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Social media spotlight is a different ballgame for young players like Mets' Noah Syndergaard

Noah Syndergaard of the New York Mets looks

Noah Syndergaard of the New York Mets looks on during a game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Citi Field on Friday, May 15, 2015. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Noah Syndergaard had yet to pitch in a major-league game, though it had been a long time since he knew the feeling of anonymity. He was reminded of this last October, when a bar mitzvah brought the Mets' top pitching prospect to New York.

By then, the Mets had long since receded into irrelevance, and it had been a month since he last pitched in Triple-A Las Vegas.

At 6-6, Syndergaard stands out in a crowd. Still, he should have been nothing more than another lost tourist befuddled by the colored lines and squiggles of a subway map.

"Some guy recognized me, some Mets fan," Syndergaard said recently. "He's like, 'Oh, you're Noah.' I'm like, 'Yeah, can you actually help me out here? I'm a little confused about the subway.' He was real cool about it, showed me the ropes a little bit."

There was a time when a sense of mystery trailed even the most hyped prospects in baseball. But that idea has become as quaint as players needing to take offseason jobs to make ends meet.

Consider Syndergaard, 22, the Mets' own personification of the millennial uber-prospect.

On Sunday, he makes his debut at Citi Field as a member of the Mets, but he already has taken the mound here. It was as part of the Futures Game in 2013, an annual showcase of baseball's top prospects. He has twice pitched in the nationally televised game.

Every step of his journey from the lower minor leagues has been cataloged and dissected, with all of it just a Google search away.

"I think I've handled it pretty well," Syndergaard said. "I've never been a huge attention type of guy. So it's going to take some getting used to, I guess."

Baseball Millennials

Syndergaard is part of a generation that views social media not as a choice but as part of the culture. But perhaps because of it, his ascent hasn't always been smooth.

Once, he raised eyebrows by Instagramming a photo of himself feeding a lion through a cage -- with his pitching hand.

And recently, an uncomfortable exchange with a critical fan drew the ire of the organization and prompted Syndergaard to cede control of the Twitter account he had started long before his days in pro baseball.

"It's a little different when you're in the public eye like this in a big media market like New York," he said. "You've got to have restraint. You swallow your pride. You know better than to lash out at a fan -- if that's what you want to call them."

The new reality stands in contrast with a time when highly regarded prospects could mature without the added pressure of the public eye.

"Those were the days when you could just get lost," said Mets first-base coach Tom Goodwin, the 22nd overall pick by the Dodgers in 1989. "You got drafted, it was a nice day when you got drafted, and then all of a sudden, bam, you're in the minor leagues for three or four years."

Aside from Baseball America, the venerable trade publication that has long been the bible of minor-league baseball, Goodwin remembers precious little bits of information available on other prospects.

Little existed outside of blurbs in local newspapers. Most progress reports came by word of mouth.

"I always remember, a lot of the friends back home, they used to always call you and see how you were doing," Goodwin said. "It wasn't like there was any Internet going."

The information age

By 1997, when the Twins drafted current Mets outfielder Michael Cuddyer ninth overall, things hadn't changed all that much. Even with the Internet taking root, big-league hopefuls still flocked toward ubiquitous stacks of Baseball America, which were available in every clubhouse.

"Baseball America was really the only way, and that was always two weeks late," Cuddyer said. "There was no instantaneous stuff."

That has long changed. In some ways, the amount of information available about prospects has altered the way teams do business, Mets assistant general manager John Ricco said.

"They become more valuable in your own fans' eyes," Ricco said. "So in some ways, it can be harder to make a deal because your fans, your ownership and your marketing people have all heard about this guy. So now it's 'how can we give up on him?' "

Those emotions still surface from Blue Jays fans. In 2012, many of them were well aware of what the franchise was giving up when Syndergaard was included in the deal that sent reigning Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey to Toronto.

By 2013, Syndergaard's first season at Triple-A Las Vegas, almost all of his starts were available for viewing via a live stream on Dozens of experts from various blogs and news organizations could weigh in on his progress.

All of it became available with a few swipes on his smartphone. With technology, Syndergaard had a front-row seat to the cyclical scrutiny about his readiness to play in the major leagues.

"With Noah, every outing he had was like, 'OK, he gave up five runs, he's not ready,' " Goodwin said. "Or 'he gave up no runs, now he's ready.' Trust me, at some point, you're going to read into that. All of us are human and we all want good things said about us. That's the fight that the younger players have now, going out and playing the game."

No different from prospects of a different era, Syndergaard found himself hungry for any news of a promotion. He availed himself of all of it, sometimes to his own detriment.

Everyone knows your name

Even as Syndergaard prepared for his first big-league start at Wrigley Field on Tuesday, he couldn't escape his own image.

"Social media has a lot to do with it, but also MLB Network," Cuddyer said. "You've got to fill air and prospects are a good way to do that, letting the fan bases know what's coming through the pipeline."

A few minutes later, Syndergaard's highlights popped up on a clubhouse flat screen tuned into MLB Network. He was listed alongside several of the game's top pitching prospects.

"Fans definitely know more about the younger players than they ever have in the past -- good, bad or indifferent," Cuddyer said. "Sometimes it's not fair."

The pressure weighed on Syndergaard last season when he awaited a call-up that never came. Easy access to information almost proved to be debilitating.

"It got to the point where I was just coming into the clubhouse and checking every 30 seconds basically just to see what was going on," Syndergaard said. "Not just to see what people were talking about me but to see what was going on in the world in general, or in the Mets' world. You've got those times when you're just curious about what people are saying."

That curiosity became overwhelming. He eventually deleted the Twitter app from his phone. But by this spring, he had reinstalled it, which is how he found himself in a spat with a fan.

Now Syndergaard is taking no chances. He has surrendered control of his Twitter feed to his agent, who has changed the account's password.

Syndergaard hopes the "little fail-safe" protects him from temptation, especially as his profile increases and the spotlight grows even brighter.

"It just comes with the territory of playing in New York," he said. "I embrace it. I wouldn't want to play anywhere else."

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