So I started writing about David Wright and the distance of the walls, and it just got way out of control and overly long. I’m not really sure how it happened, but it did. For everyone’s sanity — but mostly my sanity — I’m breaking this up into three posts. The first one comes out today, the second tomorrow, the third the day after. Here is Part 1:
1. David Wright’s Career Arc
David Wright is going to be 29 years old next season. He has spent the past three years declining as a baseball player, at the same ages just about every other baseball player peaks. It’s weird and sad and alarming, and it’s part of the reason the New York Mets haven’t been in contention for the past three years. It’s not the only part, and maybe not the biggest part, but it’s certainly a part.
Now going back a few years, from 2005-2008, David Wright was one of the five or ten best players in baseball. He did just about everything. He was an excellent hitter, disciplined with power. He hit .300, drove in over 100 runs, hit 40 doubles and at least 26 home runs every season. He was a decent fielder who won a couple of Gold Gloves at third base. He wasn’t fast but stole 34 bases with his eyes in 2007 anyway. He really could do just about anything. During an interview on “60 Minutes,” Bill James picked Wright as the player he would want to build a team around. Wright was polite, boyish, had a sly grin and presumably drank a lot of milk and ate nothing but cornbread. He was everything anyone wanted out of a franchise player.
Then the Mets moved across the parking lot into a new stadium in 2009.
As everyone knows, it all went to hell. First David Wright stopped hitting home runs. Then he started striking out like crazy. Then he got hit in the head by a pitch, missed two weeks and started striking out even more. He finished 2009 with ten home runs. The home runs came back in 2010, but at the cost of doubles, batting average and on-base percentage, and he really wasn’t a better hitter for it. At some point in all this, he became a miserable defender, playing third base like a kindergartner plays dodgeball, with balls flying past him and Wright making errant throws on the anything he flagged down. Then he broke his back and missed half of 2011. He kept striking out like crazy, made a ton of errors, his dog died (I assume, it was that sort of year) and he finished the 2011 season with the worst numbers of his career.
Does anyone else sit around wondering what happened to David Wright?
2. Joaquim Arias
This is about David Wright, but we’re going to start with Joaquin Arias – remember Joaquin Arias? Skinny, Dominican-born middle infielder. He was on the Mets for about a month in the 2010 season, coming over in an August trade in exchange for Jeff Francoeur. Arias is probably best known as the other guy in the Alex Rodriguez/Alfonso Soriano trade that went down in 2004, the eventual player-named-later the Rangers picked over Robbie Cano. The Rangers thought Arias was full of promise and had a higher ceiling than Cano, Arias being a speedy shortstop who was going to develop into a star for Texas. But prospects are prospects, and it didn’t happen. Arias spent 2011 playing sparingly and not all that well for the Royals’ Triple-A affiliate. He might be out of baseball now, I’m not sure.
But for our purposes, it’s September 2010, a couple of hours before a Mets game in Queens. It’s raining, a real gray afternoon, the stadium lights being reflected off the puddles rippling and growing on the infield tarp. The air has that cold, end-of-the-summer rain feeling, like the air itself is heavy and it’s pushing the heat down into the ground. The stadium is nearly empty, columns of dark green seats broken up only by the diehards in yellow slickers who refuse to find cover. We’re still a few hours away from the scheduled first pitch and the clubhouse remains open to the media. Newspaper people in windbreakers make small talk in cliques and wander aimlessly from the dugout to the clubhouse. Players, mostly the rookies and the native Spanish speakers, sit near their lockers wearing their blue stretch-fit undershirts, pinstriped uniform pants rolled up to the knee. Most are absorbed in their phones or music players, sometimes restlessly picking up bats, giving them two or three shakes, and then putting them back down. In the hierarchy of a baseball clubhouse, it seems that only losers hang out at their lockers – the cool kids, the media favorites, the David Wrights and Carlos Beltrans, tend to only appear at their lockers when it cannot otherwise be avoided and are rarely seen in this part of the clubhouse for long periods of time. There’s actually a huge chunk of the Mets’ clubhouse that is off-limits to the media where those players spend most of their time. You can catch glimpses of it from the area with the lockers, but you only see a wide hallway in brief peaks when someone passes through the double doors. It’s rumored that there are video games and televisions and pool tables somewhere that way, and presumably it’s also where the trainer’s room and the weights are located because I’ve never seen those rooms. But the media is only allowed to hang out in the section with the lockers and the showers, which is exactly as weird and visually disturbing as it sounds. Nothing about human anatomy that could shock a veteran beat writer.
Anyway, as already mentioned, it seems that less-established players — rookies, calls ups and other transient roster-filler — are uncomfortable hanging out in the no-media section of the clubhouse. Or, because no one harasses them, they’re the only ones who feel comfortable in the same room as the media. These players generally choose to kill time with their phones and laptops at their lockers.
But not everyone. Walking from the clubhouse to the dugout – take a right out of the Mets’ clubhouse and there’s a short hallway that runs past an indoor batting cage, down a half-dozen steps and back up into the dugout – just before the steps to the dugout, you pass a little covered area with a never-used, glass-door refrigerator for sports drinks and this huge, tarp-covered cube on wheels. I have absolutely no idea what’s inside this giant tarp cube, as it’s apparently never used for anything. I’m even not sure it’s still there. But this giant cube thing is about four or five feet tall and wide enough to seat two people comfortably. This particular afternoon, Joaquin Arias is sitting on this giant cube with his legs dangling down. He’s totally alone, Mets sweatshirt on, hands in the pocket, listening to an iPod. He doesn’t look up at anyone, and he just has this fairly specific look on his face.
