Zack Wheeler has taken advantage of brotherly advice
The oldest of the three brothers knew the time had come. Another heart surgery loomed, one of the seven that he has endured, all of them futile attempts to correct a condition that derailed his own athletic aspirations.
With this procedure, there were few guarantees, so he pulled his youngest brother aside for a talk that neither wanted to have.
Zack Wheeler had only skimmed the surface of what he would become. It would be one year until the Giants drafted him and made him an instant millionaire, and three years until the Mets traded for him and hailed him as an ace in waiting. He was just a junior in high school the day he sat in that quiet hospital room with his oldest brother, Jacob.
"I may or may not come out of it," Jacob Wheeler recalled telling his brother. "If I don't, then what you're doing now, you've got to stay on the same path. If something happens, you can't go crazy, you can't just throw everything away that you've worked for."
Years later, those words remain with Zack Wheeler, the 23-year-old who takes the mound at Citi Field Tuesday night against the San Francisco Giants with a 7-5 record and a 3.22 ERA. It will be just his 17th big-league start and likely one of his last in a season filled with exponential growth.
Nerves made a mess of his command when he first joined the rotation in June. But steady progress followed. Wheeler settled in and his mechanics clicked into place. He commanded his blazing fastball. He rediscovered the touch on his breaking pitches.
And every step of the way, his brothers have followed along, enjoying every minute of the future they once had envisioned for themselves.
Runs in the family
The three brothers took after their parents, both athletes, who made basketball and baseball the center of life at home in suburban Atlanta. The oldest, Jacob, played both sports in high school despite a condition that sent his heart rate soaring to dangerous levels. The middle child, Adam, pitched in the minor leagues for the Yankees until a torn labrum in his shoulder ended his promising career.
The youngest, Zack, grew up emulating Jacob and Adam. Whatever they did, Zack did. But it wouldn't be long until he was doing things they could not do.
"I'd always tease Zack, saying we'll wait until the day you hit 99 [mph], then you can talk," Adam said. "Then, he did. So that was over."
Talent and good fortune made Zack the chosen one. Over time, Adam and Jacob resolved to pour themselves into preparing their little brother for whatever might come.
It was Adam, 30, who taught his little brother the ways of the clubhouse: what to say, what to keep to yourself, how to act like a professional, how to avoid blowing his signing bonus splurging on his friends and family, as he had once done.
It was Adam, who during his days as a Yankees farmhand, brought Zack along to spring training games. It was Adam who passed along all the things he learned about pitching from tutors such as Dwight Gooden.
And it was Adam, who after his own games, would squat down and catch his little brother in the parking lot of the ballpark because Zack was so eager to put the lessons into practice.
"It would be tough if he didn't make it [to the majors]," said Adam, whose playing days ended in 2004. "But now that he made it, I don't even think about that because I get to live through him, I get to watch him. And that's as good as me making it."
It is Adam's No. 45 that Zack wears on his back today.
A lesson in life
From Jacob, Zack learned never to take anything for granted.
Jacob, 32, was only 13 when doctors diagnosed him with supraventricular tachycardia, a condition that causes spells in which the heart beats abnormally fast. Doctors recommended surgery that they believed would correct the condition. It didn't.
Jacob played baseball and basketball in high school despite his heart problem.
"It would be 300 beats per minute for like eight hours and I wouldn't say anything to anybody because they would make me stop [playing]," he said. "I was blessed enough to know that I was creating memories for myself with high school sports, and knowing I would never have another opportunity to play again."
With each passing season, he played less and less. By his junior year, he dropped baseball. As a senior, he played on the basketball team, though coaches used him sparingly for fear of aggravating his condition.
Jacob had his final surgery last summer. It was the seventh attempt to repair the issue in his heart. It was unsuccessful, and he has since decided to attempt simply managing the condition.
"He was a top athlete but he couldn't do anything about it, couldn't show it off," Zack said. "It's hard knowing that. It's hard seeing that."
Nevertheless, Jacob practiced as if he were a starter, and savored every moment on the court. Zack saw that, too.
"He always takes a step back and looks at things, like 'I'm lucky to be here,' " Zack said. "He doesn't take things for granted, you know?
"So he sort of pounds that into me."
The photograph shows the three brothers waiting anxiously on draft day in 2009. Zack sits in the middle, with Adam over his left shoulder and Jacob over his right. In many ways, they remain there still, looking out for the chosen one.
Rarely does a day pass without a phone call or a text message.
"We all fit a different role," Jacob said. "If he calls Adam, he's probably looking to get a little help with a mechanical thing. And Adam's going to give it to him straight and he knows that, whether he wants to hear it or not."
Adam, after all, remains a pitcher at heart. When Adam recently drove from his home in Indianapolis to watch Zack pitch in Cleveland, he insisted upon arriving early enough to see his little brother throw in the bullpen before the game. Even now, it's not unusual for Adam to send texts before games to fire up Zack, the quietest of the three.
"Get [ticked] off," said Adam, still an imposing figure at 6-6, though his playing days have long passed. "He's so laid back, you want to try to get him pumped up. That's how I was."
But when Zack needs a changeup, when it's time to talk things through, when he wants for somebody to just listen, he calls Jacob.
"It's more of a vent session sometimes," Jacob said. "It's more of him breaking himself down verbally to somebody else and not getting anything back, necessarily."
The two remain particularly close. When the Giants gave Wheeler a $3.3-million signing bonus, he bought a truck, then went in on a house in Dallas, Ga., with Jacob, who lives there year round. The home is a few blocks away from their parents.
And that's about all Zack did with his money.
For years, Jacob and Adam encouraged Zack to be mindful of his finances. During the offseason, while Zack was home, he came across a documentary about athletes squandering their fortunes. He watched it from start to finish.
"If his friends are over and he's going to order a pizza, he doesn't remember he's got money in the bank," Jacob said. "He's like 'Who's throwing in on pizza?' "
Even during the season, while some of Wheeler's teammates splurged on Manhattan apartments, Wheeler remained in the team hotel. He preferred to pocket a few thousand extra bucks that would otherwise go toward rent. And when Adam and his wife recently visited New York, Zack turned down a trip into the city for dinner, choosing instead to eat in at the hotel.
Said Jacob: "There's some apprehensiveness there to take it all for granted."
And it is that lesson, above all, that both brothers wanted Zack to understand. It was the message Jacob intended to leave with Zack in that hospital room all those years ago. Looking back at it, Jacob still calls it "the hardest conversation I've ever had in my entire life."
He remembered trying not to cry in front of his little brother. He wanted his words to be clear.
"If you're going to do anything, do it for me," Jacob told Zack that day. "He's like 'All right.' That's all he said is 'All right.' That was it."
Even then, Zack preferred actions to words.
"I try to go out here and make him happy because I know he wants the best for me since he didn't have it," Zack said. "I know I've got a healthy body, and a healthy heart, so I try to go out there and do the best that I can because I know that's what he'd do if he had a healthy heart."