As the New York Mets get ready to begin the Zach Wheeler era, anyone who has followed the team as long as I have knows that the excitement of a young pitching prospect making his major league debut is tinged with more than a touch of fear.
I’m not talking about the “Generation K” debacle (though it certainly applies), but instead hearken back to another young hurler who was touted as the next great franchise pitcher; Tim Leary.
As Leary progressed in his first spring as a Met, despite his statistics and raves from opponents, he says it became more and more obvious to him that he was uncomfortable. Nothing was wrong with his arm, but Leary was troubled by the way he thought he was being used.
In 1979, his junior year at U.C.L.A. and the year he became the Mets’ first selection in the draft, Leary struck out 111 batters in 148 innings. In his first professional season, with Jackson of the Class AA Texas League, Leary struck out 138 batters in 173 innings, and he was named the league’s most valuable player.
But Leary did not see himself as a strikeout pitcher. He preferred to rely on intelligence and a range of pitches. ”Play with the batters’ minds,” he says. That was not the Mets’ plan.
”I know he thinks that way,” Bill Monbouquette, the Met pitching coach and the organization’s minor league instructor last year, said recently. ”I’ve said, ‘Tim, you have a chance to be a power pitcher. A power pitcher doesn’t mean you’re going to go out and strike out 13, 14 or 15 a night. It means you’ll be hard to hit.’
”He’s said, often, ‘I’m a guy that gets ahead of the hitters, and gets everything over. I consider myself more of a ground-ball pitcher, making them hit the ball and making the guys catch the ball.’ ”
That was clearly not the style that made Leary the talk of the Mets’ camp. Leary had discussed his reservations about being a power pitcher with Monbouquette, but not with Joe Torre, the Mets’ manager last year, or Bob Gibson, the pitching coach. ”There were no lines of communication,” Leary said.
I’ll be watching Harvey / Wheeler Day with antiipation like everyone else, but forgive me if I will be sitting on my hands mos of the time.