PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — The members of the Mets’ vaunted starting rotation form an impressive cluster of stars, though they’re seldom aligned. While their lockers can be found in succession against the far wall of the clubhouse, the pitchers rarely congregate there.
Even during the sleepiest days of spring training, chaos reigns. There are throwing programs to complete, meetings to attend, trainers to visit — dozens of players going in dozens of different directions until they come together briefly to stretch.
But earlier in spring training, photo day at Mets camp brought a chance to immortalize a moment in time, one that has the potential to shape this franchise for the next decade.
That morning, one by one, they emerged from the dugout in full uniform, the most promising pitching staff in all of baseball: Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, Steven Matz and Bartolo Colon.
As the cameras whirred and clicked, they stood shoulder to shoulder, seemingly sculpted from the same granite, the Mets’ very own Mound Rushmore.
“In many people’s minds, that represents the New York Mets . . . It’s not just that we have in that picture represented Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom, it’s the collection, it’s the group, it’s what that represents beyond just the individuals represented.”
Sandy Alderson knows the enduring power of an image.
Fresh off a World Series title in 1989, the A’s held four first-round picks in the 1990 draft. Alderson, then Oakland’s general manager, used those selections to assemble a stable of pitchers: Todd Van Poppel, Kirk Dressendorfer, Dave Zancanaro and Don Peters.
They posed together for the cover of Baseball America. Each held an oversized playing card — aces, of course — as in The Four Aces.
“None of them really panned out,” said Alderson, now the Mets’ general manager.
In the days before pitch counts, all experienced arm trouble.
Van Poppel, a fireballer from Texas, never learned the art of command and enjoyed only modest success as a middle reliever. Dressendorfer’s big- eague career was confined to seven games. Zancanaro and Peters never reached the majors at all.
Together, they stand as a reminder that accumulating the talent is not enough. These Mets already have accomplished more than those long-forgotten aces. But they have their sights set on so much more.
“I think that’s going to be a pretty popular picture. Even 20 years in the future, people are going to be looking at that picture . . . I think that picture is going to be talked about for a long time.”
Noah Syndergaard captures the brashness that runs through the core of these Millennial Mets. He stands 6-6 and weighs 240 pounds. Before he let his blond hair grow into a flowing mane, his chiseled physique prompted teammates to compare him to Ivan Drago, the close-cropped, muscle-bound super-villain from Rocky IV.
The Mets boast five starting pitchers in their 20s, all with fastballs in the mid-90s. But scouts agree that it is Syndergaard who possesses the most potent raw talent, a triple-digit heater paired with a hook that on some days mocks the basic laws of physics.
This season, Syndergaard, 23, hopes to make intimidation a tool, just as he did during the World Series. He began Game 3 by firing a fastball over the head of leadoff man Alcides Escobar. He likely will see the Royals again in the second game of the season in Kansas City, where he surely will be jeered. He knows it’s coming.
Said Syndergaard: “I really don’t care.”
“I always feel like you’re on the outside of cool things in life, you know what I mean? You think, man, I wish I could be a part of that, like The Big Three were in Miami or something . . . That’s probably us right now. Some guys maybe want to be part of our rotation. It’s kind of cool to actually be that group.”
For a few tense hours last summer, Zack Wheeler ceased to be part of that group. It was through no choice of his own. But as Wilmer Flores cried on the field and the Internet raged in confusion, Wheeler essentially was a member of another team.
The Brewers thought enough of his talent to trade for him even though his elbow hadn’t fully mended from Tommy John surgery. It still hasn’t. He won’t be back until July.
The trade fell through, of course. And when Wheeler does return, it will be with the Mets, his place in the picture secured.
Before his injury, Wheeler, 25, was part of the first wave, acquired in a trade from the Giants for Carlos Beltran. Plugged into the rotation before all but Harvey, Wheeler saw enough to know what soon would be within reach.
Said Wheeler: “You get to be a part of something good.”