I know this look. I think a lot of people know this look. There’s this distinct empty facial expression that comes from disassociation, the face you make (or really, it’s a face you don’t make, almost an absence of other expressions) when you’re being swallowed up in anonymity, away from everything you’d like to be near. I know this face. I went to school in New York City for my first two years of college, and I had that look a lot. My freshman year, I lived in a suite with six strange boys who didn’t share many interests or a general regard for human civility with me. I had a girlfriend at the time, one I dated through high school, but she went to a different school and I only saw her every couple of weekends. All my high school friends but one were out of the area, and I had trouble making new ones. All in all it wasn’t a good fit for me, and in retrospect I didn’t try all that hard to make it work. I spent a lot of those two years in bookstores and walking around the southern half of Central Park on my own.
I also took the train home and back to Connecticut most weekends. Some Sunday nights, on my way back to the City, as the train went past Pelham and then Mt. Vernon East and Fordham and Harlem 125th Street and rattled underground before Grand Central, I’d just stare out the window into dimly lit arches in the tunnels underneath midtown and feel this absolute sense of dread, like I was about to be deprived oxygen for a week before I could come up for air again. I really, really didn’t like it there, and the amount of Radiohead I listened to during this period probably didn’t help with this general feeling.
But there’s a specific look that comes from that sort of feeling, and that’s the look I saw on Joaquin Arais’ face. Here’s Arias, right — he had just been traded to a new, far away team with a month left in the season. He’s in a foreign country. He doesn’t speak English well, he didn’t seem to know any of his new teammates, and he wasn’t playing and he probably wasn’t going to play. His career hasn’t quite gone as expected. And now it’s raining and he’s trapped here for God knows how long tonight and he doesn’t have anyone to talk to or anyone who wants to talk to him and it can be paralyzing to be surrounded by people not talking to you. So he went outside and sat on this giant cube thing in the cold, just trying to run out the clock until he could come up for air again.
I bring this up not because it’s sad (because there are many, many sadder things in the world than lonely baseball players and college students); I bring it up because this particular moment was when I realized, in an alarmingly real way, that professional baseball players are actual you-and-me people. I’ve watched thousands of baseball games and talked to players and listened to press conferences as a media person . . . and that’s all a dog and pony show. It’s not real. There’s no such thing as insider access – “insiders” are just closer to the BS and responsible for passing it along. Players are coached on how to deal with the media and how not to say anything interesting, and every single person knows that everything is being recorded. And that changes everything. Think about it: Even in home movies, people act differently when the camera is on. Children freeze up, teenagers play up to the camera, your uncle pretends to pick his nose and eat it – and no one ever watches home movies but your own family. The camera is always rolling for baseball players, and they know their words and actions will be dissected and misrepresented in every way possible by thousands upon thousands of people. Even with those players seemingly used to the show, it’s never real, in the same way everything on TV isn’t real.
Quick Digression: There’s an excellent anecdote in David Halberstam’s “The Summer of ’49,” a highly recommended recounting of the Yankees-Red Sox pennant race from 1949. According to Halberstam, before baseball games were televised, if a fan caught a foul ball at a game, he or she would pocket the ball then simply sit down and return to watching the game. It was only after games starting being televised that fans, after catching foul balls, would raise their arms in celebration and hold the ball for the crowd (and cameras) to see as they do today. Even the possibility of being on television dramatically changes our behavior.
The Dog and Pony show makes it tough to remember that the players are real, actual people, the same way it’s hard to think of the cast of the Jersey Shore or politicians as a real people. Of course, you know that they’re “real,” there’s actually a flesh and blood Snooki out there. But often just doesn’t seem like it. It’s difficult to imagine actually being any of these people. What does David Wright think about when he’s sitting in the dugout, you know? The answers Wright gives to questions aren’t real answers, they’re just What Professional Baseball Players Are Supposed to Say. And he’s better at it than just about anyone. It’s hard to think of him as a real person, because he doesn’t give real person answers, the same way it’s hard to think of politicians as real people, because they never give real people answers.
But seeing a disassociated Joaquin Arias felt like I was witnessing something private and real. Not that he didn’t want anyone to see, but he didn’t care if anyone saw him or didn’t see him. It looked like he wanted to be anywhere but there, and you can’t hide when you’re not there. I know I’m terrible at it. But it wasn’t part of the Dog and Pony show, I consider that the first and maybe only real human moment I’ve seen from a professional baseball player.
Again, the point here is that baseball players are real people. And I know that’s a cliché, but cliches are usually based on some important element of truth that’s too often forgotten and ignored and buried away somewhere. But I think this idea is important here. Baseball players are actual human beings – over-trained, hyper-focused, single-minded ascetics dedicating their lives to a stick-ball game. They’re certainly weirdos, when you stop and think about it. But they’re most certainly human beings, people who get lonely and sad and frustrated in very real ways.