PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — David Wright didn’t know any better. He figured he’d be back again, and again, and again. He assumed that after reaching the brink of seizing the pennant in 2006, the Mets would become fixtures in October.
“In my eyes, we were set up to be a perennial playoff team and a World Series-contending team for a good chunk of time,” Wright said last week during informal workouts leading up to the official start of spring training. “It didn’t work out that way.”
Back-to-back collapses. Financial calamity. Sustained mediocrity. That’s how it worked out until last year’s renaissance and run to the National League pennant.
But now that the tide has turned for the Mets, Wright hasn’t forgotten the lesson, nor has he lost sight of reiterating the thought.
“Nine years later, we’ve got a chance to be a similar-type team,” Wright said. “But I don’t think anybody, including me — because I lived through it earlier in my career — takes anything for granted now.”
Such is the test now facing the Mets. As they trickle into Florida ahead of Thursday’s report date for pitchers and catchers, they arrive here with a different identity. Last year, the Mets conquered the Nationals, claimed the NL East title, triumphed over the well-heeled Dodgers and swept the Cubs before falling to the Royals in five games in the World Series.
In the process, the Mets transformed themselves from the hunters to the hunted, bringing forth a whole new set of expectations. One of them involves bucking history.
Few franchises have better exemplified the inherent difficulty of attaining sustained success. Only once have the Mets reached the postseason in consecutive years — in 1999 and in 2000, the year they won the pennant. Yet this is the expectation that the Mets will shoulder this season, one of great promise.
“Just to hear that is awesome,” said Long Island’s Steven Matz, the Mets fan turned Mets rookie sensation. “It’s really cool. I remember just sitting back at home and watching this team in the World Series and stuff. To now actually have been there and to be this kind of team coming back from that type of year is a really cool feeling.”
The hype is warranted. Slugger Yoenis Cespedes returns to a lineup that emerged as one of the most productive in the league during the second half. The roster is deeper than at any other point in the tenure of general manager Sandy Alderson.
And the Mets boast what is arguably the most electric starting rotation in all of baseball.
For staff ace Matt Harvey, Tommy John surgery and its complicated aftereffects have become a smaller and smaller blip in the rearview mirror. Jacob deGrom proved his mettle in the postseason and fireballing Noah Syndergaard emerged as perhaps the most imposing of them all.
“It’s a dream,” catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “It’s almost like you’re playing ‘MLB The Show’ and you’ve created your whole starting staff. It’s pretty fun.”
But the Mets’ challenge also has grown in scope.
“Teams are going to show up to beat you even more now,” Wright said. “There’s not going to be anybody bowing down to us just because of what we were able to accomplish last year. If anything, it’s going to be even more difficult because you’ve got a bull’s-eye on your back.”
Much of this season will be spent celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Mets’ last championship team. But even the core of that vaunted 1986 World Series team demonstrated the daunting task now facing the Mets in 2016.
Three decades ago, the Mets possessed enough talent to build a dynasty. But they made the postseason only one more time, in 1988, when they were upset by the Dodgers.
Later, Wright’s own experience followed the script. Since then, he’s resolved to do what he can to ensure that his contemporaries won’t have to do the same.
“You don’t appreciate it as much when you’re going through it until it’s taken away from you for nine years,” Wright said. “Getting a chance to experience it again, you realize how fortunate it is and how the stars have to align to make that type of run. The biggest thing is let’s put our foot to the pedal and let’s keep going.”
Last season, as the Mets stormed toward the division title, d’Arnaud asked Wright plenty of questions about that long-ago trip to the playoffs. Wright impressed upon him a message that again will loom large.
“They were supposed to do it over and over and over again, and it never happened,” d’Arnaud said. “So you can’t take it for granted. You’ve got to go out there, put your heart out on the table and just play hard.”
Wright can see what’s coming next. Once April rolls around and the crowds flock back to Citi Field, the team will be celebrated for its revival. The fans will note the young talent on the field and expect years and years of competing for championships. Perhaps this time it will come to pass.
Wright knows better now, knows better than to assume it will all fall into place. Nine years later, he knows that much of his season will be spent combating complacency.
“It’s a cautionary tale,” he said. “I don’t want anybody thinking this is the pinnacle, like we got a chance to play in the World Series, what a great run, and let that be it.”