High hopes for Isringhausen, Pulsipher, Wilson ultimately unmet in NY
By Marty Noble
Most used, big league baseballs bore nasty bruises in those days, the results of being battered during a period of historic run production. During that sequence of slugging summers from the late '80s and into the '90s, the Braves won a World Series primarily on the strength of their starting pitching.
Their 1995 rotation included three future Hall of Fame inductees: Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, who had combined to win the four most recent National League Cy Young Awards, and John Smoltz, who would win the 1996 Award. Also pitching at the time were future Hall of Famers Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez. Roger Clemens as well.
So when the annual baseball magazines hit the newsstands late in the winter of 1995-96, and pitchers were the cover boys, those chosen were as you might expect, genuine household names -- Pulsipher, Isringhausen and Wilson.
That's the way it was 20 years ago. Three Mets pitching prospects, who, combined, had thrown merely 213 1/3 innings and won all of 14 games in the big leagues, were pictured on the covers of two national publications and were the featured faces in the late March baseball sections published by three New York City dailies.
Baby steps taken by Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen the previous summer had piqued the curiosity and imaginations of the huge New York market as well as baseball followers everywhere. Paul Wilson, the first player selected in the 1994 Draft, had yet to make his big league debut, but he was expected to lead a highly anticipated Mets renaissance.
Their pitchers' pictures and the thousands of words devoted to them were based almost exclusively on potential and promise.
The widely held sense of the time was that the three would lead the Mets from the darkness of five successive losing seasons and become what Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling and Sid Fernandez had been a decade earlier, what Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Nolan Ryan had been in the late '60s.
The New York Post, in a rush to judgment, identified the Pulse, Izzy and Wilson as Generation K, though, as Pulsipher noted, "We're not really strikeout pitchers."
Someone else, who appreciated alliteration, hung a nickname on each and combined the three to form: "The beatnik, the bumpkin and the baron" for Pulsipher, Isringhausen and Wilson, respectively.
Before too long though, the three could most accurately be identified as if they were members of a jazz combo -- the Tommy John Trio.
Pulsipher, the lone left-hander among them and the first to reach the big leagues, was the first introduced to the TJ procedure. His ligament was replaced early in the 1996 season. He also underwent back surgery before his 25th birthday. Speaking for himself and his two colleagues, Pulsipher recently said: "Baseball is an animal. It eats you up," referring to the demands on young pitchers 20 years ago.
Isringhausen, who would become the most successful of the three, had bone chips removed from an elbow and had a labrum repaired late in the '96 season. The surgeon was astonished that Isringhausen could raise his arm, given the extensive damage. He underwent the first of his three Tommy John procedures in January 1998. In all, he underwent six surgeries on his elbow, three on his shoulder, one on his knee and two on his hips.
"Now," Isringhausen says, "my elbow feels great. But everything else hurts. My elbow feels like I could come back and pitch. The rest of my body feels like I threw 18 innings yesterday."
And Wilson, the most highly regarded of the three, began the '96 season as a member of the Mets' rotation and, after a season of uneven results, had his labrum repaired in November. His date with Tommy John came in early April 1999.
A native Floridian living not far from the Mets' Spring Training facility there, Wilson didn't respond to a series of phone calls in recent weeks. Pulsipher and Isinghausen say they have heard Wilson has completely divorced himself from baseball matters.
Injuries, surgeries and, in Pulsipher's case, severe anxiety and depression, undermined the promise of all three and prematurely ended the careers of Pulsipher and Wilson. Only Isringhausen found success, though as a closer with the A's and Cardinals.
He was traded by the Mets to the A's in the summer of '99, one year after Pulsipher was dealt to the Brewers. Wilson's big league resume includes a gap that began after his rookie season and ended August 2000, one week after the Mets traded him to Tampa Bay.
Before they were traded away, the beatnik, bumpkin and baron collectively produced a 27-37 record, 4.57 ERA, six complete games and one shutout in 74 starts. Pulsipher pitched in relief 14 times.
