As I have been given access into the lives of various Mets minor league baseball players, each one of their journey’s have been interesting to chronicle, but none like the one I am about to share. Imagine being an 18 year old baseball player, fresh out of high school and having the talent to play Division 1 college baseball. Nothing at that age can stop you, well that would be the hope.
Beck Wheeler had all the promise and talent to play college baseball with the idea that he would eventually sign a pro baseball contract. But back in 2007, on a warm summer afternoon in San Diego, a turn of events while just out having a good time with some friends would change it all.
MMN’s own John Bernhardt wrote about the events, which you can read by clicking here, that would change Wheeler’s career forever. A freak boating accident, which involved both his legs changed the course of his life and a once promising versatile infielder and designated hitter was now faced with the possibility of never playing again. But determination, good ole grit, hard work and a love for the game, allowed him to fight for what he truly wanted. And after playing college baseball and doing very well, the dreams were alive again but not how he might have expected. In his senior year at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and after the team needed some pitching support out of the bullpen, he tried out and made his debut as a pitcher with a low 90′s fastball and that is what mostly attracted the Mets. They signed him a day after the 2011 draft for $1,000 as a non-drafted free agent. An unlikely scenario, changed his journey as a pro baseball player.
In 2011, Wheeler was the sent to the Mets Gulf Coast team to start his pro career. In 14 appearances, he was 3-0, with a 0.89 ERA, 2 saves, 20 strikeouts in 20.2 innings. In 2012, he was promoted to Brooklyn and in 25 appearances, he was 1-1, a 5.14 ERA, with 37 strikeouts in 28 innings. Even though he struck out more batters than the previous season, he struggled with giving up runs. I asked him what he felt was the reason for his struggles, “I was still learning what my strengths and weaknesses were and also learning how to pitch”, says Wheeler.
In 2013, he was sent to Savannah and in 43 games, he was 1-6, but posted a 2.32 ERA, with 19 saves and 74 strikeouts in 50.1 innings. In the playoffs, he appeared in 3 games, allowing 1 hit in 3 innings with 4 strikeouts. The most important out that he recorded was the last out of Game 4 of the Championship series to give the Sand Gnats the South Atlantic League Championship. Very impressive for a player that started out in college as an infielder and then turned into a pitcher.
A truly remarkable turn of events and Wheeler is now a top pitching prospect for the Mets. Enjoy our conversation:
David – Is there something that you would like to share with the Mets fans that they do not already know about you? Your interests, hobbies outside of baseball?
Beck - I have been an outdoors person my entire life. I try and play golf a few times per week in the offseason. I live in San Diego and we’ve got some great beaches and good trails for hiking.
David – After a freak accident in the water where you were sucked under the boat injuring your legs, and with you’re playing career in jeopardy, how were you able to make a comeback to the diamond?
Beck - Well first and foremost I wanted to prove to myself that I would be able to play again. The first doctor I saw in the Emergency Room told me that I might not ever be able to walk again, and that gave me some motivation. Being young helped me recover rather quickly. Without my family’s support, I would have never made a comeback. I knew I had a lot of baseball to play and I wasn’t going to let this boating accident hurt my career.
David – In college you were a very good hitter, what was the reason that you chose to change positions and focus on pitching?
Beck - I played every infield position in college and I was always a good enough hitter, but I knew if I had a chance at making it to professional baseball it would be as a pitcher. I’ve always had a strong arm, but I never wanted to give up being in the lineup everyday. The boating accident eventually caught up to me, as my entire left hamstring was severed and my speed and quickness just wasn’t the same pre-accident. I eventually started throwing some in the bullpen my senior year at UCSB with the help of our pitching coach Tom Myers. I only threw 4 college innings, but I think that was one thing the Mets liked about me is that I still had a fresh arm.
David – Did you have a favorite player growing up and if so, did you model your game after him?
Beck - Growing up in San Diego I admired Tony Gwynn. He always had an even temperament whether he was 0-4 or 4-4. That’s the most important thing I learned watching him, you can’t let yourself get too high or too low because its a long season.
David – On the day that you were signed by the Mets in 2011, who was the first person you shared the news with?
Beck - I woke up to a voicemail around 8 a.m. I lived with five other baseball players at UCSB and I think I ran down the hallway knocking on everyone’s door and ended up waking up the whole house. A couple of the other guys had been drafted the previous day, so we were all excited. Then of course I called my parents and let them know.
