By DENNIS DEITCH
CLEARWATER, Fla. – While Monday represented the beginning of what many people hope is a long and entertaining career for Jamie Moyer and Matt Stairs as the color commentators for Phillies television broadcasts, Chris Wheeler continues to adjust to a new existence away from the camera.
Wheeler, the Broomall native who spent 37 years in the broadcast booth for the Phillies, knew long before almost anyone else what was coming. Phillies president David Montgomery knew that a lucrative television deal with Comcast/NBC Universal essentially had been forged by September, and he knew that Comcast SportsNet was going to use its increased say in the television broadcast talent to push Wheeler and Gary “Sarge” Matthews out of the booth. Before the Phillies’ penultimate home game of last season, on a rainy day in Philly, Montgomery decided to let Wheeler know what was coming.
“Dave Montgomery told me on September 21 that I wasn’t going to be back to do the games,” Wheeler said. “He said to me it was a very difficult thing for him to have to tell me, but there were extenuating circumstances. You all know … it was Comcast’s decision. And he wanted me to know as soon as possible because he felt he owed me that because of our relationship for so many years and because
I deserved that.
“So I did the last nine games knowing I was a lame duck, and that was a little difficult … Leaving the booth that Sunday, I caught myself looking around as I walked to the bus. We went to Miami and Atlanta, so I did the games down there. Tom (McCarthy’s) wife got sick at the time, if you’ll remember, so I wound up doing play-by-play for two or three games.
“Just me and Sarge, two lame ducks sitting there.”
It turned out that ironing out all the details of the $2.5 billion television contract took more time than originally thought. So Wheeler sat at home for months, silently knowing what finally would become public knowledge in early January.
There are bruised feelings, for certain. Any professional wants to depart on their own terms. But the toughest part for Wheeler was the knowledge that the job that truly had dominated his life for 37 years wasn’t going to be there. That change will begin Wednesday, when the Phillies’ first Grapefruit League game will be aired with Jamie Moyer and Matt Stairs sitting where Wheeler and Sarge had been.
When the Phillies fly to Arlington, Texas, for the season-opening series, it will be the first time “Wheels” wasn’t on the plane with them since the bicentennial.
“The last time I didn’t go on the road was 1976,” he said. “I’ve been on every road trip from ’77 on, which basically means that I’ve pretty much seen every game. Because even when we got better as a team and we wouldn’t do a Fox game or an ESPN game or something, I would still watch the game. I can’t help it. I love baseball. I love watching the games. So I think that’s what’s really going to feel different.”
Wheeler won’t be without baseball. The Phillies immediately encouraged him to stay with the team in some capacity, and although he hasn’t received a specific job title yet, not much in the first couple of weeks of camp has changed for Wheels. Monday the organization hit the links for its annual golf tournament in Clearwater, something Wheeler has been in charge of organizing for years. And as the workouts have gone on the last two weeks, he has been visible, shaking hands, sharing stories and laughs.
Anyone who comes to Bright House Field this spring will hear Wheeler as the public-address announcer, something he’s done when the games aren’t televised. And when the regular season starts…
“One of the things they want me to do is go around the ballpark and play the role of Chris Wheeler – whatever the hell that is,” he said jokingly. “Anybody who has something in the organization that they may want me to do, like play golf with a sponsor – that will be a hardship – go into a suite, maybe talk to one of the sponsors dinners, offseason speaking engagements, which I’ve always done a ton of.
“The door was wide open. (The Phillies said,) ‘We want you here. We think you have skills that other people don’t have. We’d like to use your skills.’ And my first reaction was, ‘Sure. What am I going to do without baseball?’”
It’s uncharted waters for Wheeler. Maybe he will find the ability to be away from the game a bit refreshing, maybe not. But when it was mentioned that two of his longtime colleagues, Richie “Whitey” Ashburn and Harry Kalas, literally died doing their broadcasting jobs and that this meant he wouldn’t, he appreciated that perspective.
“Oh, I’ve thought about that,” Wheeler said. “Whitey said ‘Boys, they aren't going to find me in some hotel room.’ He used to say that! And when it happened, I’ll never forget Harry and I kind of looked at each other and were like, ‘Geez, is that going to happen to us?’ And then you all know what happened to Harry, (he died) right in the booth.
“So yeah, I will not go to my dubious reward as a broadcaster. I lost all three of my guys. Andy Musser died a few years ago … Those three guys were very important to me. We all worked together for so many years. It’ll be the first time since 1962 that one of the four of us won’t be on the air this year. That’s a long time for four guys to have whatever legacy we all had. To me I was just the fourth guy in there.
“I just love baseball and all I ever did was sit there and just want to talk about that game, what I saw and share it. Some people liked it, some people didn’t and after a while I really didn’t care.”