PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — David Wright had been gone for so long that he nearly forgot the warmth that comes with the cheers. Not since last May had the Mets’ captain played in a game.
But when he was introduced before his first at-bat at First Data Field on Saturday, it all came back. The crowd here reminded him of all the ups and downs through the years, of all the challenges met, of all the mountains he still must climb.
Indeed, despite a glimmer of progress, his ascent remains treacherous.
“It certainly makes you feel good,” Wright said. “To get that kind of reception after missing so long, you forget about the adrenaline and the emotion that kind of comes along with playing in New York until these fans are behind you.”
Wright, 34, is facing what might be the biggest challenge of his career. In short, he’s looking to save it.
In the Mets’ first home game of the exhibition season, Saturday’s 8-6 loss to the Nationals, Wright went hitless in two at-bats. Both times he hit the ball hard. But being ready for the regular-season opener 36 days away remains an ambitious endeavor as he works his way back from neck surgery, all while continuing to deal with the chronic back condition spinal stenosis.
“This was a nice first step for me,” Wright said. “But there’s plenty more hurdles and plenty more steps to take before I really fulfill and have the satisfaction of coming out and being able to actually take the field and play in a real game.”
Wright served as the designated hitter Saturday and that might be his only entry point into Grapefruit League games for a few more weeks. Playing third base will come only if he proves that he can throw. He’s in the infancy of that process, one that has unfolded more slowly than he had anticipated.
“Because of some of the effects of surgery, it has taken up to this point a little longer than expected because you’re really having to almost re-teach your body how to throw,” Wright said. “That’s the area that was affected from the surgery, kind of your neck and shoulder area. It’s challenging, that’s for sure.”
Wright continues to do his light throwing — from about 60 to 70 feet — away from the rest of the team and in front of only trainers and staffers.
“It’s re-working those muscles that haven’t been firing for so long, so I’ve got to get them back in shape,” he said.
Wright described starting over, re-learning how to throw by doing throwing drills he last needed when he was a kid. Last season, his neck impacted his throwing mechanics, bad habits he must shed if he is to give his body a chance to absorb the pounding of regular play.
But for now, Wright is savoring the steps he can take, small as they may be. He said his neck began bothering him in spring training last year, worsening to the point that he could barely turn his head to see pitches coming toward the plate.
He insisted that his neck no longer is an issue, and he proved it before his Grapefruit League debut. On Friday, Wright surprised staffers by taking extra batting practice on the field. While his back condition still must be managed day-to-day, he has a better idea of what to expect after dealing with it last season, when he did not begin playing in exhibition games until much later.
“It’s huge for him,” manager Terry Collins said. “Again, last year at this time, he couldn’t do that. He wasn’t ready. Wasn’t even close. Now he’s at least DHing in games. So we’ll be able to get at-bats as we head into March. And when his arm comes around, we’ll get him in the field.”
Wright has played only 75 games the last two years and the Mets have acted accordingly, with Jose Reyes ready to fill the breach.
Despite all of the uncertainties, Wright’s ultimate goal of returning to third base remains clear. But his path to reaching that point is murky.
“It was a lot of work to get back to this point,” he said. “There’s still a lot of work to go. But once you hear your name, once you hear that ovation, once you hear the fans, all those positive words coming from the fans, it certainly makes it all worth it.”