Zack Wheeler has mastered the art of adapting to new situations
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Zack Wheeler wanted to fit in, so he did what he had always done and followed the lead of his older brothers. On his first day at a new high school in a new town, he slipped on a jersey and baggy jeans, the kind that his brothers used to wear.
"Then I come out here and everybody's wearing polos and they're like frat kids," Wheeler said earlier this year, not far from the Georgia high school from which he started his journey to the major leagues. "Everybody was making fun of me."
Eventually, he made the transition, just as he has done at every stop since that first day at East Paulding High School in Dallas, Ga. And Tuesday, when he arrives for his start against the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, the 23-year-old again will depend upon his adaptability.
Wheeler already has made his big-league debut, tossing six shutout innings in last Tuesday's win over the Braves. It was a doubly impressive performance considering that it came in Atlanta, only 15 minutes away from Smyrna, Ga., where he grew up.
Immediately after the game, he was optioned back to Triple-A Las Vegas in an unusual procedural move. But this time, if all goes to plan, the Mets' highly touted pitching prospect will remain in the majors, where he will be free to continue his orientation to a whole new world.
It started in high school
According to those closest to him, including his oldest brother Jacob, it's a process that began long before he lit up his first radar gun:
"He's definitely in a place where he's more prepared for it."
The distance between Smyrna and Dallas is only 20 miles, or a 40-minute drive on Georgia State Route 360. But it is possible for entire worlds to shift in that space, a reality that soon became clear to Wheeler.
He would have attended Campbell High School. It was at Campbell that his brothers Adam and Jacob played on the basketball team. It was at Campbell that Adam began a pitching career that ended when he suffered a shoulder injury as a Yankees farmhand. It was at Campbell that Jacob remembers school presentations that highlighted the various cultures that comprised a diverse student body.
Then the family moved to Dallas. Wheeler wound up at East Paulding High. It was there that he noticed that the parking lot was filled with street-legal versions of monster trucks. It was there where for the first time in his life, he sat in classes that were overwhelmingly white. He may have been the same racially but he wasn't culturally in a rural area that Jacob Wheeler said conjured up images of "trucks, farms and tobacco spit.''
It was at East Paulding that Wheeler said he learned the value of "seeing different places and seeing how people live different."
"I finally got a girlfriend," he said with a laugh. "She bought me a nice collared shirt and it just went on from there."
Wheeler played baseball and basketball before giving up the latter during his senior year. By then, he had long made the adjustment, though at the time it all seemed daunting.
"You find something in between, you figure out who you are, because he definitely faced a little bit of adversity when he went there," Jacob Wheeler said. "People said some mean things to him. It was good for him. He saw the other side of the coin."
Quiet and considerate
In the clubhouse, Wheeler again will be greeted by a different way of life, though his ability to change already has helped him on the baseball field.
He has been labeled as "quiet" or "introverted" or "reserved" -- adjectives that may be accurate in an outward sense. But to Wheeler, his perceived shyness is more a matter of consideration for others.
"I think it comes from an over-politeness," Jacob Wheeler said. "We're raised yes sir, no ma'am, yes sir. And you don't want to put people out. You may see people doing it all around you, asking questions and doing things. But you don't want to put people out."
Over time, Wheeler has made a point of getting better at reaching out. It's how he developed several important relationships, such as the one he enjoys with Giants reliever Sergio Romo, who served as a mentor to Wheeler when the two were in the Giants' minor-league system.
The Mets have been encouraged by the way Wheeler has settled in -- even in the shadow of heady expectations.
Said one team insider, "When he gets comfortable here, he won't be a wallflower."
Far from flashy
Yet for all of Wheeler's transitions, he has not lost himself in the process.
He has faced constant comparisons to fellow Mets phenom Matt Harvey, though aside from extraordinary talent, the two have little in common.
In his first full season with the Mets, Harvey has dated a supermodel, made friends with the NHL's Rangers and inspired comparisons to Dwight Gooden.
Wheeler, by contrast, found one of his first stops in the minor leagues to be a bit too "crowded." He was talking about San Jose, Calif.
His idea of a big night out is gathering in the basement that he had redone as a man cave, where he has been known to spend hours playing "Call of Duty" with his friends.
Sometimes Wheeler will allow himself a shootaround, just as he did this past winter when he joined an old teammate at the gym. He fired a hail of air balls before getting back into his groove.
"It kills me not to play," Wheeler said about basketball.
With his bonus money from the Giants, Wheeler bought a home near his parents in Dallas, Ga., along with the kind of lifted pickup truck that dots the parking lot at East Paulding. He also donated the sparkling new scoreboard that looms over the leftfield fence at the baseball field.
But some things haven't changed. While the Mets' clubhouse is filled with designer labels and tailored suits, Wheeler still finds himself most comfortable in T-shirts and baggy basketball shorts.
When Wheeler made his debut in Atlanta, his oldest brother estimated nearly 300 people turned out. He recognized familiar faces. They came from both Smyrna and Dallas.
"I'm not going to say you're fully prepared, because nobody's fully prepared for any crazy situation or new situation," Jacob Wheeler said. "But he's definitely more prepared than he would have been."