Mo Vaughn’s chronic knee problems caused him to end his career on a January conference call, with both sides careful not to use the word “retirement.”
Prince Fielder stood at a podium, wearing a neck brace, and declared himself finished in October after two cervical-fusion operations.
Albert Belle worked out for two weeks in spring training, was diagnosed with an arthritic hip, then simply left the clubhouse, never to return.
Each of those shattered stars were in the same place David Wright is at the moment, skeptical about their baseball future, their bodies telling them things they didn’t want to hear, against the backdrop of huge financial implications. But for Wright, the struggle has been longer, the resolution evasive, and only now, as he seemingly is on the verge of playing again for the Mets, has there been any hint of a conflict between himself and the team.
With Wright being who he is — the missing face of the franchise, its disabled captain — maybe conflict is too strong a word. There certainly are different forces at work involving his comeback attempt, which has been 27 months in the making, things that potentially cloud the feel-good aspect of his return.
The Mets have been collecting insurance on Wright since July 2016 — recouping 75 percent of the roughly $38 million (due to deferments) he’s been owed during that time, or about $28.5 million. And he’s due another $2.81 million for this September if he remains on the disabled list.
Would the Mets try to deny Wright the chance to take the field again over a few million bucks? The short answer is no. Given his special relationship with the team, there’s no way the Wilpons would sabotage that process, and Wright certainly sounded as if he were on board with the current plan after speaking Friday with J.P. Ricciardi and Omar Minaya, the two front-office members with the team in San Francisco.
“I think we had a great conversation,” Wright said. “I think they truly want me to get to the point where I can play. It’s just now up to me to prove that I can do it. The challenge has been accepted. I’m going to do everything I can to get that clearance. I’m going to do everything I can to put that big-league uniform on, because I’ve come way too far with the work to give it a ‘poor me’ now and say ‘whatever.’ ”
Even so, the buildup to Wright rejoining the Mets in the Bay Area was confusing. This past week, on the day that Wright was promoted from high Class A St. Lucie to Triple-A Las Vegas, it was odd for John Ricco to make statements that were contradictory to jumping him two levels, saying it was “unrealistic for him to be activated anytime soon.”
Rather than mention details that might support such a move, as you might expect in that instance, Ricco suggested that Wright had done little, if anything, to deserve it. Wright’s unimpressive numbers in Florida and sporadic play backed up Ricco’s words, but the club’s actions didn’t match up.
“We tried to put in place a program that he could come back and show us that he’s ready to be a major-league player,” Ricco said then, “and so far he just hasn’t reached that, whether it’s in terms of playing time or playing skill. It’s all of the above at this point.”
Two days after that conference call, the Mets announced that Wright was leaving Las Vegas, where he played back-to-back nine-inning games and completed a minor-league rehab assignment that totaled 12 games, a .171 batting average (7-for-41), one double and 10 strikeouts. Not exactly worthy of a call-up, but the key here is Wright being physically able to continue, and that’s why the finish line now seems to be getting him to play at Citi Field one last time, maybe before saying goodbye at the end of this season.
Complications exist. Once Wright comes off the DL, the Mets start picking up his tab again, and not just for September. He still is owed another $27 million through 2020, and if he is able to continue playing, there’s another 60-day deductible before the insurance would kick in again next year.
Wright’s intentions beyond this season might be unclear, but Friday’s conversation seemed to provide a few clues as to which way he is leaning. The seven-time All-Star mentioned his two young daughters being in the stands, as well as the feeling of manning his old position again at Citi Field.
“Throughout this process, there’s some days where you feel like it’s such a long road,’’ Wright said. “What motivates you? What pushes you to do this stuff when you don’t feel like doing it? Those are the thoughts that creep into your head. What’s it going to be like to go out there, Citi Field, third base, get a chance to play in front of my family, the fans. That’s certainly a big-time motivator when you’re down these long rehab roads.”
Wright’s trademark perseverance, his fighting through debilitating back and neck surgeries, has pushed him to this point, further than some of the others dared to go.
Vaughn played 27 games for the Mets in 2003, the last on May 2, before stepping away the following January with that conference call.
The team’s medical staff advised him to quit, saying that he would be a candidate for numerous knee replacements otherwise. Vaughn was due $17 million, but the Mets got back 75 percent of that through insurance. In what has become a familiar refrain, all these years later with Wright, the Mets hedged on reinvesting that Mo money in their pursuit of then-free agent Vladimir Guerrero, who continued his Hall of Fame career with the Angels instead.
In the case of Fielder, he played 89 games in 2016, batting .222 with eight home runs. His season ended on July 18. In October, Fielder had his farewell news conference, his comeback ultimately derailed by the multiple neck surgeries.
The Rangers finally were able to release Fielder and free up a 40-man roster spot, only after negotiating a settlement with the insurance company 15 months after his medical retirement. Fielder left with three years and $72 million left on his contract, but that was split between the Rangers, the Tigers — his former team — and the insurance.
Belle’s exit, however, was a more expedient departure. He hit 23 homers with 103 RBIs in 141 games for the Orioles in 2000, but hip issues limited him to DH duties for the final month. The following year, Belle made it to early March before the team’s doctors diagnosed him with an arthritic hip, and he was done almost immediately. The insurance wound up paying $27 million of the $39 million left on his deal.
Neither Wright nor the Mets has outlined an exit strategy for the captain just yet. But the public relations campaign, from both sides, seems to be preparing for the September curtain call.
The Mets, through Ricco, have described Wright’s obstacles as nearly insurmountable, his baseball abilities too diminished for him to be a productive player in the majors again. Truth is, the evidence suggests they’re right, meaning this September quest is largely ceremonial, for that one final goodbye at Citi Field.
On the other hand, Wright is pushing forward, and he’s already reached a point that few believed he could get to again. He insists that he’ll convince the Mets by passing whatever tests they put him through on this road trip despite concerns that overuse of his arm will cause a familiar pain to start “creeping up” into his neck, which is “really worrisome.”
There’s no winning this battle for Wright, who will deal with spinal stenosis for the rest of his life. Now it’s about negotiating the best surrender, and that’s where this appears to be headed.
Wright said the club has “never once” brought up the financial issues with him and that he’s not thinking about that. He doesn’t need to. He’ll get his money regardless, and after what he’s endured, when he does step down, for medical reasons, collecting the insurance shouldn’t be a problem for the Mets.
The goal, for both sides, seems to be getting him on the field, standing at third base, one final time. By now, there’s no reason to believe it won’t happen. The end game for Wright is becoming clear, even if he can’t say what the perfect finale would look like.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t thought too much about it. I guess you get overwhelmed with just making it back. When the definition is making it back, what is it?”
Wright already has done that. The stage is set. The hard part now will be leaving.