- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
NEW YORK -- David Wright remained locked in a state of denial, dismissing an Opening Day homer as a reason to acknowledge an exorcism and to declare it complete.
Demons and doubts? Goblins and ghosts? No, Wright said, he had no idea why the Mets would want to spray some champagne over the fact he needed but two 2010 pitches to send a ball over the Citi Field walls. "It's not about the home runs," Wright said.
It is about the home runs. In 2009, emasculated by the dimensions of a ballpark practically designed to haunt him, Wright looked like a guy carrying a knife to a gunfight. He wasn't on speaking terms with Citi Field, not after leaving the cozier measurements of Shea. But there he was at his locker Monday, smiling under the smeared eye-black as he tried and failed to convince a circle of reporters he had no mental hurdles to clear.
"I think too much emphasis gets put on home runs," Wright said.
Especially when you're not hitting them.
The Mets opened their new season with no Jose Reyes, no Carlos Beltran and, most figured, no real chance at long-term success. The Florida Marlins were in the house, the team that punctuated the collapses of '07 and '08.
Josh Johnson was on the mound. Josh Johnson and his 7-0 record against the Mets.
It didn't look good before it sounded a whole lot worse -- the home training staff became the first such employees ever booed during Opening Day introductions, anywhere. If nothing else, the comic relief eased a pressure valve and allowed the Mets to relax, hand Johan Santana the ball, and spend a few hours forgetting their devastating run of bruises, tears and breaks.
In his very first at-bat, Wright validated the mood and established the ground rules for a 7-1 victory that appeared about as likely on Monday as a Tiger Woods sighting at an Augusta, Ga., strip joint. He took Johnson's first pitch for a ball, and then tapped into the offseason work he did with Howard Johnson, the man he called "the best hitting coach in the game."
Wright took the team's 2009 philosophy of spraying the ball around Citi Field to an extreme, slapping the ball into right field with a utility man's flail. Forgotten was this elementary baseball truth: Sometimes it's OK to swing as hard as you possibly can.
When Johnson unleashed his second pitch to Wright, a fastball over the plate, the third baseman answered with a violent cut. The ball exploded off his bat and soared toward the shortest section of the park, inside the 330-foot sign down the right-field line.
Eight balls landed in that vicinity last year -- landed over the Caesars sign and into the lower deck -- and all eight were struck by the visiting team. Finally the Mets would capitalize on a home-court quirk.
Finally David Wright would approximate a Shea slugger who wasn't afraid to punch Citi Field back.
"It's like a lightning bolt," said Johnson, the hitting coach. "It's really incredible. You can really build off that. That's big for [Wright] to get past last year, and it kind of puts some of that to bed a little bit."
Or a lot. Wright ran the bases with the spirit of a liberated man. Jeff Francoeur was among the teammates who felt the power of Wright's adrenaline rush through a high-five that hurt.
Jason Bay, the newcomer who got off to his own big start, described the impact of the homer as "maybe a collective sigh, not just for David but for everybody. Obviously it was huge for David for what happened last year."
A lousy 10 home runs happened last year. A lousier concussion happened last year, too, thanks to a Matt Cain fastball that crashed against the third baseman's head.
Chipper Jones outed Wright as a Citi-hater, not that Chipper's public confirmation was required. Wright's body language was worth a few thousand words. A study would conclude that nine balls off his bat at Citi Field last season would've cleared the fences at Shea -- nine balls that stayed in play inside Shea's successor.
To Wright those nine felt like 90.
So he went to work with HoJo, went to work on his body and mind. The Mets lowered the center-field wall from 16 feet to 8 feet in the hope their pathetic sum of 95 dingers in 2009 would grow some teeth in 2010.
But more than anything, the franchise lowered the fences for the franchise player. "David's got to lead us," Francoeur said. "He's got to step up and have this be his team."
Wright could make the Mets his when he was clearing 30 homers and 100 RBIs in the old place. But with his paltry 10 and 72 last year, a power outage tethered to a career-worst 140 strikeouts, Wright was in no position to claim anything.
The Mets desperately needed that to change. "I look for him to have a big year," manager Jerry Manuel said. "I think some people are going to challenge him, and I think he's going to respond."
Josh Johnson challenged him under a clear blue sky, and lost their abbreviated duel in the sun. Wright dashed around the bases, charged toward his dugout, and found a look of unmitigated joy on his teammates' faces. "That's something I appreciate," he said. "You've got 24 guys that are rooting for you as hard as these guys are rooting for me.
"But we're not going to live and die by how many home runs I hit or anybody else in this clubhouse hits."
These Mets can't be the '27 Yanks, and their third baseman will never be confused with the Babe. But right now, the franchise feels a little bit better about its franchise player.
The good news? The Mets are 1-0. The much, much better news? David Wright's back on speaking terms with Citi Field.
Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.
David Wright's home run on Opening Day is a bigger moment than he thinks.