I assigned myself two missions as I arrived at Citi Field Tuesday morning to cover my fourth consecutive Mets holiday party for Queens schoolchildren. One I had planned, the other developed on the fly.
The ad hoc mission involved getting out of the bitter cold after an overly literal, presumably underinstructed windbreaker-wearing guard on the other side of the Hodges entrance glass told me I couldn’t come inside until 11 AM. It was 10:30, freezing and snowing. As I peered through the pane and saw the familiar Citi Field sight of plenty of good seats still available, I shivered in surprise at the maroon-clad lady’s clinginess to rules. I’m pretty sure she relished telling me to get temporarily lost.
The following is not fanciful dialogue. It happened immediately after I tapped on the door to get her attention and interrupt the conversation she was enjoying with her colleague.
“Yes?” she asked.
“I’m here for the holiday thing,” I said.
“Media can enter at eleven.”
So sitting quietly at the other end of the heated “VIP” lobby until I could be officially checked in for the Acela Club event to which I was invited by a much nicer branch of the Mets organization was not an option. Nor was picking up a walkie-talkie and seeking a supervisor’s sign-off to allow a slightly early arrival through Gil’s golden gate. I would’ve settled for being advised that the exceedingly unbusy team store was open and I could kill time/warm up in there (a conclusion I came to for myself after 15 minutes of walking around and nearly slipping on a patch of precipitation).
“You can wait in your car until eleven,” she suggested.
“I took the train here,” I said.
“Then you’ll just have to wait outside,” she responded, almost gleefully shutting the door on me before getting back to her chat.
As was the case at the Great Bar Mitzvah Caper of 2009  — when the designated entry point was the Rotunda, the lousy weather involved rain and the misguidedly vigilant guard’s windbreaker was green (whatever happened to blue and orange?) — the 30 or so minutes of Citi finickiness eventually passed, giving way to a lovely time in the Acela Club for the appointed mission. Back then it was to meet a fine young man who would go on to become one of the better parts of my future Met seasons.
Tuesday, actually, it was kind of the same thing. At that ’09 coming-of-age celebration, I met 13-year-old Ryder Chasin , who is now 17 and one of the splendid writers  you’ll read from any age. In this Acela episode, the “kid ” I was coming to say hi to was 23-year-old Zack Wheeler .
I look forward to him enriching my Citi Field experiences for years to come, too.
Since the Mets media relations department — incredibly nice folks who would never knowingly sanction your being pointedly instructed to go sit in a car you didn’t have with you — granted me media access to the holiday party, and since Zack was going to serve as Santa Daniel Murphy ’s elf, I figured this was the moment to assess the cut of Wheeler’s jib . I couldn’t judge Zack Wheeler’s pitching from a little cluster of blogger-player Q&A, but I could attempt to gauge whether this fella, hailed since his acquisition as the future ace or co-ace of my favorite baseball team (despite its tendency to stick unpleasant people in windbreakers and hand them the keys to the offseason kingdom), has ace stuff away from the mound. I know Wheeler can throw a fastball. But can he throw off sparks?
Why does it matter to me? Because aces oughta give me the impression they are or can be larger than life , and not just in the Bartolo Colon  sense. Our ace of aces was and is the gentleman whose name adorns the Seaver entrance at Citi Field. If you haven’t already, treat yourself to Pat Jordan’s visit with Tom Seaver  at Sports on Earth . Tom’s 69 yet spiritually every bit the ace he was at 24. You just know it. Then go read what Dirk Hayhurst  had to say about working with Pedro Martinez  on TBS’s postseason studio show. When Pedro wasn’t absented by injury during his Met tenure, that man had stage presence  like none I’ve ever seen. Hell, he had stadium presence . Per Hayhurst’s heartfelt testimony , he’s still got it and he’ll always have it.
