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Mr. Clean

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Signing autographs at spring training in Port St. Lucie.  

It is a strange and unpredictable thing, the combination of forces required to turn a gifted athlete into a celebrity. Historically speaking, those who have made the transition in New York have been blessed with an intangible quality that links them, intrinsically, with the era in which they play. In the fifties, there was Mickey Mantle’s all-American grit. Then came Joe Namath in the sixties, the shaggy-haired playboy in a mink coat. Reggie Jackson’s style of play was perfectly in line with the city’s unhinged ethos of the seventies: He either struck out or hit a home run, always with a dangerous swagger. The eighties produced its share of rabid personalities—Lawrence Taylor, Mike Tyson—who, like the stock market, were destined to crash. Derek Jeter, of course, was and remains pure nineties—slick, telegenic, a winner—and it appeared that Alex Rodriguez was destined to inherit his mantle when he joined the Yankees three years ago. Handsome, bilingual, arguably the best player in baseball, Rodriguez—on paper at least—seemed created in a lab to please New Yorkers. But in person, alas, he is A-Rod: sulky and insincere and humorless, an incredible player who is almost impossible to root for.

David Wright benefits from a persona that perfectly dovetails with Bloombergian New York City. He is unthreatening, tourist- friendly, a bit corporate, but charming nonetheless. A modern-day throwback, he satisfies a retro craving for a time when growth hormones were injected only into livestock. (On the subject of Guillermo Mota, the Mets pitcher who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs last year: “We were hoping he would be a major factor, and now he’s out 50 games. What good comes out of that?”) Given that some of the Mets’ brightest hopes peaked early (Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden) or were overhyped (Alex Ochoa, Kaz Matsui) or suddenly forgot how to play upon joining the team (Roberto Alomar, Bobby Bonilla), Wright’s ascension has been especially restorative.

Wright’s greatest strength is that he’s an all-around player: a solid fielder, a fast runner, and an abnormally patient batter for someone so young. He is not, however, the most gifted athlete on the Mets—that would be Jose Reyes, the silky, Dominican-born 23-year-old shortstop. Wright and Reyes are often talked about in tandem, the young infielders who will lead the Mets into a new era. But much of the fervor has focused on Wright, for some obvious if unsavory demographic reasons. He receives hundreds of marriage proposals a year, and during any given home game, he can gaze into the stands at Shea Stadium and see countless young (and not so young) women wearing shirts reading mrs. wright. His hitting pose—arms flexed, stocky frame in a post-swing coil, tongue flapping—is currently featured on the cover of the popular PlayStation game MLB 07: The Show, and the think tank that advises Madame Tussauds about which celebrities to cast in wax—yes, such a thing exists—chose Wright to be the first Met to have that honor. In February, perhaps feeling the fever, or hoping to improve his image, President Bush invited Wright to dinner at the White House. (“Oh, man, it was incredible,” says Wright. “He didn’t take a single call the entire time.”) His endorsement deals include Vitamin Water, Wilson, and Delta Air Lines, which christened a plane “The Wright Flight.” And in the wake of a hot streak last June—winning the National League’s Player of the Month award, going to the All-Star Game, placing an unexpected second in the Home Run Derby—he appeared on the Late Show With David Letterman, the effect of which is best described in the following posting from the Wrightoholics blog:

Hello Everyone, Just a short blog entry before i go sleep on my David Wright comforter and On my David Wright pillow. David truly did inspire us all tonight on the Letterman show … He will be the new Derek Jeter of Ny and everyone knows what Derek did for the Yankees … We all know we dont want David anywhere else and if that does happen, I will ... grow a long beard and live in the country style for the next 40 years and think what could have been, So mets dont do it.

You would think that there would be more-ideal places to witness this zealotry than Port St. Lucie, a moonscape of strip malls and chain restaurants and palm trees that couldn’t be more psychically removed from New York. Exhibition games at Tradition Field are typically low-octane affairs attended by a few sunburned retirees and their distracted grandchildren, but during a recent matchup against the Cleveland Indians, the stands were full and raucous and peppered with fans wearing Wright’s jersey—No. 5—which last year outsold Jeter’s in the tri-state area, something that no one had done in eight years. Among them was Daren DeLuca, a barrel-chested 40-year-old from New Jersey, and his brother-in-law, Isaac Gomez. “Had a few days off and just figured I’d come down, check in on my boy,” DeLuca said. As they stared at Wright, bouncing on his toes over at third, a peculiar look washed over them, one unique to baseball and not seen on the faces of Mets fans in some time: Here were two men feeling intensely nostalgic for the present.


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