Rough day in baseball yesterday. As we all know, Hall of Fame election day has become a black eye for the sport, highlighting everything that was wrong with the steroid era and calling attention to bitter and deranged factions of sports writers. It doesn’t even make sense to argue about the Hall of Fame anymore. Not when the following happens:
1. Someone voted for only Jack Morris
2. Dan LeBatard gave his vote to Deadspin (and you don’t really care)
3. Someone voted for Armando Benitez
4. People send in blank ballots
5. Jayson Stark is very, very, flustered.
So, that was Hall of Fame day. Oh, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas got in. Congratulations to those three, all very deserving, though I always had a special and visceral distaste for Tom Glavine. What can I say?
In Philadelphia, though, the baseball story was not the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame won’t be a story for another five years until we latch onto Roy Halladay again. In a story timed with the Phillies TV contract extension with Comcast, the Chris Wheeler era (and much less notably the Sarge era) in the broadcast booth is over. The move, perhaps the most non-Phillies move I’ve seen in my lifetime came at the insistence of Comcast who will hire the new TV color man. I guess a couple billion dollars does buy you something.
I’m not sure what the origin story of Wheels is within the Phillies organization. He’s been there forever, and he started in PR*, ticket sales, or program sales, or hot dog wrapping, or something. The point is, it’s not important to get that part right, the important part is that Wheels eventually became part of the Phillies announcing team and stuck in the job for a long time. While being the last link to Harry Kalas, Wheels became a bit of an institution in his own right.
I was probably five or six years old the first time I remember meeting Chris Wheeler. I was at a 5K fundraiser and Wheels was helping out with some emcee duties. I was with my father and a family friend and the friend of ours encouraged me to pull to Wheels’ toupee off his head. There was no secrecy in it, no tact. He didn’t whisper, everyone including Wheels heard what he said, something like, “Meet Chris Wheeler, go pull that squirrel off his head.” You should have seen Wheels laugh. I guess he already had years of practice at that point, but the guy takes a joke better than anyone I’ve ever seen.
I’d see Wheels every once in a while through the years and he never seemed to escape that role of nerdy little brother within the Phillies organization. Someone, whether it was Larry Bowa, or Vuk, or Sarge, or Larry Anderson was always giving the guy a hard time and he was always laughing at his own expense. Without knowing him well, that was always my impression of him, this guy takes a lot of sh*t. In fact the first thing I did yesterday when I heard he was getting reassigned in the organization was make a joke, “what are they going to do, make him VP of hair pieces?” That I don’t think Wheels would have laughed at, not yesterday.
I don’t think Wheels would have survived with the Phillies so long if he didn’t love baseball so much and wasn’t such a nice guy. That’s the other lasting impression you get of him when you meet him in passing. He is always friendly and in a good mood. Part of that probably attributable to his job, which allowed him to be around the sport he loved and the players who I imagine he idolized–at least in the beginning. His announcing talent can be debated, but over time Wheels proved to be the ultimate company man, and even an honorary “baseball man,” a term not thrown around loosely.
I was never a huge supporter of his work in the booth, but the Phillies have employed far less skilled broadcasters. For a long time he suffered from being not Harry or Whitey. Because he didn’t play, and because he didn’t have Harry’s voice there was always an assumption that he didn’t deserve the job. People looked at him as a Phillies puppet stuck in the booth by upper management to cheer on the team and push the front office agenda. There were rumors that Wheels’ tormentors, the Bowas and Vuks, offset that harassment by telling Wheels the signs. This way, when Wheels said, “good situation for a hit and run,” he could often sound prophetic.
Of course, Wheels has about 50 years of sitting on the hip of every kind of baseball mind. He has absorbed a lot of information. As I said, Wheels is a die-hard fan. He’s the guy on the road who goes back to the hotel and watches more baseball. A lot of the time, he does know what he’s talking about. Then after a while, that became a problem, people thought Wheels was always trying to educate. Don’t teach me about baseball, Wheels, just call the game. And, after all these years his pet phrases, like “no-doubles defense,” can incite a riot.
For all that, though, I thought Wheels was the strongest link in the most recent version of the Phils’ TV booth, even if that isn’t saying much. Tom McCarthy talks so much that you don’t hear Wheels as often. And, Gary Mathews, well…I never understood that one. Considering the favored announcing duo of Franzke and Anderson want to stay on the radio side, I’m envisioning a moderate period of discontent in the booth before Comcast lands on anything worthwhile. That’s right, believe it or not, I don’t think it’s going to be that easy to replace Wheels.
The candidates mentioned tell the story. The best choice would probably be John Kruk or Mitch Williams. Good luck prying them away from their choice TV gigs. Darren Daulton has proven to be decent on the radio, but he has serious health concerns. Doug Glanville has the local ties, but I never thought he really shined on ESPN, and might not leave that job anyway. Keep in mind that these aren’t even the guys being mentioned. We’re talking about Brad Lidge, Chris Coste, Ben Davis and Ricky Bo.
Quickly, Lidge is too nice. Davis is too statuesque. Ricky Bo isn’t that great at the post-game and will try to make a name for himself too quickly. And, Chris Coste? Really with this guy? I get it, underdog story, but let’s move on. I have a pretty strong feeling that whoever Comcast plugs in there is going to be a disaster, at least at first, and maybe that will give Wheels a final bit of satisfaction as he settles into his new role as Wall of Fame tour guide? See, I can’t help myself.
*actual first job