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Chris Wheeler: forty-three years without a real job
by Scott Butler 5/18/15

Chris Wheeler Phillies

On September 26, 1976, the Phillies defeated the Montreal Expos on a blustery, cool afternoon in Montreal and became the first Phillies team since the 1950 “Whiz Kids” to capture the Eastern Division title. What followed in the visiting clubhouse was the type of mass demonstration of euphoria that ensues when seven months of hard work result in accomplishing your goal. It was a true celebration twenty-six years in the making.

There was just one problem. It was the first game of a makeup doubleheader. There was still another game to be played. Richie Ashburn, the Phillies’ color analyst and a member of the 1950 team, had to return to the broadcast booth to cover the second game.

Back in his rightful place behind the mic, “Whitey” had other plans. He spotted the assistant director of publicity and public relations wandering into the booth and found his opportunity. He said on the air, “Here’s this Chris Wheeler I’ve been talking about,” turned to Wheeler and said, “Wheels, I know you’ve always wanted to do this, so I’m going to take off and leave you here to work with Harry.”

Just like that, Ashburn took off his headset and handed it over. And thus began the 37-year broadcast career for Chris Wheeler.

Society builds up the Ryan Howards of the world as our idols - these extraordinarily developed human beings who make the impossible possible. But I tend towards the mere mortals - the Chris Wheelers - who exemplify the everyday man, with no discernible skills above the rest of us and whose dreams are just that - left as unfulfilled fantasies. Chris Wheeler offers a remarkable story of passion, endurance, dedication, and the unbridled joy that only comes to those who truly love what they do.

“How many kids from Newtown Square get to do what they love for their home team for all these years?” Wheeler theorized. “It was a joy, an absolute joy. I loved every minute of it.”

Wheeler’s unmistakable love and passion for the game of baseball escapes him like an uncontrollable reflex. Life and baseball are synonymous in the world of Chris Wheeler, a place where broadcasting a double-header for a last-place Phillies team is an ideal way to spend a summer afternoon.

Need proof?

“The last road trip I missed [before last year] was back in ‘76,” Wheeler said. “I was on every single road trip from ‘77 on. Didn’t miss one. Not one. Not one city.”

It made for a difficult transition after learning prior to last season that he was not retained as a broadcaster.

“Last spring was very difficult being down here and watching the other guys do what I did for so long and thinking that I should have been in there,” Wheeler admitted. “This year is much better, I know that already.”

He may not be in the booth, but Wheeler is still active with the Phillies. He signed a two-year contract last year as Club Ambassador, speaking to season ticket holders and groups, serving as the emcee for certain events, and attending nearly all home games.

“I’m enjoying it,” Wheeler said. “I’ve already talked to the Phillies about extending it. They are happy with me and I am happy with them.” 

His deal includes Spring Training because “they know I love it down there,” Wheeler said. “It’s almost my second home.  I’m a golfer and I belong to a club in town, so I play a lot.”

He still considers himself lucky.

“I’ve had jobs I wasn’t crazy about, but I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have spent my whole life working a job that I hated like so many people do,” he said. “I never got up in the morning and thought, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ Never. I always considered myself so lucky to do what I did. Forty-three years without a real job.”

Wheeler was not gifted with a booming broadcaster’s voice, never played baseball past high school (although he did play on the varsity team at Marple Newtown High School), and never coached at any level. So how did he last so long?

“Wheels knows the game as much as anybody in all of baseball, and that includes players who have actually played the game,” said Phillies sideline reporter Gregg Murphy.

Wheeler made up for his lack of, well, any natural broadcasting talent, with an incredible knowledge and innate understanding of the game. There came a point in almost every game in which he gave listeners a sense that he knew exactly how it would play out.

“It doesn’t take me long sometimes to see if a pitcher is really on his game,” Wheeler said. “Major league hitters don’t swing and miss a whole lot, so when it happens, it means he’s got late action. It means he’s got something going on that they can’t quite figure out.”

That predictive quality is often something gained only by taking part in the action on the field and why players predominantly fill the booth.

“I can’t explain it, I could see it,” Wheeler said. “The other team would bring a guy out and you would say, ‘We gotta hit this guy.’ At some point he’s just making it up out there. I did have that ability I think early in a game.”

