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Archive for Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Mets’ Wright a rare breed

Calm, cool third baseman becoming N.Y. superstar

April 25, 2006

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— A few years ago in the minors, David Wright was in a rare slump. Something like 0-for-7 with five strikeouts, his father recalls.

"He told me, 'Hey dad, don't jump off a building. Everything's OK,'" Rhon Wright remembers. "He was actually more worried about me than he was himself."

Sounds typical of the 23-year-old third baseman driving the New York Mets' fast start one tenacious at-bat at a time. With uncommon poise, perspective and get-dirty enthusiasm, David Wright is becoming one of the toughest outs in the National League and a Big Apple icon all at once.

He pops up everywhere these days: on magazine covers, highlight reels and even MTV, where he and buddy Cliff Floyd spent one recent afternoon introducing a Kelly Clarkson video before a screaming audience of teen-age girls.

Obviously, those boyish good looks don't hurt.

But what's really opening eyes around the majors is Wright's gritty, all-around play.

"He's a guy when you watch him, you go, 'God, I wish I had that guy,'" Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said. "You've got to really work to get him out."

Especially with two strikes.

A self-made star, Wright isn't blessed with the kind of jaw-dropping athleticism or natural power afforded some of baseball's other baby-faced studs, such as Cleveland center fielder Grady Sizemore and Florida slugger Miguel Cabrera.

At 6-feet, 200 pounds with quick hands and above-average speed, Wright is plenty talented. But he's had to master the subtle skills of hitting to make himself an elite offensive player: plate discipline, using the whole field, protecting with two strikes.

Lost arts in today's game, some might say. Not at Shea Stadium.

"That's something that I just remember working on as a kid," Wright said, crediting several youth coaches who tutored him. "When other kids were playing home run derby during batting practice, I was working on stuff. I was trying to go the other way, I was trying to hit the ball up the middle. And that's just something that's carried on."

Now it's paying off in the big leagues - with remarkable results.

New York Mets' David Wright (5) and Chris Woodward lead the team out of the dugout in celebration as the Mets' Julio Franco's two-run home run gave the Mets a 3-2 lead in the eighth inning against the San Diego Padres, in this April 20, 2006 file photo  in San Diego. With uncommon poise, perspective and get-dirty enthusiasm, Wright is becoming one of baseball's toughest outs and a Big Apple icon all at once.

New York Mets' David Wright (5) and Chris Woodward lead the team out of the dugout in celebration as the Mets' Julio Franco's two-run home run gave the Mets a 3-2 lead in the eighth inning against the San Diego Padres, in this April 20, 2006 file photo in San Diego. With uncommon poise, perspective and get-dirty enthusiasm, Wright is becoming one of baseball's toughest outs and a Big Apple icon all at once.

Wright entered Monday batting .387 (12-for-31) on two-strike counts with four doubles, two triples and a home run, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. That means seven of his 10 extra-base hits this year had come with two strikes.

Perhaps even more amazing, he was 5-for-8 (.625) on 0-2 pitches with a homer and a triple.

The deeper the hole he's in, the tougher it is to get him out. Talk about a frustrating assignment for opposing pitchers.

"I've always had just God-given ability to be able to wait, wait, wait, wait, wait and then almost hit the ball out of the catcher's mitt," Wright said. "That helps a lot with two strikes, because I just try to spread out and put the ball in play."

Batting .338 overall with three homers, 14 RBIs and a .403 on-base percentage, Wright has combined with new Mets slugger Carlos Delgado to lead a much-improved offense.

New York got off to a franchise-best 10-2 start and sits in first place in the NL East after three weeks. Wright drove in at least one run in each of the first six games, a club record.

"The kid's a special player," said catcher Paul Lo Duca, another new teammate. "He's a young superstar."

Yet all the praise and attention doesn't seem to affect Wright, the oldest of four ballplaying brothers from Chesapeake, Va.

His father, a Norfolk cop for 25 years, worked out of a station house just across the railroad tracks from the Mets' Triple-A park and began bringing David to ballgames when he was 5 or 6. A family of Mets fans was born, long before their favorite team selected Wright with the 38th pick of the 2001 amateur draft out of Hickory High.

"We were just ecstatic," Rhon Wright said.

David tore through the minors in three years and made his major-league debut in July 2004, becoming the 129th third baseman in Mets history. The laughable list, which includes such stalwarts as Rod Kanehl and Roy Staiger, has even inspired satirical songs and poems.

Wright already is one of only 12 players to appear in 200 games at third for the Mets since their inception in 1962. But he figures to hold down the hot corner for years to come - and he could become the cornerstone of a club that's never really had a franchise player besides Tom Seaver.

"I think he's the next Scott Rolen," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said, referring to the St. Louis Cardinals' standout.

Wright's defense - steady for stretches, shaky at other times - doesn't resemble Rolen's glove work yet. Wright made 24 errors last season, when he hit .306 with 27 homers, 102 RBIs, 42 doubles and 17 stolen bases.

He made his first three errors this year in a two-inning span Wednesday against rival Atlanta, costing the Mets a run during a 2-1 loss. But he bounced right back the next night in San Diego, making a diving stop to start a game-turning double play.

Being compared to his idols, like Rolen and Jones, humbles Wright, who says he still cuts out all the articles about himself and keeps a scrapbook.

"I still think he's kind of an aww-shucks kind of kid," Mets broadcaster and former player Keith Hernandez said. "Being a star in New York, there's a spotlight that goes with it. ... I don't think it's ever going to affect him."

Indeed, Wright projects a confidence and gracious maturity that belies his age - much the same way Derek Jeter did when he first arrived in New York.

And Wright plans to remain that way.

"This is a city that can eat players alive," he said. "I worked for what seems like my entire life to get to this position and I'm not going to put that in jeopardy."

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