Zack Wheeler’s soon going to be able to say something no Met, from Richie Ashburn to Carlos Torres — not even magnificent Matt Harvey — can say:
“I was born in the 1990s.”
Yes, gentle reader, you’re getting old, but this isn’t about you. This is about the New York Mets promoting and pitching, as precipitation and procedures permit this evening in Atlanta, their first player ever to come from the tenth decade of the twentieth century (May 30, 1990, to be precise). The Mets started life with a roster full of men who first drew breath in the 1920s and 1930s and have been moving incrementally through the decades since.
They haven’t been quick in delivering a ’90s baby. The first player anywhere born two decades before the current one was Starlin Castro, brought up by the Cubs on May 7, 2010. The Mets were chronologically close to turning the odometer that season, introducing 20-year-olds Jennry Mejia and Ruben Tejada to The Show, but those kids made the mistake of being born in October 1989. Since they came along, Robert Carson, Jeurys Familia, Juan Lagares and Mr. Harvey have joined the ranks of the Mets’ ’89ers, but nobody any younger than Tejada (born 10/27/1989) has debuted until now.
Soon enough, the born-in-a-decade distinction won’t be noteworthy. It’s only when it’s brand new or teetering into extinction that it gets your attention (mine, anyway). Nowadays, a player born between 1980 and 1989 is somewhere between 23 and 33 years old, prime baseball-playing years. But it caught my eye when the Mets first deployed an all-1980s born infield at the tail end of the 2005 season: Mike Jacobs, Anderson Hernandez, Jose Reyes and David Wright. It jumped off the scoreboard at me on a night in August five years later when the entire starting lineup was comprised of fellas who first came to be in that decade.
For the record, they were Reyes SS; Fernando Martinez RF; Angel Pagan CF; Wright 3B; Ike Davis 1B; Chris Carter LF; Josh Thole C; Tejada 2B; and Mike Pelfrey P. You can see that longevity, success, and what have you didn’t become a common denominator among these particular 2010 Mets. But they were all born in the 1980s and that had never happened before.
None of them, though, was the first to answer to that trivial point. That honor, if that’s what it is, went to Pat Strange, who was born August 23, 1980, and entered an eventual 11-8 loss at Montreal on September 13, 2002. You might say Strange was our Zack Wheeler ten-plus years ago, except Pat pitched in eleven games for the 2002 and 2003 Mets, was on the losing side in all but one of them, was never seen again on the big league level and…no, he wasn’t Zack Wheeler. In the name of all that is merciful, he was not Zack Wheeler.
Nor was the first Met born in the 1970s, Joe Vitko, who was added to the active roster of life on February 1, 1970, and made it as a Met on September 18, 1992. That distinction might have belonged to the more familiar personage of Bobby J. Jones, except an expansion draft was around the corner and keeping Bobby from the majors that September was the prudent thing. As for Vitko and his three Mets/MLB appearances, neither the Rockies nor Marlins jumped at the chance to grab him.
The first Met born the same decade as the Mets wasn’t me, no matter what I imagined. Instead, on September 12, 1981, second base prospect Brian Giles came up. The infielder for whom relatively big things were expected was born April 27, 1960. He never quite lived up to his notices, though for a couple of minutes in 1983, he and Jose Oquendo — the first Met born after the birth of the Mets (and me) — formed a flashy double play combination of the future. Their Met future turned out to be brief, but it’s worth noting each of them was still playing in the majors, albeit sporadically in Giles’s case, by the time baby Zack was demonstrating remarkable control of his pacifier.
The Mets didn’t wait nearly as long to get a player born in the 1950s into a game as they have since with decade-firsters, handing an opportunity to 19-year-old Tim Foli on September 11, 1970. The middle infielder, birthed on December 6, 1950, was on the fast track from the beginning, drafted first overall by the Mets in the 1968 amateur draft. Unlike his decade-pioneering successors, Foli did far more than pass through the bigs, participating in nearly 1,700 MLB games, even if only a bit more than 200 of them came in a Mets uniform. Foli was a shortstop stuck behind Bud Harrelson in the early ’70s and thus was fairly expendable in what became the Rusty Staub trade of 1972. Like Mike Jorgensen, but unlike Ken Singleton (who wasn’t so expendable), Foli would return to the Mets years after Le Grand Swap, but he’d be gone a little over a year into his second term, shipped to Pittsburgh in exchange for Frank Taveras. Taveras was briefly the greatest base stealer the Mets ever had. Foli won a world championship with the Pirates. Let’s call that one a draw.
The youngest Met ever was also the first Met born in the 1940s: 17-year-old Ed Kranepool, who needs little introduction in these parts. Born on November 8, 1944, the star slugger out of James Monroe High School in the Bronx couldn’t be kept from the Polo Grounds, making the leap in his first professional campaign, on September 22, 1962. Krane, of course, stuck around through thin, thick and terribly thin until the end of the 1979 season. For comparison’s sake, imagine having Wheeler tonight and then every year from now until 2030. Sounds pretty good, right?
For the record, the first 1920s-born Met to appear in a box score was the leadoff batter in their very first game of April 11, 1962, Richie Ashburn (born March 19, 1927). The first from the 1930s? That would be the second batter from the same first game: Felix Mantilla (born July 29, 1934).
Our theme isn’t “lasts” today, but as long as we’re in a decade state of mind, the final Mets born by decade were:
• 1920s: Warren Spahn, born 4/23/1921, finished 7/10/1965.
• 1930s: Jim Beauchamp, born 8/21/1939, finished 10/21/1973 (seventh game of the World Series, five days after Willie Mays’s last appearance)
• 1940s: George Foster, born 12/1/1948, finished 8/6/1986 after he talked himself out of town.
• 1950s: Julio Franco, born 8/23/1958, finished 7/7/2007 (snatching an honor that seemed destined to belong to Rickey Henderson once he was ushered off the Flushing stage in 2000)
• 1960s: Gary Sheffield, born 11/18/1968, finished 9/30/2009, five days after fellow 1960s baby Ken Takahashi threw his final Mets pitch.
Unlike with firsts, you’re never sure when you’ve seen a last. May tonight be only the first of many Zack Wheeler sightings…and may we never be sorry we so breathlessly anticipated the birth of this Mets career.