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Blue Jays birthdays: Happy 65th, Rocket Wheeler!

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Rocket Wheeler managing Auburn in 2019, as captured by our Minor Leaguer
Minor Leaguer

Usually in this space Tom look at former Blue Jays who are celebrating birthdays, and many long-time diehards reading this might thus be thinking, “I don’t remember a Rocket Wheeler playing for the Blue Jays”. Add he didn’t — but 65 is a big birthday, so I thought it was worth going in a slightly different angle to celebrate and highlight a long time member of the organization.

Ralph Norman Wheeler was part of the first Blue Jays draft class in 1977, chosen in the 13th round out of his hometown University of Houston. According to a June 1998 profile in the Globe and Mail, he got the Rocket moniker his freshman year over taking teammates running laps, “Why don’t you slow down, you’re just like a [expletive] rocket”.

Signing on June 12th, that made him something like the 64th person under contract in franchise history. He wouldn’t come close to having the on-field impact as 9th round pick Jesse Barfield, but he ended up having quite the tenure.

The Blue Jays didn’t have farm system in 1977, with their optioned players mostly distributed across Cleveland and Houston AA and AAA affiliates. They were able to arrange to field a short season team in the New-York Penn League, and thus the Utica Blue Jays were the first minor entry for the new franchise, fielding the five Canadians signed as well as all 1977 draft picks.

In 279 plate appearances, Wheeler hit .231/.339/.307 (37 walks against 25 strikeouts) while playing mostly in the outfield. For 1978, the Jays added a full season-A team in Dunedin (there was no high-A/low-A distinction), and Wheeler was moved up. In 522 PA, he hit .271/.340/.318, again showing solid on-base skills but his almost no power while again playing mostly in the outfield but also significant chunks at 2B and SS.

In 1979, the Jays added another A-level affiliate in Kinston of the Carolina League, to which Wheeler was assigned in essentially a parallel promotion. This season was split between the infield corners, but it was also his best, hitting .294/.362/.394 in 556 PA.

When the Jays finally filled out their farm system in 1980 by adding a AA team in Knoxville, Wheeler found himself on his fourth affiliate in four years. In a utility role, Wheeler hit .265/.329/.339 in 468 plate appearances. On August 29th, he was promoted to Syracuse, at least on paper since it looks like their season was over and there’s no record of him playing for them. It was as close to the majors as Rocket Wheeler would come as a player.

1981 was both more of the same, and very different. Another year, another affiliate, as the Jays had replaced Dunedin with Florence in the Sally League. Wheeler was assigned there, but as a player-coach under manager Dennis Holmberg. Despite the new role, interestingly he played mostly at SS and had a career high 600 PA, hitting .277/.356/.390.

1982 was his last year as player. Back in Florence, he hit .312/.397/.477 in 261 PA his third go-around in low-A through late-June. On June 26th, he was formally released, immediately signing as a non-player-coach with AA Knoxville. However, Knoxville must have ended up short players, because less than three weeks later on July 14th, he was released from that contract to sign as a player-coach for the duration of the season, making it into the final 12 games and 34 PA of his career before being released September 29th.

From then it was coaching only, 1983 and 1984 back in Florence under manager Holmberg. In 1985, he was running the show for the first time, as manager of either Medicine Hat or the GCL Jays, or both (it’s not entirely clear, but likely up north). Ironically, both teams had identical .371 winning percentages.

Wheeler finally made it to AAA in 1986, as a coach under manager Richie Hebner, moving to yet another new A-ball affiliate in Myrtle Beach in 1987. After their season ended, the Blue Jays brought him up help out with the major league team for the last month of the season, for example throwing batting practice). So he was there in person for the great collapse of the last week of 1987.

In 1988, he was once again a manager, though it was a rough year for his charges in Medicine Hat. The team lost its first 16 games en route to a 12-58 record. His second year there was an improvement to 23-46 in 1989, but still another dismal result. It was back to a coach role after that stint, spending 1990-93 at Syracuse under Bob Bailor and Nick Leyva. 1994 was the same in Dunedin, though the jays sent him to manage their Sydney team in the winter Australian league.

1995 saw him get another crack at managing with the GCL Jays, though he was still snakebitten as they finished 19-40. Nonetheless, he was put in charge of the 1996 St. