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David Wright and Michael Cuddyer have long-standing connection

Mets third baseman David Wright and outfielder Michael

Mets third baseman David Wright and outfielder Michael Cuddyer are seen during a spring training workout Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015 in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

CHESAPEAKE, Va. - David Wright was only 14 when he first shadowed Michael Cuddyer. In the course of that year, so many scenes unfolded just like this one, two days after the baseball draft, in the high school auditorium, where a line had formed for autographs.

The Twins had taken Cuddyer ninth overall in the 1997 draft, and no player from this corner of southeastern Virginia had ever been chosen so high. Now the yearbooks were out, and everyone wanted a souvenir.

"You don't want to be a jerk,'' Cuddyer remembered thinking at the time. "You can't just sign your name. And I knew everybody's name. So I signed a personal message for everyone. It took forever.''

For what felt like hours, Cuddyer sat at the table he set up in the front of the auditorium at Great Bridge High School. He didn't get up until the line had disappeared.

For Wright, that year was a revelation.

"That stuck with me," he said. "I thought it was cool. I thought, 'I'd like to do that.' "

Before he was a seven-time All-Star, before he was the face of a franchise, before he was baseball's own Captain America, Wright was just an awestruck kid who wondered if he could ever be as good as Cuddyer.

They barely knew each other then. Wright was new to town, about to graduate from eighth grade. Cuddyer was a senior, the star shortstop, the trail blazer, the honors student who was voted by his peers as "Best All Around."

But over the years, their relationship evolved.

Bound by common lineage and uncommon talent, they developed a close friendship, one that this season enters a whole new chapter. Their lockers are tucked into the same corner of the Mets' clubhouse. For the first time, they will be major- league teammates, working together toward the same goal.

"To me, it's cool to come full circle," Cuddyer said. "It's like coaches say, to feel like you had even a small part of somebody's success is really rewarding."

To this day, Wright insists that success might not have come had it not been for what amounted to an apprenticeship.

It was Cuddyer who taught him how to work like a big-leaguer. It was Cuddyer who brought scouts to a region that had always been neglected. It was Cuddyer who set the standard for Wright to chase.

"It was always me pushing myself and competing against Michael," Wright said. "And him not even knowing it.''


'I knew what I wanted'

Until Cuddyer came along, the region known as the Hampton Roads could have been Siberia, or Sri Lanka, or the Serengeti. Each had churned out the same amount of baseball talent.

This had once been mostly countryside, and except for a new McDonald's on Battlefield Boulevard, the landscape had for years remained unchanged.

Then families started trickling in. It began in the 1980s and continues to this day. People flocked to the town of Chesapeake, drawn in by the open spaces and the short commute to their jobs in Norfolk.

"It was just so much farmland," said Greg Jennings, who played and coached at Great Bridge, before taking over as its athletic director. "Now, we hardly have any land around. It's all houses."

First-generation strip malls replaced open fields. Developments sprouted up from the woods. And thanks to a tight-knit group of devoted coaches, the town beat the odds to reach a suburban rite of passage.

It didn't matter that winters here stripped the trees of their leaves and dusted the ground with snow. The Hampton Roads became a baseball factory, and the first off the assembly line was Cuddyer.

"For me, at a young age, I knew what I wanted to do, to be a major-league baseball player," he said. "Nobody told me I couldn't. Nobody ever deterred me away from my dream."

When he arrived at Great Bridge, Cuddyer became the first freshman in school history to start on the varsity. By 1997, his senior year, he would be joined by a late-blooming lefty named John Curtice.

Together, they made sure that scouts could no longer ignore Chesapeake.

Curtice routinely touched 95 mph on their radar guns. Cuddyer batted .467 the previous summer with the U.S. Junior National Team. They became an irresistible two-for-one deal for those searching for talent. Before long, the rush was on.

Greg Jennings, who played and coached at Great Bridge before taking over as its athletic director, had never seen anything like it.

"I was floored," he said. "I had never seen a scout, I don't think, come down here before. All of a sudden you've got 15, 20 of them behind the gate, with their [radar] guns, taking notes."

'All game, all the time'

The crowds grew only larger as baseball's amateur draft drew near, swelling to as many as 50 or 60 scouts per game.

"To us, it was like you were rolling with Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson," said Claudell Clark, who pitched for Great Bridge that season.

In this case, the two stars couldn't have been more different. Curtice had been voted the "class clown." Only ballgames brought out his serious side, which proved no match for what he called his own "wild tendencies."

Cuddyer needed no such distinctions. Said Jennings: "He was all game, all the time."

It had always been that way with Cuddyer, ever since his days playing in the town's youth baseball league. That's where he first met Clark. Even then, Clark remembers Cuddyer showing up to games early with his father so he could practice before everyone else arrived.

Years later, it reminded him of stories he'd seen on the news about child prodigies.

Cuddyer's gift wasn't composing symphonies, solving complex equations or hitting baseballs. Still, to the rest of the kids on the field, it was unmistakable.

"Some people are 6-foot-5 when they're 10, some people are geniuses when they're 5 years old," said Clark, 35, a one-season Pirates farmhand who coaches baseball at Norfolk State. "Mike's blessing was the focus and the will to be the best at an early age. He got blessed with the drive and the understanding of how to work in order to get where he wanted to get."

When Cuddyer's friends binged on PlayStation games, he preferred to take swings in the driveway, passing the time until his buddies came out to play.

Little changed in high school.

"He was the all-American boy, man, he really was," Curtice said last week. "Nice guy, good grades, smart . . . truly the kind of guy you want your daughter to bring home.''

'Dumb coincidences'

Cuddyer and Wright never would have roamed the same hallways had it not been for what the latter still calls "a lot of dumb coincidences."

The first was a quirk in the public school system. It emerged only when Wright's family moved from Virginia Beach to Chesapeake. Because his old middle school had been a year ahead in both math and Spanish, he was given a choice. He could repeat the classes at his new middle school or he could remain on course by taking the classes at Great Bridge High School.

Wright chose the latter. It would be the decision that allowed him an unobstructed view of how Cuddyer made himself into a major-leaguer.

That year, Wright spent half the day in middle school and the other at the high school. He and Cuddyer crossed paths almost every afternoon.

The town's growth had prompted the opening of nearby Hickory High School, where Wright eventually turned himself into one of the best prospects in baseball. But because Hickory's ballfields had yet to be built, the baseball team was forced to share the facilities at Great Bridge.

After school, Cuddyer and his Great Bridge teammates practiced first. Wright made it a point to show up early so he could watch.

He saw the way Cuddyer stayed late for extra practice. And in bad weather, he saw the way Cuddyer retreated to the school's gymnastics room so he could swat at tennis balls.

After every practice, the same thoughts raced through Wright's head. It didn't matter that Cuddyer was older and more experienced. A gap existed between the two. For Wright, this was unacceptable.

"It pushed me," he said. "Because I'd say to myself, 'I'm not that good.' I know I'm in eighth grade, I know he's a senior, I know he's a high draft pick. But I'm not that good, and I need to get that good. Just watching him, and the way he worked, it taught me a lot.''

'Everybody went nuts'

Draft day arrived.

As Cuddyer took a calculus exam, the Twins selected him with the ninth overall pick. Only 15 minutes later, the Red Sox chose Curtice at No. 17.

For only the second time in history -- and for the first time since 1972 -- a pair of high school teammates had been chosen in the first round.

Wright remembered how Great Bridge High School nearly shut down when the news finally came over the public address system.

"Everybody went nuts," said Wright, who imagined the sound of his own name being read over the loudspeakers.

Nothing would be the same in Chesapeake.

While Curtice, wrecked by injuries, never got past Class A, Cuddyer began the steady climb that led to his big-league debut in 2001.

He's been named an All-Star twice. He's won a National League batting title, hitting .331 for the Rockies in 2013.

Bolstered by Cuddyer's success, youth traveling teams flourished around the Hampton Roads area. It became the proving ground for the next generation of talent.

The 1997 draft spawned a boom, the ripples of which still can be seen on rosters throughout the major leagues. In an eight-year span, the Hampton Roads produced an astounding six first-rounders.

In 2001, the Mets chose Wright 38th overall out of Hickory. The next year, the Devil Rays used their second overall selection on B.J. Upton, who once was one of Wright's high school teammates. In 2005, B.J. (who now prefers to be called Melvin Jr.) was outdone by his younger brother Justin, whom the Diamondbacks chose first overall. Just three spots later, the Nationals drafted a college player from Virginia Beach named Ryan Zimmerman.

At the beginning of the chain was Cuddyer.

"I don't think that a lot of the scouts would come to the area without him," Wright said. "This area, there was no reason . . . You needed some dumb luck where scouts happened to be in the area.''

'A giveback guy'

The cramped athletic director's office at Great Bridge High School doubles as a time capsule. Its walls tell a story of a town and its transformation.

In one corner hangs a framed photo of Jennings, the green and gold of his Great Bridge uniform slightly faded, an artifact from when Chesapeake still was mostly farms. In another hangs the cover of a Rockies game program, autographed by Cuddyer, who was fresh off his batting title.

Around the school, the neighborhood has been filled in by new developments carrying names like "Berkshire Estates." Stately homes with brick facades stand as if they're shoulder to shoulder, presiding over quiet streets.

Cuddyer still lives on one of them with his family.

Like many from here, he didn't stray too far.

It's not unusual for him to drop by unannounced at Great Bridge basketball games, or to donate signed bats or baseballs that can be auctioned off to help support the school's athletic program.

"He's a giveback guy," Jennings said.

Of course, Cuddyer didn't wait long to begin giving back.

Just up the street, past the corner of Battlefield Boulevard and Peaceful Road, stands Hickory High School.

It's where Wright was about to begin as a freshman when Cuddyer returned to town. The coach of a local traveling team had asked him back to speak with his players, including Wright. Parents had been invited, too.

Wright's father, Rhon, remembered how Cuddyer dressed up for the occasion. He recalled the way he commanded a room filled with rambunctious teenagers, and how he did it without coming off like a big shot.

"I couldn't have done a better job giving a speech to a bunch of teenage kids than he did," said the elder Wright, who spent more than three decades as a police officer. "It was so sincere."

Cuddyer came back many times over the years, projecting the same message every time. He was proof that anything was possible.

Said Rhon Wright: "I think it had a tremendous impact on David.''

'You try to learn'

In January, David Wright returned to Virginia Beach. Just as he has done in each of the last five years, he hosted his annual Vegas Night to raise money for the region's largest children's hospital.

As guests began filing in, Wright stood in a quiet corner, replaying in his mind some of the moments that shaped him.

He was an eighth-grader again, his words tumbling out, his voice rising over the din of benefactors mingling with teammates who journeyed to Virginia for the event. He marveled again at the thought of fellow students swarming Cuddyer for autographs.

"I remember the way he carried himself, and that was also something that helped me out," said Wright, smiling at the memory. "Yeah, you're a big deal, how do you act now? . . . You might not try to copy that, but you try to learn from it."

By Wright's senior year, his prescient classmates had voted him "most likely to be famous." He was well on his way.

Over time, the friendship between Cuddyer and Wright grew, though it would be years before Wright felt as if they were peers. That didn't happen until his earliest years in pro ball.

When one of their former coaches fell ill, Wright and Cuddyer were invited to a fundraiser, where they signed autographs together.

"That's when I kind of was like, 'Wow, I'm kind of on par with this guy,' " Wright said. "I must be doing something right. I started looking [at him] more like a peer rather than a role model or something like that."

They became workout partners, pushing each other through grueling winters. Their competitiveness fueled racquetball games that occasionally turned into shouting matches.

"If you know him and his competitive nature, I'm right there along with him," Cuddyer said. "He didn't like losing, I don't like losing. And they got pretty competitive. We almost got kicked out of that Gold's Gym."

Even now, they operate on parallel tracks.

As the new season dawns, Cuddyer, 35, and Wright, 32, face the same critical question: Can they regain their form after seasons marred by injury? The fate of the Mets hinges on the answer.

A few minutes later, as if on cue, the doors behind Wright slid open. It was Cuddyer. In five years, he has yet to miss Vegas Night. He stepped out of the elevator and into the ballroom, his streak now safely intact. Wright waved before turning to finish his thought.

"I've always looked up to Michael," he said. "And I still do."

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