Wheeler also had another gift. “I don’t forget anything. Well, almost anything.” said Wheeler. “I just remember stuff. I’ll remember what pitch a guy hit thirty years ago.”

It’s a gift his coworkers knew very well. “Dave Montgomery used to call me all the time [and say], ‘You’ll remember this.’ People put a lot of pressure on me. For the most part I do remember.”

Wheeler’s memory, along with his knowledge and passion kept him in the booth longer than any color analyst in Phillies history. Of course, you can’t please everyone.

“I was always objective in how a visiting player could play,” Wheeler said. “If he could play, he could play and I’d talk about it. But for some of our players, it was, ‘Ehh, kiss his butt again’ and, ‘Ehh you’re a Phillies guy.’”

The same would apply to certain managerial decisions throughout the game.

“I had an idea why everything was happening. Maybe I couldn’t say it,” Wheeler said. “Some of my critics would say, ‘He didn’t say it.’ You put some other guy in there and they aren’t going to even know it, let alone say it. I could at least lead fans in the right direction of, ‘Well, maybe the reason the guy is not warming up is that he can’t go tonight.’”

Wheeler was never concerned about the criticisms. Like any ballplayer, he prepared as much as possible for each and every game.

“The problem with television is they give you seven replays from seven different angles and then you have someone telling you that you are overanalyzing it,” he said.

Obviously, broadcasting is a very subjective occupation. Unfortunately for Wheeler, his fans seemed to be part of a silent majority. When Comcast agreed to purchase the Phillies television rights for $2.5 billion, they focused on the more vocal Wheels detractors and unceremoniously fired him along with Gary “Sarge” Matthews.

His dismissal was officially announced last January, but he was made aware of the decision prior to the end of the season. He announced the last nine games of the season knowing they would be the last nine he would ever call.

Gary Matthews was not given the same advanced notice. “They couldn’t tell him until the last minute,” Wheeler said. “He and I had to have a talk in January of last year after the announcement because we were so close.”

Their relationship developed long before working together as broadcasters.

“We all love him, he’s the greatest. He has his own language,” Wheeler said of Matthews. “We’ve been buddies since he played here in the ‘80’s. When he worked for the Blue Jays, we’d go out to dinner in Spring Training. When he came back, it was like an old buddy showed up.”

Wheeler feels that his dismissal came in part due to the changing landscape of television and baseball. Gone are the days of watching baseball for the baseball. “That era is disappearing,” said Wheeler. “I don’t think it’s coming back and I think it’s unfortunate. Look, we build ballparks nowadays with things for kids to do so they don’t have to sit and watch the game.”

Television reflects what cable companies perceive fans want in their broadcasts.

“Now, it’s constant, instant gratification, so basically they want that on a telecast,” Wheeler said. “They want someone to make light of things because they don’t think the fan out there wants what you want. I had a sense of humor, I had a lot of fun, but I wasn’t going to be a clown act when I was in there.”

Fans have changed and so have the expectations from broadcasters.

“I always said I don’t want to grow up and sound like an old man,” Wheeler said. “Probably one of the reasons Comcast SportsNet doesn’t want me around is that they wanted us all to have our own Twitter accounts and I said, ‘I won’t do that.’ I won’t have someone writing something and then have me make a smart alek remark back at them. I think that’s one of the things they felt that ‘He won’t be modern enough.’”

“I’m not a fossil, I adapted to all of that,” Wheeler said. “I don’t want to sound like I can’t change because I changed, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

One thing that never changed was his professionalism and respect for others. Players and managers knew they could trust him. “Doing the manager show, they trust you after a while,” he said. “They always knew I had their back even though I had to ask a few tough questions.”

“I’ve always said the best stuff was before that [recorder] got turned on,” Wheeler said. “And then afterwards when they would vent because they knew I would never say anything. And they would vent!”

Perhaps that level of respect is why he made so many friends along the way - a list so long it needed to be in book form. The one name Wheeler singled out is Tim McCarver.