“It’s a lot of fun, and to be a part of it, it’s an honor. These are great guys to be around. We have fun together. We enjoy playing the game and I think we all learn from each other. That makes us special. And then how much we’re rooting for the other guy out there, that helps out a lot too.”
Jacob deGrom, 27, doesn’t care for the attention. He loathes talking about himself. But the lanky, wavy-haired righty laughed one morning in camp when he caught himself rambling about his teammates.
They have given him an edge. His ascent from afterthought to Rookie of the Year has been fueled in part by simply being part of the group.
With the exception of Colon, they are all tall and they all throw hard, meaning that they can trade scouting reports like brothers swapping hand-me-down clothing.
That sense of support goes beyond practical matters.
Before games, members of the starting rotation gather behind the mound, in support of that day’s starting pitcher. In a literal sense, they want him to know that they have his back.
“That mindset, and not getting caught up in what gets said about us, helps out a lot,” deGrom said. “We expect more out of ourselves than what other people do.”
“To see that picture, and just knowing how young those guys are, and for me to be there at my age, it’s kind of funny the thoughts that run through my head . . . It’s not so much quite like a father figure. But it’s something that makes me feel very special.”
Bartolo Colon looked out of place. He is not tall, he is not young, he is not a hard thrower. It would be easy to cut him out of the picture.
That would be a mistake.
If these Mets fulfill their promise, it will be partly because of Colon, the 42-year-old strike-thrower whose influence will endure long after he is done playing.
It is Colon who has provided a valuable counterbalance, keeping things light, reminding the Mets that it ultimately is just a game. It is Colon who has stressed composure, making it impossible to tell by body language alone whether he has been shelled or tossed a shutout.
It is Colon who passed on some of the finer points of the trade, such as ditching sugar-free bubblegum for the real thing. Because on cold afternoons early in the season, as Wheeler would learn, it can come in handy for a pitcher needing some extra grip.
“You lick your fingers and wipe, it gives you a little tack,” Wheeler said. “Instead of cheating and using suntan lotion or something."
“It’s rare, it’s cool and everything. But in my mind, I’m still trying to get better. I think we’re all trying to get better. The second that you become content with where you’re at . . . ”
Steven Matz best represents the most intriguing reality about the photo — there still is so much room to improve.
Matz, 24, is the only lefty of the bunch. His big-league resume is thin. To a certain extent, this applies to the rest of the twenty-somethings in the rotation, too.
The natural comparisons began last season, with fans eager to invoke the names Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz, the legendary Braves trio. It will be years before the Mets truly can enter that conversation.
First, they must prove their durability. It’s a challenge that’s particularly important to Matz. Throughout his career, the Long Island lefty has had his growth stunted by injury.
Improvement would come by simply staying on the field.
“That’s my goal, to just really establish myself this year, learn the hitters, learn the league, and get that ball every fifth day,” he said. “Get deep into those games, like you see these other guys do.”
“You can look at a group like that and you can say that was the group that ‘was’ or that ‘never was.’ You don’t want to be the ‘never was’ group.”
Matt Harvey knows nothing is promised. He’s right, of course.
Only a few feet from where Mound Rushmore took shape, Generation K once gathered, posing for pictures, gazing upon a limitless future. In the mid-1990s, Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson were supposed to lead a revival. Instead, injuries ended it before it began.
Two decades later, these Mets stand at the same point, their potential unique in both quantity and quality. It’s why various versions of the photo quickly made the rounds, racing through social media, a symbol of all that could be.
They stand united, six individuals forming a single identity, one that is brash, loyal, protective, wise, eager and ambitious. Nobody personifies it better than Harvey, 27, the outspoken ace. He knows that performance alone will determine the group’s place in history.
“There’s a lot of promise and a lot of hope,” he said. “But where we want to be is to make sure that people 20 years down the road will look back and say, ‘Damn, that was something special.’ ”