It was a long way to the top for Zack Wheeler — just ask his proud dad


Wearing a red Phillies cap and hoodie, the man had a familiar look. He was out there, on the crowded infield at Citizens Bank Park, moments after the team had clinched the National League pennant early Sunday night. The place was still shaking from Bryce Harper's dramatic go-ahead homer in the eighth inning, the one that ultimately put the Phillies in the World Series. Players, coaches, team officials and Rob Thomson, the triumphant but humble manager, gathered on a portable stage behind second base for a raucous awards presentation.

As the players descended the stage and were embraced by their families, it became clear why the man in the red cap and hoodie looked familiar.

Tall, rangy, bearded, Barry Wheeler hugged his son, ace pitcher Zack Wheeler, and told him he was proud of him.

These athletes, these baseball players that have completely captivated the craziest sports city/region in America -- they don't go it alone. Watch the introductions before Game 3 in Philadelphia on Monday night. Before the first player even steps out of the dugout, you'll meet a couple dozen or so members of the support staff -- and those are just the visible ones -- who are available to these guys 365 days a year, helping put them in a position to shine.

And beyond that, there are the families who live and die with the dreams of their loved ones, share in the victories and feel the heartaches, from a difficult loss to an untimely error to a sore elbow that jeopardizes it all, from Day 1 of Little League until Game 1 of the World Series.

"You know that old song, It's a long way to the top if you want to rock 'n roll?" Barry Wheeler says on the phone a couple of days later.

"Well, let me tell you, it's a looong way."

And that's why Barry Wheeler had to do what he did Sunday night.

As the players began to head into the clubhouse for their champagne celebration, he walked over to the pitcher's mound, the stage on which his son, the youngest of his and Elaine's three boys, has performed so brilliantly the last three seasons and again Sunday, and climbed to the top.

"I just had to go stand on that mound," Barry Wheeler said. "I had to. And it was awesome."

He paused. His voice cracked a little. 

"I was just trying to take it all in to where you'll never forget it," he said. "You try to see all the details. I tried to see home plate but I couldn't because there were so many people out there. I turned all the way around and watched the video board. I looked at the fans and how happy they were. I'm 67 years old and it's a moment in my life I will never forget. It took Zack nine years in the major leagues to even get the opportunity to stand on a playoff mound. He's loving it. And as a family, we're loving it with him."

It really was a long way to the top for Zack Wheeler and the family that has loved and supported him all the way. Barry is retired after 37 years working for Georgia Power. Elaine retired after a career in risk-management. Their boys were everything to them, still are. Barry played basketball and pitched in a men's league into his 30s. When Jacob, Adam and Zack came along, he turned to coaching his boys.

"Elaine and I were very involved, that's all we did," he said. "We came home from work, grabbed something to eat and went to the ballpark. With three boys, it was basically every day, practice or a game."

Jacob was 9 and Adam 7 when Zack arrived. Little brothers trying to keep up with big brothers. It's Norman Rockwell stuff. Classic.

When Jacob was getting ready for the high school basketball season, he'd run sprints on the freshly paved street in front of the family home outside of Atlanta. In the heat of the Georgia summer, young Zack would run every sprint beside his big brother, leaving his hair soaked with sweat and his face resembling a tomato. Zack was a little too young to bang bodies with his brothers and their pals when they played basketball in the driveway, but he knew where his dad kept the whistle, so he'd referee. And you should have seen him dribble a basketball, both hands, as a two-year-old.

"Zack was a good basketball player and he could have been even better if he was more devoted to it," Barry said. "But he knew where his bread was buttered and that was baseball."

Adam pitched in the New York Yankees system from 2001 to 2004. He didn't make it back from a serious shoulder injury, but his time in pro ball inspired his younger brother.

As much as Zack loved baseball, loved pitching, things didn't always come easily to him.

Barry took him to try out for the powerful East Cobb travel baseball program as a 13-year-old, a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old. He didn't make the team any of those years.

"Leftover meatloaf," Barry said. "Yeah, one of the dads took a bunch of the kids who didn't make the team, the leftovers, and put together his own team. That's how Zack continued to pitch."

By the time Zack turned 16, he was bigger and stronger. He made the elite team in East Cobb. Barry looked at the pitching staff and saw a bunch of very talented teenagers. In his mind, Zack was just one of them, blending in with the others. Then one day, they were at a tournament. Barry saw Rob English, an old scout friend who had kept tabs on Adam when he was a young prospect.

"Hey, Adam's little brother is getting ready to pitch on this field," Barry told English.

English was in a hurry to see another kid, but he made it over to see Zack throw his eight warmup pitches from the mound before the game.

That was all he needed.

"Mr. Wheeler, you've got something special here," English said.

Barry Wheeler was astounded. You can tell that in eight pitches?

"Scouts just look at things differently," Barry said. "Rob saw the easy motion and the easy velocity."

Before leaving, English told Barry Wheeler something:

"Don't you let anybody hurt his arm."

"Rob, I've coached before," Barry responded. "I don't meddle."

"If you don't, who will?" English said.

Well, the coaches at East Paulding High School watched out for the arm.

Ronnie Green used to show up at 6:30 in the morning with a catcher so Zack, just a freshman, could throw bullpens in the gymnasium before school in the winter. That way he'd be ready to pitch when he traded his basketball sneakers for his baseball spikes.

Zack pitched on the varsity as a freshman and played shortstop on the JV. By his sophomore year, he was just a pitcher, and by opening day of his senior year, there were 40 scouts behind home plate with radar guns. In addition to being pretty good on the mound, Zack was pretty good in the batter's box. He wanted to be the designated hitter on days he wasn't pitching. Head coach Tony Boyd was intrigued, but he wasn't sure it was a good idea for the kid, a lefty hitter, to expose his right arm in the batter's box just a couple of months before the Major League Baseball draft.