Hindsight helps assess who’s been an ace and who’s been not quite that, but the personality and pitching pieces tend to fit retroactively, nonetheless. Doc Gooden may have come off as a callow prodigy at his peak and his off-field actions surely revealed deeper personal issues, but beyond the rehabilitation and behind the eyes I swear still saw the ace within  when I got to sit directly across from him for a spell this summer. He knows what he did on the mound; I know that if he could restart from scratch he would do it all over again, except better. R.A. Dickey , I think we learned, was an ace just waiting for his pitch to come in. If Johan Santana  didn’t require a healthy left shoulder to ply his craft, I’d bet we’d have lived through a lot more September 27, 2008s and June 1, 2012s than repeated trips to the 60-day disabled list.
You watch these guys, you listen to these guys, you read about these guys…you just feel it. I won’t invoke the widely discredited laugh line from Moneyball about “the good face,” but you know, I once heard a scout describe what he took that phrase to mean, and it wasn’t really silly. It spoke to a certain alertness and awareness that expressed engagement with the game. You’d take talent and performance into account before signing somebody, but you’d also take stock of everything you could possibly detect. It may be a bit of a reach to peer into the window of the soul like it’s the window of the Hodges entrance and say you see anything you can count on, but I really do believe — despite my logical insistence that the ace of the staff has to be whoever is pitching on a given day — that some guys are aces and other guys are trying to get by on lesser stuff, both inside and out.
Matt Harvey  just spent five-sixths of a season as a state-of-the-art 21st century ace . Now he’s consigned to getting his canoodle on  while we try to get by without him. That’s why I wanted to take the measure of the cut of Zack Wheeler’s jib. We’re gonna need the cut of Zack Wheeler’s jib to be razor sharp in 2014. Even when Harvey returns, hopefully in full 2013 form, we’re gonna need Wheeler to give great jib in 2015 and the years to follow.
After meeting the man and exchanging a few sentences with him, by jib, I think he’s got it.
I’m no scout or soothsayer, but I got a better feeling out of meeting Zack Wheeler than I did Jon Niese at the holiday party of 2011. Niese didn’t throw off sparks. Niese was the only player to date at one of these things whom someone from the media relations staff didn’t have to rescue from a barrage of questions. Usually you give the blogging contingent a chance to make inquiries, we won’t run out of things to ask. With Niese we did because he wasn’t much of an answerer. Not impolite (and certainly community-minded ), but not really what I hoped for from a starting pitcher who was being talked up at the time as “ready to take the next step,” if I may invoke that cliché.
Everybody’s different and not every pitcher is going to parry with Pat Jordan or awe Dirk Hayhurst (or, for that matter, canoodle the good face of Anne V.). Wheeler’s not necessarily his predecessors or his most glittering contemporary, yet I trust him to take some of that next-stepping soon. I particularly liked what he answered when I asked him a process question concerning when he knows he has his “A” arsenal versus when he thinks he’s gonna have to figure things out as a game goes along. I used as an example how well he pitched at San Francisco last July , and midway through my question, I realized that was an extreme example because, duh, it was the Giants who decided they could spare him when they traded him for Ol’ Mercenary Head , a.k.a. Carlos Beltran .
Thus I amended my question as I asked it to encompass that extenuating circumstance, and Zack was more than happy to volunteer that he was really “pumped up” that day and wanted to “shove it against ’em”. They were the ones who gave up on him, after all. He hadn’t forgotten and he wasn’t shy about remembering it now.
The words might have differed coming out of different mouths, but I could hear echoes of Seaver or Martinez saying essentially the same thing. I couldn’t imagine it coming from someone like Niese . Maybe Niese would think it, but he’d never say it. That shouldn’t be a mark against Niese’s or anybody’s jib, however, for every starter, like every person, is a creature unto himself. Likewise, every Mets starter should ideally pitch like an ace but you can’t demand every Mets starter be an ace…any more than you can demand common sense be deployed by every Mets employee in an off-color windbreaker.
Just maybe, though, should fate play our cards right, we could end up with two of a kind in our long-term rotation. And wouldn’t that be a heckuva way to come out of the competitive cold?