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Catch Zack Wheeler before he's gone


One of the cool things about old ballparks is many don’t have bullpens. So when a special pitcher — i.e., one who can throw a baseball through a proverbial brick wall — is scheduled to take the mound, you often can work your way down there, close to the pseudo bullpens along the outfield foul lines, to watch him warm up.

This was especially true during early season midweek games at decrepit Comiskey Park in Chicago during the 1970s.

This was how I witnessed Nolan Ryan knock mortar off the proverbial brick wall with his warm-up tosses before a game against the White Sox in 1973; why I still remember a proletarian Angels catcher named Art Kusnyer.

Art Kusnyer, according to his Wikipedia biography, “was somewhat error-prone behind the plate during sporadic playing time at the major-league level” and “also had trouble at the plate, with a lifetime batting average of just .176 with 3 home runs and 21 RBIs in 313 career at-bats.”

He once had a five-RBI game against the Rangers and caught Ryan’s second no-hitter, but that’s not why I remember Art Kusnyer, the backup catcher.

I remember him because the day my pal Dwight and I ditched school to watch The Ryan Express — and ride the Red Line “L” train from 95th Street to 35th and Shields on Chicago’s South Side, which was more risky than batting against Nolan Ryan without a helmet — was the day Art Kusnyer warmed up the Angels ace with a catcher’s mitt straight out of the box.

This was when you had to treat a new baseball glove with neatsfoot oil to make it supple; without the lube job, a virgin catcher’s mitt was harder than concrete. And so every time Ryan unfurled the express, the ball would smack into Art Kusnyer’s new mitt with a resounding KERBLAMO!

Because Comiskey Park was old and essentially empty because (most) kids were still in school, the sound would resonate from foul pole to foul pole. I am sure the sound of Nolan Ryan throwing napalm must have freaked out the White Sox hitters.

So this is why I arrived early to watch celebrated 51s right-hander Zack Wheeler warm up before Sunday’s game against Colorado Springs. And why, years from now, I probably will not remember 51s catcher Landon Powell (though I do fervently admire him for creating awareness in organ donation following the death of his infant daughter).

Powell warmed up Wheeler with a well broken-in black catcher’s mitt. So when Wheeler, who has flirted with 100 mph on the radar gun and is to the Mets what Stephen Strasburg was to the Nationals two years ago, threw the heater, it did not go KERBLAMO!

But when one of Wheeler’s high, hard ones smacked into Powell’s mitt, a little puff of chalk-line dust flew into the air, and three people snapped Zack Wheeler’s picture with cellphone cameras.

These were either A) savvy baseball people who know a hard-throwing prospect when they see one, or B) subscribers to Baseball America, which has ranked the lanky 22-year-old from Georgia the game’s eighth-best overall prospect.

Wheeler allowed three runs and six hits in 5 1/3 innings against the Sky Sox and threw 97 pitches. Many of these pitches produced little puffs of smoke. He struck out eight, did not walk a soul.

So if you are a 51s fan or a fan of guys who knock mortar off proverbial brick walls with their pitches, you should probably catch this kid now, because he’s probably not going to be here when they turn on the misters.

“Good. Definitely better than the last two times,” the easygoing Wheeler said in the runway above the first-base dugout after the 51s salvaged a 5-4 victory in 11 innings.

“I settled down a little bit, so that was good. Me and Randy (St. Claire), the pitching coach, have been working on a lot of stuff — keeping my front side in. I think I did a lot better with that today.”

Keeping one’s front side in must be crucial to one establishing control and command, and having control and command and a 97-mph fastball explains why people show up early to watch you warm up on a bright and glorious Sunday when it’s still morning.

Wheeler has one of those smooth and effortless pitching motions that reminds you of those Mobil 1 commercials, where all cylinders in the engine block are well-oiled and pumping in synchronicity.

After Zack Wheeler made smoke rise from Landon Powell’s catcher’s mitt with his practice tosses, and people started taking his picture with their cellphones, I looked to the left-field line where a big lefty named Nick Schmidt was warming up in the Sky Sox bullpen.

Schmidt used to throw smoke, too, but that was before he had reconstructive elbow surgery.

A crowd had not gathered to watch Nick Schmidt warm up. There was just one guy in the picnic area, and he did not appear to be paying attention.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.