much better handle on the condition than he did a year ago, when he feared that an unlucky dive or awkward slide would land him on the disabled list again — or perhaps something worse. It helped that Wright homered in his first night back, on Aug. 24 at Citizens Bank Park, and he obsessively followed the medical team’s orders, taking countless hours to prepare for a single game.
That allowed Wright to hit .277 (33-for-119) with four homers and an .818 OPS following his return, as well as give him some confidence heading into the playoffs. Now, after a winter off, Wright will have to formulate a new plan for spring training. But does a better map of the road ahead suggest a more productive outcome this season? Again, Wright is hopeful, but he can’t offer any guarantees. Or even rough estimates.
“I’m more knowledgeable of what it takes,” Wright said. “I had no idea what to expect coming back last year. I had no clue. Now I kind of know what I’m up against.”
And that tells Wright to temper his own vague expectations, a stark contrast to what’s going on with the Mets around him.