While there are contrasting opinions as to its genesis and whether it’s a sign of tension or the simple act of answering a question in the frame it was asked, New York Mets third baseman and captain David Wright expressed how much he enjoyed participating in the World Baseball Classic while disagreeing with teammate Noah Syndergaard by name as to its value. Syndergaard chose not to take part in the WBC saying, in his own colorful way, “Ain’t nobody make it to the Hall of Fame or win a World Series by playing in the WBC.”
This issue, in and of itself, is irrelevant. However, Wright and Syndergaard have something of a rocky past from 2015 spring training with Wright having been a ringleader in scolding the then-rookie for eating lunch during a game. When Wright was injured in May of that year, Syndergaard tweeted get well wishes with a subtle dig at the lunch incident.
— Noah Syndergaard (@Noahsyndergaard) May 24, 2015
This treads the fine line of propriety between knowing one’s place as a rookie and walking into the clubhouse with a scary amount confidence and willingness to take charge immediately. That he had the temerity to do it after being in the majors for less than a week, couching his hopes for Wright’s return to health amid an understated challenge to the silliness of Wright throwing his lunch in the garbage is evidence of that audacity.
The relationship is one of sticking to the basics of the script of conventional veteran-youngster roles with a certain amount of passive aggressiveness thrown in. Now, with Wright clinging to the increasingly far-fetched hope that he can squeeze a few more productive games out of his battered body, and Syndergaard having nearly singlehandedly dragged the injury-ravaged Mets of 2016 into a wild card playoff game in which he threw seven shutout innings of the eventual loss, the signs are everywhere that this is now Syndergaard’s team with or without Wright being the designated captain and his looming presence still hovering around the organization.
This is about personalities, team goals and what is needed in the moment. And right now, Syndergaard is more of a representative of this Mets team than Wright.
And it’s not just this team. Build a time machine and transport Syndergaard into the middle of the Mets’ last championship team in 1986 in all its arrogant, brawling, imbibing, wild glory and he seamlessly fits right into the landscape, in fact towering over it like a platinum-capped mountain. Given the Mets’ stated goals for 2017, Wright’s ancillary presence and Syndergaard is the key player in their hoped-for championship run, the evolution from old to new is in progress.
Syndergaard’s fearlessness and bravado have changed the Mets. In the 2015 World Series against the Kansas City Royals, he took it upon himself to check the aggressiveness of the Royals’ hitters by buzzing leadoff batter Alcides Escobar in the only game of the series the Mets won. After the fact, Syndergaard invited anyone who had a problem with what he did to come out to the mound and discuss it knowing that as a 6-foot-6, 250-pound monster, even the toughest of the tough guys in baseball will need to think twice before having a go at him.
In 2016, as the Chase Utley leg-breaking tackle on then-Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada from the 2015 NLDS was still unresolved from the Mets’ perspective, Syndergaard again took it upon himself to throw a 100-mph fastball behind Utley to make sure that he and the rest of baseball understood that the Mets had an enforcer.
They have someone who understands the occasional need to send a means to an end message to opponents who might try to take liberties due to the club’s reputation for passivity – something that has afflicted the Mets for decades going back to those teams of the late 1980s. He got ejected from the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Kansas City Royals hooted and shouted at him from their bench. But he doesn’t care. That’s taking on a leadership role.
That would be irrelevant if he wasn’t performing on the field, but Syndergaard has that covered as well – something Wright can no longer boast because he can’t get on the field and stay there because of his ongoing and apparently unabated physical breakdown.
Off the field, were he appearing on Page Six of the New York Post as Matt Harvey has, often for reasons that are less than optimal, then there would be no basis for him to take on a leadership role. His appearance outside the sports pages has been to promote the Mets, baseball and to show the lighter side of his mischievous personality.
Contrary to romantic notions of team-oriented unselfishness, the handing over of the reins of leadership is rarely smooth, nor is it done willingly. Situations in which a star veteran was pushed aside to make room for the next generation before his was ready are indicative of the complicated dynamic of changing from one era to the next.
In some instances, being the captain is about the only thing that certain players can still do. Sadly, that’s where Wright is. When combining that with the murkiness of the job itself and it morphs into a transferrable role that depends largely on performance.
Wright was the ideal leader for the Mets as they bridged the gap from his younger years as an integral member of the “almost” teams of Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Johan Santana, Jose Reyes and Billy Wagner through the dark years of their rebuild and through to the return to contending status with a young and charismatic pitching staff that is the envy of baseball. That he could still perform at his former MVP-caliber glory granted him that right. Sadly, this is no longer the case.
If the designated captain cannot perform, then the team will look to other leaders amid the unavoidable comments that are generally relegated to the fans but are also said by players privately and in whispered tones, “Why doesn’t he just retire?”
This is not an implication that the captaincy will be removed from Wright and handed to Syndergaard or anyone else, but it’s not necessary to have a title to be a leader. For most effective leaders, it’s a natural progression from taking command without having been told to do so to being granted the official designation.
A younger team will look more toward its brash and fearless spokesman who is of their generation rather than the older veteran who can’t play anymore.
For Syndergaard, it’s his role. For Wright, it’s an honorific.