For more than two years, David Wright had one goal in mind: to play for the Mets again. He thought his neck and shoulder problems were behind him after multiple operations and that another operation would alleviate some of the pain stemming from a chronic back condition. But as he moved through his protracted rehabilitation, he grudgingly realized that his body could not keep up with his desire to play.
“Those three combined, it’s debilitating to play baseball,” he said.
So in a tearful news conference Thursday afternoon, Wright — the Mets’ captain and longest-tenured player and one of baseball’s most admired figures — announced his plan to leave the game after one more start on Sept. 29 against the Miami Marlins, the penultimate game of the season. Wright last played in a major league game on May 27, 2016.
“Physically, the way I feel right now and everything the doctors have told me, there’s not going to be any improvement,” he said.
Wright will come off the disabled list on Sept. 25, the beginning of the final home stand of the season, and start at third base four days later. Given the state of his body, Wright, 35, was unsure how much he could play in that game or if he would be available as a pinch-hitter on the other days.
“I’m just very appreciative of being able to run out there again and kick third base,” he said. “It’s going to be emotional for me, but at the same time I’m accomplishing the goal. It’s weird for me to put the uniform on when I’m not playing or on the disabled list. It just doesn’t feel right. But it’ll be great to put that uniform on again and really feel like a player.”
Wright’s return to the field will no doubt be a rousing and poignant moment, especially in a lost season for the Mets (67-78). He was drafted by the team in 2001, played in 13 major league seasons for them, signed two substantial contract extensions to stay, made seven All-Star games, won two Gold Glove awards and sits atop many franchise leaderboards.
His home run in Game 3 of the 2015 World Series, after he had missed most of the season following the discovery of spinal stenosis, the chronic back condition at the center of his physical breakdown, is one of his signature moments.
“I wish that things could have turned out differently for me physically,” Wright said. “As far as regrets go, I can’t say I have any. I knew one way to play the game.”
When Wright had a setback with his shoulder this spring training, many — including Wright himself — wondered if he could ever make it back. As he progressed enough in his rehabilitation to play in minor league games in August, the combination of his back, neck and shoulder problems bothered him so much that he worried more about them than about playing while in the field.
“There were some days that it was too painful to think about baseball,” he said.
Wright, whose skills seemed diminished in his minor league and simulated games, kept the Mets abreast of his condition. This week, he met with Jeff Wilpon, the Mets’ chief operating officer and a member of the family that owns the team, to discuss his future. Despite Wright’s limitations, the Mets granted his wish.
“Based on his career accomplishments for this franchise and based on how hard he has worked the past two years, David has earned the opportunity to return to a major league field,” Wilpon said. “Out of respect for him personally and for our fans, we want to give him that opportunity. The decision has nothing to do with insurance or finances, but about David’s long-term health, his quality of life and his desire to get back on the field.”
Wright never used the word retirement on Thursday, nor did Wilpon and John Ricco, the Mets’ assistant general manager, who flanked him at the news conference. If Wright retired, he would forfeit the $27 million left for the final two seasons of his contract.
Aside from Wright’s brief return, Wilpon said Wright would be considered medically unable to play in the major leagues.
Insurance payments added a complicating dynamic to Wright’s return. If he was activated from the disabled list, the Mets stood to pay out millions to Wright that insurance was covering. As Wright neared a return, Mets officials, despite a reputation for frugality, insisted they were worried only about his health.
While Wright was on the disabled list, the Mets recouped 75 percent of his salary through insurance payments. Wright is making $20 million this season, and his return for the final week will cost the Mets just over $640,000. As a way out, the Mets could negotiate a settlement with the insurance company, much as the Texas Rangers did after Prince Fielder was deemed medically unable to play in 2016.
Wilpon left the door open for Wright’s No. 5 jersey to be retired and for Wright to shift to another role in the organization. Wright said that while he was on his minor league rehabilitation assignment, he loved sharing advice with the team’s young prospects.
“I would like to stay involved in some capacity, but I’m not sure how that’s going to be,” he said.
Perhaps Wright’s most lasting impact will be off the field: in the stands and the clubhouse.
The cheapest ticket prices available on the secondary market for Wright’s final start have shot up to $39, while the remaining games were still about $5. Many fans feel a special connection with Wright because of his loyalty, performance and gregarious personality.
So did Wright’s teammates, who filled the back of the news conference room to hear him speak on Thursday. Earlier in the day, Wright broke the news to a select group of teammates that he was particularly close to before addressing the entire squad.
“He’s taught a whole generation of Mets how to act, and I know he’s passed the baton on to the younger guys,” Ricco said. “We’re going to miss that more than anything.”
Wright choked up the most when talking about his teammates and his family. Getting the chance to play in front of his two daughters — Olivia, 2, and Madison, born in May — for the first time was a driving force during his long comeback.
“I love the game,” Wright said. “I’m really, really going to love that game.”