David – In 2011, you played your first pro baseball season with the Gulf Coast Mets, what was the experience like and how can you compare it to playing in college?
Beck - I would say the biggest thing for me was playing everyday. In college you play four games a week, and in professional baseball you’re playing everyday. Another adjustment I had to make was communicating with my Latin teammates. Luckily I had taken some Spanish in college and knew enough to interact with them, as they are a big part of the team.
David – This past season with Savannah, you pitched in 43 games and recorded 19 saves, what can you say attributed to your turnaround?
Beck - This year I just felt way more comfortable out on the mound. I had two years of professional baseball under my belt. I gained so much knowledge talking with our pitching coach Frank Viola and the guys in our bullpen. Frank helped me understand how to pitch more effectively and scenarios that I should be throwing certain pitches.
David – In Game 4 of the Championship series with Savannah, you were on the mound when the last out was recorded to win the championship, what did it feel like to be the man to close it out and earn the save?
Beck - It was definitely an exciting moment, the crowd was standing and it felt like the game was moving in slow-motion, almost how it’s portrayed in the movies. After the third out was recorded I was tackled by Jeff Glenn and the next thing I knew, I was on the bottom of the dog pile.
David – Can you describe the feeling of winning the South Atlantic League Championship, this past season with Savannah?
Beck - It was definitely the best moment of my baseball career thus far. Playing night after night for 140 games can be such a grind, so winning the Championship just put the icing on the cake.
David – What teammate has impressed you the most this season, and who should Mets fans be most excited about seeing in the future?
Beck - Catcher Kevin Plawecki. He is a good hitter who doesn’t strikeout often and has some power. He was very dependable behind the plate and understands his pitchers and calls a great game. It gave me a lot of confidence when he asked for me to throw a certain off speed pitch in the dirt and he would block it, even with runners in scoring position.
David – Is there a Met manager or coach who has made an impact in your approach to the game and helped elevate your performance?
Beck - Frank Viola. He certainly taught me a lot about myself as a pitcher and a person. He’s such a genuine coach and really tells you what it is, be it good or bad. Being in the majors for 16 years, he brought a wealth of knowledge to our pitching staff and he could critique us individually. He has some great stories from his playing days and always lightens the mood in the clubhouse.
David – With the success you have had in your brief time in the minors; do you feel like you are on track with the goals you set for yourself? If so, what are you expecting for 2014?
Beck - I expect a lot out of myself and have set my goals pretty high. Not unrealistically high, but I definitely think I’m on the right path. I’m just hoping to move up next year, but I’ll take it one pitch at a time.
David – Moving forward, what stands between you and the big leagues? What do you specifically need to work on as a player, and improve upon, in order to be ready to compete on the big stage?
Beck - Right now I believe I have to work on my fastball command, specifically throwing more fastballs inside. The velocity is good, but the location consistency can vary from time to time.
David – When the off-season arrives, what do you look forward to doing the most? Family time, friends time, or just rest?
Beck - This is the first offseason that I haven’t had to go back to UCSB. I’ve gone back to school the last two fall quarters to finish my degree. Now that I’m (finally) a college graduate, I’m going to start looking for a job to keep me occupied until spring training. I enjoy family and friends time, but I’d like to take a vacation outside of the United States and experience a different culture for a week or two.
David – How will you prepare over the winter; can you describe your workout regimen?
Beck - I will be working out in San Diego at the same gym I have been at for the last two off seasons; 4-5 times per week. It’s called Performance 360 and owned by two ex-professional baseball players. They have a great facility in San Diego across the street from the beach and really understand what the minor league season entails. I will be working on everything from strength to mobility to conditioning. Bryan Pritz and Dave Thomas really push me to get the most out of my workouts so I can compete at the highest level.
David – Anything you would like to tell the Mets fans?
Beck - Thank you for all your support! I can tell you that there are a lot of exciting players in the Mets’ system and the next few years will be fun in New York.
Thank you Beck for taking the time to share your story with me and the Mets fans. A remarkable turn of events changed the course of a life and a door opened to a greater promise. We never really know how our life will turn out, but just like Wheeler, hard work and determination will always give us an option. I wish him best of luck and will root for him to continue on this new journey, one that shows much promise and success in his future.
(Photo Credit – Savannahnow.com)