Friday, February 18, 2011
Wright has to adjust without HoJo
By Adam Rubin
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- When New York Mets third baseman David Wright landed at LaGuardia Airport the day of his major league debut, a voicemail was waiting from his minor league hitting coach, Howard Johnson.
"Now go out there and break all my records," HoJo instructed Wright.
Wright passed Johnson on the franchise's career extra-base hits list last season. He is currently within 23 of HoJo's Mets homer total of 192.
But HoJo and the Mets are now divorced, and the man Wright used to refer to as his "baseball father" won't witness Wright succeeding the long ball total firsthand -- or as a member of the organization at all.
Yet while Wright cannot be pleased with the departure of his mentor -- the two even watched the Super Bowl together at HoJo's home -- he understands the parting.
Wright said it would be hard for him, as a major leaguer, to somehow be demoted to Class A St. Lucie or Brooklyn to play. For the same reason, according to Wright, an offer extended by the Mets to Johnson to work in Class A as a hitting coach was not appealing.
So despite being promised a role in the organization after being pushed out as major league hitting coach after last season, Johnson informed Mets brass he is leaving.
"It's tough one minute being a big league hitting coach and then the next minute really the only position available is an A-ball hitting coach," Wright told ESPNNewYork.com. "Nothing against an A-ball hitting coach, but it's regressing, and he wants to move forward.
"He' just been with the organization so long, and I think he's done so much for the organization, that it's tough for him to move on. But, on the other hand, I think that he understands that the organization is kind of going in a different direction -- really, I would say, through very little fault of his own. I think he did everything he could do. I think he was really good for me. I think he was really good for a lot of the other guys. It's baseball. It happens. When a new regime comes in, they want to bring in their own guys. And I think he understands that."
Wright believes HoJo will resurface with another organization as a major league hitting coach.
"I hope so," Wright said. "I think he can really help out the hitting. If you allow HoJo to control the hitting, I think that he'd be an excellent hitting coach. If you let him bring his philosophies in and allow him to do what he's capable of doing, then I think he'd make a heckuva hitting coach."
Wright's comment about allowing HoJo to implement his philosophies was a reference to the long-obvious fact that former manager Jerry Manuel took the lead with hitting and HoJo was merely assisting in another man's teachings. Pressed on that, though, Wright did not want to turn the conversation negative.
"I mean, I don't know what went on behind the closed doors," Wright said. "But I think that there were probably some limitations. You're a team. You have a philosophy, and you stick to that philosophy. That's what happens. Unfortunately, HoJo got grouped in with a lot of the other guys that didn't stick around."
Still, one acquaintance said "it's not a Steinbrenner-Yogi thing" -- referring to how Yogi Berra would not set foot in Yankee Stadium for more than a decade after a falling out with George Steinbrenner upon being fired as manager 16 games into the 1985 season.
Assuming the Mets recognize the 25th anniversary of the 1986 championship team this summer at Citi Field, friends doubt HoJo would be the type of person to stay away.
Meanwhile, Wright has been getting acquainted with Dave Hudgens, HoJo's successor as hitting coach, who has ties to several front-office members from their days in Oakland.
Wright and Hudgens got technical for the first time Friday at the team's complex.
"He watched me hit the first few days," Wright said. "And today really for the first time we kind of broke down what I feel like when I'm going good and what I feel like when I'm struggling. He said he watched a bunch of tape of me from the last couple of years and sees some things he just needs to be aware of."
Wright acknowledged reducing his strikeout total is a goal. He struck out a career-high 161 times last season despite otherwise solid production: .283 with 29 homers and 103 RBIs.
Wright's strikeout total has climbed every season in the majors, from 113 apiece in 2005 and '06, to 115 in 2007, 118 in 2008, 140 in 2009 and then last year's 21-strikeout jump.
"Of course I think it's a goal to get them down," Wright said. "But you say that and you get on the field and I'm not going trade in any of my mindset of hitting the ball in the gaps and trying to drive the ball for the sake of cutting down on a couple of strikeouts. I think going into the season I'd like to get back strikeout-number-wise to where I was a couple of years ago. I'm going to strike out over 100 times. But I just don't want to get it excessive."
Hudgens agreed it's something to address.
"I'd like to get his feel on why it jumped up," he said. "There might have been pitches early in the count he was taking or missing or whatever the case may be. But, historically, you look at his numbers, his walks-to-strikeouts were pretty good. It might have been one of those years. Maybe he was trying to do too much. You know, he had a pretty good year, even though he had the strikeouts. He had a bunch of homers, had a bunch of RBIs, hit well. I'm sure he doesn't want to strike out that much because it means he can get on base a little bit more. It's something we'll talk about. I'm not going to focus on it. We'll talk about it."
As for the Wright-Hudgens relationship, the third baseman said: "He's been great so far, so I can't wait to work with him."