Wheeler regales with great baseball tales
● By Steven Hoffman
During the 37 years that Chris Wheeler spent as a part of the Philadelphia Phillies broadcasting team, he never missed a road trip as part of the Phillies' official traveling party. When there was a job to do, he showed up for work. So it’s no surprise that Wheeler persevered through a bout of the flu to deliver an engaging and entertaining talk to the crowd of enthusiastic baseball fans at the 37th Kennett Old Timers Baseball Association Banquet.
Wheeler served as a guest speaker at the banquet a year earlier, and he began his speech by saying that he enjoyed talking baseball with the group so much last year that he couldn’t let an illness stop him from coming back this year.
“What a great group you have here,” Wheeler said. “So many people out here who love the game. There’s nothing that I wanted more than to come back here tonight.”
Wheeler grew up in nearby Newtown Square, Pa. rooting for the Phillies. He loved baseball when he was a kid, and he fondly recalls watching Willie Mays play. His boyhood idol was Phillies’ legendary outfielder Richie Ashburn.
Wheeler graduated from Marple-Newtown High School in 1963 and went on to earn a degree in journalism and broadcasting from Penn State University in 1967. He worked in radio in Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York early in his career before joining the Phillies’ community relations department in 1971. He was added to the radio and television broadcasting team in 1977, working alongside two iconic figures—Ashburn and golden-voiced Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Kalas. Wheeler continued to serve as a play-by-play man and color analyst with the Phillies through 2013, witnessing the two best periods in the Phillies’ long history. The team won World Series titles in 1980 and 2008, and some of the broadcaster’s best memories are centered on those two chapters in Phillies' history.
Wheeler will soon be heading to Clearwater, Florida, the Phillies’ Spring Training home, for his 46th season with the organization. He spoke glowingly of his time working with the hometown team that he grew up rooting for, saying that it never felt like a job and no one has been as lucky as he has to work for a team that he loved.
The room was filled with Phillies fans, and they had many questions pertaining to the team. The Phillies improved by eight games last year, but Wheeler said that it’s probably too early to expect the team to make a playoff run this season.
“I think we have a chance to be interesting because we have a lot of kids who can come up and play,” Wheeler said, referring to a group of promising prospects who will bolster the team in the next few years.
Wheeler spoke fondly of Oct. 29, 2008, the night that the Phillies defeated the Tampa Rays, 4-3, to win the second World Series in team history. Wheeler was calling the World Series with Kalas, who had waited his entire career to declare that the Phillies had won the World Series. In 1980, local broadcasters were not allowed to call the World Series games, so this was Kalas’ first chance to call a World Series championship. It would be the pinnacle of a Hall of Fame broadcaster’s career.
Wheeler explained that they had cameras pointed at the broadcasters in the booth at the start of the ninth inning. Wheeler was determined not to make any noise that would detract from Kalas’ long-awaited call of a World Series victory. When Kalas made the call on the final out, Wheeler’s exuberant—but silent—celebration was captured by a cameraman positioned in the booth. It became one of the indelible images of the Phillies’ 2008 post-season, but Wheeler poked fun at himself for the celebration, calling it “a full-body spasm.” He said that he was thankful that Kalas was able to make the call that his beloved Phillies had won the World Series. Kalas would pass away less than six months later.
Wheeler also talked about the terrific 2016 World Series that saw the Chicago Cubs end a 108-year championship drought by defeating the Cleveland Indians. Wheeler said that he was rooting for the Indians because of their manager, Terry Francona. Francona is a former manager of the Phillies, and he also served as a guest speaker at the Kennett Old Timers Baseball Banquet during his time with the club.
“He’s really the best guy in the world,” Wheeler said.
One person at the banquet asked Wheeler if he thought the Phillies would ever be able to sign or trade for Mike Trout, a Millville, New Jersey native who grew up rooting for the Phillies and happens to be the best player in the game.
“It’ll be interesting to see what happens when he does become a free agent,” Wheeler said. “It would be too good to be true. He’s such a good player and a good person.”
Wheeler lauded the efforts of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard, the trio that formed the foundation of the team that captured the 2008 World Series for the Phillies.
“Those three guys were just wonderful,” Wheeler said. “It’s pretty neat to think of those three guys and all that they did for us. And they are all great, great people.”
A person in attendance asked if Wheeler thought any of the three would be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame after they retire.
“I’d love to see that happen for Jimmy,” Wheeler said, explaining that Rollins’ career statistics are similar to recent Hall of Fame inductee Barry Larkin.
He added that Utley was probably on his way to a Hall of Fame career until leg injuries cost him valuable playing time and cut down on his productivity. Howard’s performance also declined after a serious achilles injury in 2011, and he probably won’t reach the numbers necessary to earn a spot in the Hall of Fame.
Wheeler’s return visit to Kennett Square was well-received by attendees of the Kennett Old Timers Baseball Association banquet. One fan in attendance thanked Wheeler for sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of baseball with fans and for teaching him so much about the game through his work on Phillies’ broadcasts through the years.
Keith Craig, the master of ceremonies for the banquet, lauded Wheeler for “bringing a real intimacy to the game.”
Wheeler chronicled his life in baseball in a 2009 book, “A View from the Booth: Four Decades with the Phillies.”