Zack Wheeler's most prized possession: An autographed jersey by another Met phenom, Dwight Gooden

A composite of Zack Wheeler and his signed

A composite of Zack Wheeler and his signed Doc Gooden jersey. (Credit: AP, Handout)

The hoopla surrounding Zack Wheeler's major-league debut Tuesday night is reminiscent of the days three decades ago when a young Dwight Gooden took the mound donning a Mets uniform.

Turns out Wheeler knows a little something about that.

Wheeler's most prized possession as a young baseball fan growing up in Dallas, Ga., was a throwback 1980s Dwight Gooden Mets jersey that one of his brothers received personally from "Doctor K" a decade ago and had him sign it, "To Zack."

Adam Wheeler was a Yankees minor-leaguer at the time and often used his connections to get some cool birthday gifts, such as signed balls by Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. But easily the most well-received present was the signed Gooden jersey he gave Zack, who was 12 or 13 at the time.

"He kept it like it was worth a ton of money," Adam said. "That's how he treated it."

Added Zack's father, Barry: "He's still got it and it's still in mint condition. He didn't wear it or anything like that. He knew it was special. He's been holding on to it all this time."

 

Doc's prescription

A decade later, Wheeler is attempting to follow in Gooden's footsteps as a prized prospect with huge expectations. And as Wheeler finally arrives on the Mets scene Tuesday, all eyes are on him -- including Gooden's.

In a telephone interview, Gooden said he has not met Wheeler since the Mets acquired him from the San Francisco Giants for Carlos Beltran two summers ago. But Gooden said he's aware of his connection to the Mets' prized pitching prospect.

He remembers coaching Wheeler's brother with the Yankees in the early 2000s and was recently told the story about how he had once given Wheeler one of his jerseys. He's looking forward to meeting Wheeler to discuss the jersey -- and also the frenzied atmosphere the pitcher is walking into.

Having been through this type of introduction to the New York sports scene in the '80s, Gooden said it's best Wheeler pays no attention to what everyone else wants, something Gooden failed to do.

"Try to live up to your own expectations and nobody else's," Gooden said. "I think I would have been better off, and that wouldn't have led to the self-destruction, not trying to live up to other people's expectations."

 

Stress management

Those closest to Wheeler are not worried about how he'll handle that kind of pressure.

Family members describe Zack as reserved and levelheaded, saying he's been that way his whole life. Growing up with brothers Adam and Jacob, who are seven and nine years older than him, and a father as his youth baseball coach humbled him as an athlete and grounded him, too.

"He's just laid-back and doesn't stress about anything," Adam Wheeler said.

Barry Wheeler coached all three of his sons before they got to high school and always stressed the importance of keeping their cool on the mound no matter what the situation.

"I always told them, 'If you're on the mound, I don't care if you just struck out your best friend or your best friend just hit a home run off you, do not show any emotion.' "

The message stuck with Zack.

"I haven't yet to this day seen Zack get rattled," said his agent, B.B. Abbott, "and that's from high school through the minors."

That demeanor seems perfect for the anticipation and expectations placed on him by fans. But the Mets have taken steps to prepare him for what lies ahead.

Vice president of media relations Jay Horwitz flew to Las Vegas last week on a Mets day off to meet with Wheeler for a half-hour to discuss what to expect.

At Triple-A Las Vegas this season, pitching in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, Wheeler was 4-2 with a 3.93 ERA. He struck out 73 and walked 27 in 682/3 innings.

Those are not overwhelmingly successful numbers, but the Mets are not concerned, having made no secret that one of the leading reasons they kept him in the minors in recent weeks was to push back his first year of arbitration eligibility.

Everyone knows that, Wheeler included.

"He understands that these are business decisions that are being made behind the scenes," Abbott said.

 

Aware of pitfallsThe way the professional baseball world works is not new to the Wheelers. They saw injuries derail Adam's major-league dreams nearly a decade ago, an experience that sticks with them to this day.

A 13th-round pick of the Yankees in 2001, Adam pitched in only 32 minor-league games and was out of baseball by 2005 after two shoulder surgeries sapped him of velocity and durability. The sting of how his once-promising career ended still lingers.

"Every time we talk about Zack, we say, 'He can do this or he can do that, if he can stay healthy.' We say that at the end every time," Adam said. "It definitely stays in all of our heads."

So far, though, there's been no reason to be worried.

Zack has passed all the tests in the minors, and the Mets are hoping his arrival is a one-way ticket that marks the beginning of a new era.

Speculation has been rampant in recent weeks about when Wheeler would get called up, to the point where his family called the experience nerve-wracking and stressful.

"The way I always imagined it, I thought I'd get a call from Zack one day saying, 'OK, I got the call,' " his father said. "That's how I imagined it in my mind. It's not happening that way."

As for Zack, well, nothing bothers him.

"He's different, man," Adam said. "He's different from me, my older brother, different from anybody about not caring about much. He's just, 'Oh whatever.' He's just playing baseball, along for the ride, doing his job."

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