For the last few decades, I’ve counted myself among the, oh, 500 million or so Philadelphians who loathed Chris Wheeler’s broadcasting of Phillies games. Because, honestly, wasn’t there just so much to loathe? The droning. The whining. The tedious breakdown of why, on the road, with two outs and a runner on third and a left-handed Cuban refugee on the mound and your stepdaughter having missed her 11 p.m. curfew, you never want to throw the ball middle-in to a right-handed power hitter. If a guy talked like that while sitting next to you at the ballpark, you’d stick his nachos up his nose.
But when the news came that Wheeler was being booted from the broadcast booth for the upcoming season, I felt something I hadn’t anticipated: a twinge of sadness. Could it be I’m actually going to miss … Wheels?
Somewhere over those decades, Wheeler became an institution — maybe not on par with Whitey Ashburn or Harry Kalas, but closer than anyone could have imagined when he first made the leap from the PR office into the booth in the late ’70s.
Wheels was also a character in both senses of that word — an outsized personality, and a major recurring player in the ongoing comedy/drama that is the Phillies. Seeing him suddenly jettisoned from the show startled me — and not in a good way. Any true M*A*S*H fan can tell you that the bleakest day in that series wasn’t when it went off the air, or even when the producers killed off lovable Henry Blake. It was when weaselly, thin-lipped Frank Burns exited the show, suddenly leaving Alan Alda’s Hawkeye without a real foil. What’s the point of watching when there’s no one to irritate you?
Wheeler’s dismissal is said to have been orchestrated by Comcast SportsNet, which just signed a $2.5 billion deal to broadcast the Phillies’ games. Comcast is big and important and very very corporate, which means it does what the market dictates. The Phillies, in contrast, have always operated more like a family, showing loyalty to even the most aggravating oddball cousins.
So, Chris Wheeler, I owe you a thank-you. Not necessarily for your graduate-level explanations of the infield fly rule, but for showing me that getting exactly what you want isn’t always what you really want.
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