Much of the promise that existed 20 years ago evolved into problems and predicaments before the Mets appeared in the World Series -- without the three -- in 2000.
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Four Mets pitchers are about to enter the season projecting as a far greater unified force than Pulse, Paul and Izzy ever became. Twenty years later, after a dazzling late summer and an autumn that found them in the World Series, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz are more accomplished and of greater renown than the beatnik, the bumpkin and the baron ever became. And, as they await the return of another promising and repaired starter, Zack Wheeler, they hope they also are healthier. And luckier.
"They already are luckier," Pulsipher said last week. "Those guys [excepting Syndergaard] have had their surgeries already. That's a huge difference. We broke in and, right away, we broke down. ... Izzy and I did. And Paul broke down too after he had made it. These guys have been through that already, and they've played in the World Series too. They've lived the dream. We never got the chance we thought we were going to get."
Not for lack of trying, certainly. After a second tour with the Mets in 2000, Pulsipher, now 42, pitched for the Red Sox, White Sox and Cardinals and was in the D-backs, Rays, Rangers, Yankees, Orioles and Mariners organizations before the Cardinals released him in September 2005. His career record: 13-19. He also pitched for independent teams in Long Island, Somerset, N.J., Yucatan, Puebla and Winnipeg.
Pulsipher's passion for the game remains; it seems undiminished by time and misfortune.
"I couldn't give it up. I love the game," he says. "It's been my life, not exactly the way I wanted to have it work out. But I got to play for a long time. And I enjoyed it."
Isringhausen, 43, had a full, if often-interrupted career, pitching for the Angels through 2012 immediately following a one-season return to the Mets. He reached 300 saves, the World Series (with the Cardinals in 2004) and the postseason in four other years.
"All three of us were sort of journeymen by the end," he said. "But I'm proud of my career. Three hundred is a lot of saves."
Wilson, 42, pitched for the Devil Rays and Reds after his tour with the Mets. His career record, 40-58, was a far cry from what was expected in 1994 when he was the first of four selections the Mets had among the first 35 picks (three of the four underwent Tommy John surgery).
Two weeks before Wilson's big league debut in '96, then-general manager Joe McIlvaine invited a reporter into his office, closed the door and slowly whispered, "He could be so good."
But McIlvaine also predicted a degree of doom for any set of three young pitchers, not necessarily his three. "The way it goes," he said, "is one'll make it, one won't and one'll get hurt."
In order: Izzy, Wilson and Pulse, give or take one or two assignments to the disabled list.
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"What happened with Paul, I can't say," Isinghausen said last week. "But I know we [he and Pulsipher] pitched a lot of innings before we came up. I think it's fair to say teams take better care of their young pitchers now."
Still, Harvey, deGrom, Matz and Wheeler have been Tommy John patients. And Syndergaard throws harder than any one of them, harder on average last season than any other NL pitcher with at least 150 innings. The sobering thought is that the hardest throwers tend to wear out their elbow ligaments.
The Mets will take all the precautions they can conjure with Thor, Syndergaard's mythological Norse nickname: pitch counts, days of rest, whatever. And when Wheeler -- in the final stages of recovery from Tommy John surgery of last March -- is ready to return to the big leagues, the club is likely to implement a six-man rotation at times.
"It wasn't that way with us," Pulsipher says. "We were supposed to pitch nine innings. That's what was expected of us. And we wanted to. We wanted to be what people said we were going to be. I was ready to have a great career.
"But our bodies let us down. It happens. I hope like hell these kids don't have to go through anything like we did. They've been through it before. That might be enough. I hope it is."
"I don't know if there are any real parallels between us and these kids other than all the excitement," Isringhausen says. "And it is fun to watch them. ... I feel a little sorry for them with all the attention. Social media is all over them. It's crazy in New York City. They can't be kids. But they have so much going for them.
"I hope they have a good, long run. I still root for the Mets. I'm rooting for those kids."
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.