“The best guy I ever worked with is one of my best friends in the world and the guy who wrote the forward in my book,” Wheeler said. “Nobody knows the game like this guy. He knew that I wanted to learn and we just became friends for life. We are just so close and when he wrote that, that was such an honor. And he wrote every word of that. If you read it, it is Timmy.”

“We talked the game incessantly, but that man, as far as somebody I worked with, he was number one. Nobody is even close.”

Of the relationships he developed, his supposed strained relationship with Harry Kalas seems to grab the most attention even though neither Kalas nor Wheeler ever acknowledged any issues. Wheeler said he had a good relationship with Kalas and, like the professional he is, chose not to add any further comments simply to defend himself against allegations he knows are untrue.

In reality, it is hard to hear a negative word from any of his broadcast partners because they all got along so well. Particularly, the broadcasting crew of Harry Kalas, Richie Ashburn, Andy Musser, and Chris Wheeler - a group that worked together for twenty years from 1977-1997.

“I was so lucky, they were my friends,” Wheeler said. “We were together a long time, we spent a lot of time together. It was a great run.”

All three of his broadcast partners have since passed away, but his relationships extended to his most recent broadcast team. Gregg Murphy mentioned during the 2013 season, “[Tom McCarthy] puts sugar packets in Wheels' briefcase, hides his wallet, and moves his car keys.”

McCarthy admitted those claims and also described a bigger prank. “For Wheels’ birthday a couple of years ago, Scott [Franzke] and I got a cardboard cutout of Wheels and we brought it all around Philadelphia,” McCarthy said. “We got pictures with Mayor Nutter, Phil Martelli, and we went to the Zoo and fed the animals with it.”

Wheels always rolled with it. “They always tell you they don’t do that stuff if they don’t like you,” Wheeler said. And, of course, Richie Ashburn was famous for having fun with others, including Wheeler.

“He was just so typical Whitey,” Wheeler said. “He would always joke on air [before Wheeler became a broadcaster], ‘Here’s this guy who gives me bad information.’ Whitey was the one who messed stuff up. Sometimes he had no idea who the players were and the fans loved him. He would say, ‘My fans love me for this stuff.’ And they did. And he deserves it.”

Which brings us back to the start of his career. “If Whitey hadn’t gotten up and left, who knows,” he said. “I don’t know what my career would have been. Would I have gotten stymied and decide it’s time to move on? That never happened to me.”

It never happened thanks to that September day in 1977 when Wheels finally got his chance. He explains the event in his book, View from the Booth, Four Decades with the Phillies:

Fortunately, I also knew something about each player on both teams. “You can run on this Expos pitcher,” I’d say (I still remember his name—Denis Blair), and wouldn’t you know it, the Phillies player on first would break for second and make it. I’d refer to a hitter’s strength or weakness, and very soon he’d do something to illustrate it. I’d say where and why a player was positioned in the outfield, just as I do today, and he’d turn a potential hit into an out. It was happening just like I’d imagined. I was having a ball, saying whatever I wanted to, because I knew I’d never have the chance again.

Unbeknownst to Wheeler, Montreal’s general manager, John McHale, was watching because the Expos weren’t televising the second game. Wheeler later learned that McHale was with Phillies’ vice-president Bill Giles that day and asked him, “Bill, just who is this announcer of yours? He’s really good. He knows our players better than we do.”

“I thought I knew my subject and later on I found out I really did,” Wheeler said. “But all I was doing that day was talking baseball with my friend Harry Kalas and it was just a kick doing what we did at the bars at night and we were on the air together.”

McHale’s endorsement was quite impressive for a first-time Phillies broadcaster. “At the time I didn’t even know what a tremendous compliment it was,” Wheeler said. “Every time I saw John, he would come over and put his arm around me and say, ‘You can thank me now.”

Wheeler’s start in the business illustrates the saying, luck is when opportunity meets preparedness. Chris Wheeler had been preparing for that moment from the first time he held a baseball in his hands. He was not meant to put on a baseball uniform, but he sure was meant to talk about it. Wheels was not just talking baseball on that magical September afternoon. He was exposing his soul. Ashburn saw it, McHale saw it, and eventually, all of us saw it. It was no doubt a lucky day in Montreal. Perhaps the luck was ours.

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