READING — For 37 years, Chris Wheeler lived his dream.
A Philadelphia native who grew up rooting for the Phillies, Wheeler called games from the team’s broadcast booth from 1977 until 2013, watching the good, the bad and everything in between.
“You’re like the Forrest Gump of the Phillies,” he said Thursday before joining Jack Morris and Gaylord Perry as one of the featured speakers at the 55th annual Reading Hot Stovers banquet at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in Reading. “We had never won a championship. Through the ups and downs.
“We’ve had these great Hall of Famers, and then I got to know them, and I got to work with one in Whitey (Richie Ashburn). I got to know Robin Roberts, who became a good friend, and Schmidt and Carlton. Pete Rose is a Hall of Famer, but he’s not. All those kinds of guys.”
It’s easy to see “Wheels” relished coming to the ballpark everyday.
So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that even now — two years after he lost his job when Comcast SportsNet, as part of their then-new 25-year contract agreement with the Phillies, opted to remove him and Gary Matthews from the booth — he admits that he’d still love to be calling the action.
“It was real tough,” said Wheeler, who started with the Phillies in the PR department in 1971. “I’m not going to say it wasn’t. I was far from ready to move. I really missed it. It got better this year (in 2015). Probably be better next year.
“People say, ‘Aren’t you glad you’re not on when the team is so terrible?’ I said: ‘No, no. I was with bad teams before.’ You make it work.”
Wheeler, 70, still has a role with the team as he has served as a club ambassador for the last two seasons. He gets to attend spring training in Clearwater, Fla., and serves as the public address announcer for home spring training games. During the regular season, he attends most home games, visiting fans in suites among other duties. He spends a lot of time watching those games with team officials such as former president Dave Montgomery, advisor Pat Gillick and new team president Andy MacPhail.
“It was nice for the Phillies to want me to stick around and work me into a role,” said Wheeler, who also plays plenty of golf in the summer. “Just to be around the sport and to know that the Phillies want me and that they still consider me a valuable spokesman of the club and representative of the club, I’m cool with it.”
Wheeler, like most who follow the Phillies, saw the inevitability of the rebuild, even if the powers that be waited a bit too long.
“It’s face your fate,” he said. “That’s what it is right now and they’ve gone all in, which is good. Look, I know people get mad at us, but we aren’t stupid. We knew that some of those guys were near the end. But we’re just trying to have another parade, win another championship. Not only were they good players, people liked them. They weren’t bad guys that people wanted to get out of town.
“So, made some mistakes there, hung on. The farm system suffered a little bit. I think they finally got to the point where they had to face up to it.”
Wheeler said he has been impressed by MacPhail, who joined the organization last June before taking over as president following the season. He’s aware of the young talent that has been acquired and the prospects who are getting closer to the major leagues, including guys who played for Double-A Reading last year such as shortstop J.P. Crawford, outfielder Nick Williams, and pitchers Jake Thompson and Zach Eflin.
“I’m not going to make predictions,” Wheeler said. “You gotta get a rotation again. You can’t win without pitching and defense. We didn’t have starting pitching last year. It was awful.”
Wheeler isn’t sure he still will be around when the team returns to contention. He said perhaps in a few years he’ll move to Clearwater and have “totally gotten away from it.”
Whatever happens, his place in Phillies history is secure. For many fans he, along with Harry Kalas, Ashburn and Andy Musser, were the soundtrack of summer.
“It started to dawn on me maybe 25 years ago,” Wheeler said. “People would say, ‘I remember you when I was a kid.’ Obviously, now it’s generations who grew up listening to me. The flip side of that is there’s a lot of them who won’t hear me. I will be, ‘Who the heck is he Dad.’ It goes quicker than you think.”
Reach Brian Smith at 610-371-5073 or [email protected].