In Praise of Chris Wheeler
I woke up at 5 a.m. thinking about Billy Allem.
My in-laws bring Billy Allem over to my house once or twice a summer. Though his name has changed. It is now Chris Wheeler, a guy I go to sleep listening to on a lot of summer nights.
I haven’t seen Billy Allem—the real one—since 3rd grade, 45 years ago. Mrs. Haggerty, our teacher, was re-arranging seating one day, and Billy Allem was absent.
“Would anyone be willing to sit next to Billy?” she wondered.
Ah yes, the age before everyone had to say every child is wonderful, the era when even a teacher would agree with the body politic that a given kid was basically a turd.
Billy Allem was a bit fat and obnoxious and didn’t have any friends. He made a mess when he ate lunch. He was stupid.
Billy Allem was about as far from cool as you could get, and Mrs. Haggerty certainly didn’t want to punish anyone by making him sit next to Billy, so she hunted for a volunteer.
As she searched over the rows of boys, she wore a small smile. There were no takers.
“No one?” she said, maintaining the small smile.
Now, I’m not going to pretend I was a sensitive, caring young soul in third grade, but it wasn’t like the kid was an axe murderer. Besides, it was third grade—girls hadn’t come into the picture yet.
So I raised my hand and volunteered to sit next to Billy Allem.
“Bob!” Mrs. Haggerty said, sounding stunned. “Are you volunteering to sit next to Billy?”
It was one of those moments you never forget. I was sitting in a back corner of the classroom, and everyone—it certainly felt like everyone, both boys and girls—turned to stare at me. Mrs. Haggerty stared too.
“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
There was tittering, if not outright laughter.
“Okay, then,” Mrs. Haggerty said, suppressing a bit of laugher herself. “It’s all yours, then. You’ll sit next to Billy.”
I would like to report that Billy Allem was, up close and personal, someone worthy, a kid with a deep affection for studying the planets or spiders who just needed a friend. In truth, he kept crumpled Ritz crackers and cookies in his desk, and his fingernails were caked with solid dirt that looked as dense as pencil lead. Stuff dumped out of his mouth when he talked, and he talked about bad TV and what he liked to eat. No, the crowd had Billy Allem right: He was no less obnoxious and dumb up close and personal than he was from a window seat or the back row.
However, the crowd is not always right.
My in-laws, ardent Phillies fans, as I am, cannot stand Chris Wheeler. A lot of people who root for the Phillies seem to feel this way. In fact, I have never met another fan who likes him—only a few who tolerate him—although I am sure there must be some in his camp, since he has been a Phillies announcer forever, and there has to be a reason besides being buddies with president Dave Montgomery.
His problem is, Chris Wheeler is small, and too cheerful, and seems to wear a toupee, and talks a great deal. He never played baseball above semi-pro, though he sounds like he knows a lot about the game. Chris Wheeler is not cool.
But this is different from Billy Allem in one key aspect. I like Chris Wheeler.
When my in-laws come over, we will talk about baseball, because it is supposed to be a safe subject. “Middle in,” my father-in-law will say. “Wheeler—Jesus Christ, I can’t stand it. ‘He’s looking for a pitch middle in.’ He must say that 20 times a game. Middle in. No, Chris, he’s looking for a ball over his head.”
I like Wheeler because he loves baseball and tells you what it feels like to play it. In an earlier era, I called him one day during a players strike to see if he would talk about the game. We got yakking about the players, and I asked Wheeler who the smartest Phillie was.
“Oh God, it’s Lenny,” Wheeler gasped immediately, meaning, of course, Dykstra. “He’s the most cerebral. He’s such a great mind out on the field. Oh God.”
Part of the beauty of that was how the tobacco-spitting Dykstra, a post-playing wunderkind in the financial world before his excesses of mind and hubris imploded that idea, seemed like such an unlikely candidate. But not in the hermetically sealed world between the lines.
Wheeler, who played infield as a kid, now seems to have a particular affinity for shortstop Jimmy Rollins.
“Look at the way Jimmy circled the ball,” he’ll say on-air, analyzing how Rollins handled a grounder, “so that he can get behind it, take a little crow hop, and fire. He knows he’s got a catcher running”—somebody slow, in other words. Viewers watch Rollins smoothing the infield dirt, preparing for the next play. His own little kingdom at shortstop, one Wheeler can tap into, and does: “Jimmy’s always in control out there.”
That’s the sort of thing that drives my father-in-law crazy: “Like he knows what Rollins is thinking.”
“Exactly!” I agree. “That’s what I like about Wheeler.”
“Because he knows what Rollins is thinking?”
“So you think he knows what Rollins is thinking?”
We have reached a little moment of truth. Actually, not so little. It is like that moment 45 years ago, when Mrs. Haggerty, with a small, knowing smile, searched the rows of boys looking for a volunteer to sit next to Billy Allem. Of course she wouldn’t find one, until, suddenly, she did.
“Yes,” I say to my father-in-law, and brother-in-law, who’s listening in. They, too, have small, knowing smiles. What they know is that I’m a fool, but I’m not giving in: “I think Wheeler knows what Rollins is thinking.”
It is a crowd of only two, but they are amused and befuddled in just the way my third-grade classroom was, when I made the leap into becoming Billy Allem’s running mate. Was I crazy? What could I possibly be thinking? Who am I, anyway?
I go to the women, then, on the other side of the room. I’ve always thought that women are more interesting than men because they talk about how they feel. Men do too, except it’s in metaphors.
“I woke up at 5 this morning thinking about this kid from 3rd grade,” I say to them. “His name was Chris Wheeler … ”
ROBERT HUBER is Philly Mag’s features editor.