Boyd tried to keep parents at a distance during the season. But he felt he needed to speak with Barry Wheeler.

"That's a million-dollar arm," Boyd said. "You sure you want him hitting?"

"Coach, you do whatever is best for the team and Zack will be on board," Barry said.

Zack was drafted sixth overall by the San Francisco Giants in that spring of 2009. Two years later, he was traded to the New York Mets. When he pitched for the Mets' Triple A Las Vegas team in 2013, Barry and Elaine would stay up till 2 in the morning listening to the games or watching them on the Internet and get up for work at 5:30.

. . . 

As much as Rob English's words resonated with Barry Wheeler -- don't you let anybody hurt his arm -- injuries do happen, especially to pitchers, who can go from stud to dud with one pop in the shoulder or elbow.

Zack turned 24 in May 2014 and made 32 starts for the Mets that season. The next spring, his elbow started hurting. He had Tommy John surgery in March 2015. Though the success rate for the surgery is high, Zack struggled through a slow and frustrating rehab. The pain wouldn't go away. He didn't pitch in the majors for two full seasons.

"It was pretty depressing and as it went along there were setbacks," Barry said. "There was a stitch or something that didn't dissolve and was rubbing on a nerve. They had to go back in."

During his difficult rehab, Zack confided in a few people that he didn't know if he'd make it back and pitch in the big leagues again.

Zack's anguish multiplied when he saw the Mets make the World Series in 2015. A year after pitching 185⅓ innings for the club, the team would not allow him to sit in the dugout for the series. He was told to stay in Florida and continue rehabbing. That stung. But it also made him hungry. Just like getting cut from those elite youth teams in East Cobb once did.

Slowly, Zack Wheeler began to get healthy. He made his way back into the Mets' rotation in 2017. He bonded with and learned from another tall, lanky right-hander named Jacob deGrom. Wheeler made 60 starts for the Mets in 2018-2019 and had a 3.65 ERA. His arm wasn't hurting anymore and he was finally putting it together. Many around baseball believed the best was yet to come. One longtime major league scout recently recalled watching Wheeler during the 2019 season and writing in his report that the pitcher was on the verge of becoming a No. 1 starter.

Wheeler became a free agent after that season, but the Mets had little interest in retaining him, citing skepticism about his health and not a long enough track record of success.

The Phillies and Chicago White Sox pursued Wheeler in free agency. He signed a five-year, $118 million deal with the Phillies. The White Sox offered more money, but Wheeler wanted to play in Philadelphia. It was close to his wife's New Jersey roots and not far from Atlanta.

But location was only part of the reason Wheeler chose Philadelphia.

"He always pitched well in Philly and he liked the park," Barry said. "He could tell the fans were crazy, and J.T. Realmuto was there. He admired J.T.'s work from afar. That enticed him. 

"Nobody was more excited than me and Zack when they re-signed J.T. Zack loves throwing to him. He says, 'He puts down the fingers and I don't even have to think about it.'"

In three seasons in Philadelphia, Wheeler is 30-19 with a 2.82 ERA in 69 starts. He has taken his game to a new level. The best was indeed yet to come.

"I think it's a combination of things," Barry Wheeler said. "I think the analytics and knowing how to use them have helped him. He doesn't talk a lot of baseball with me. He gets irritated when I ask a lot of questions. I want to know stuff. I'm dying to know. I've heard him say he loves working with (pitching coach) Caleb Cotham and the staff. I think some of the things he learned from (former Mets pitching coach) Dave Eiland about pitching inside have helped."

Some of the things Zack Wheeler learned from his dad have helped, too.

On the mound, be it in a game or in a bullpen workout, Zack is as serious and focused as a surgeon. He seldom shows emotion, making it impossible to tell if he's up three runs or down three runs, whether he's pitching a two-hitter or has just given up a two-run bomb.

"When my sons were young, in Little League, I told them I don't care if you strike out your best friend or he hits a home run off you, don't show it," Barry said. "Don't ever show anyone up and don't ever let 'em know they got to you."

. . .

Barry Wheeler was worried. It was mid-August and Zack's elbow was barking. It was as if he could feel the pain himself. The Phillies were entering the stretch drive to make the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. He knew how badly his boy, now a 32-year-old veteran, wanted to be part of it.

"I felt better after the MRI showed no damage, just tendinitis," Barry said. "I hated to see him miss starts and I know he did, too, but they made the decision to shut him down and I think it was a good one."

Zack made it back for his final three regular-season starts and has pitched brilliantly in four starts this postseason. He delivered six innings of two-run ball in the NLCS clincher on Sunday, from the same mound his dad stood on later in the day.

"When he came out on the field Sunday to warm up and all the fans started cheering, I got goosebumps," Barry said. "We were sitting about eight rows up. I even started to tear up.

"And when Harper hit that home run ...

"This feels like a special team. You see it every few years. The magic keeps happening. Like Harper's home run. Early in the year, they would have lost that game, 3-2. Not this team. This team always seems like it's going to find a way. The chemistry appears to be there. They're just a bunch of bulldogs. That's what they are. They want it. You can tell."

Zack Wheeler will start Game 2 of the World Series on Saturday night in Houston.

Barry Wheeler will be there with Jacob and Adam, just like they all were from the beginning. 

And if things go the way they all hope in this World Series, maybe Barry will get to stand on a pitcher's mound again.

It's a long way to the top and he's ready to rock 'n roll.

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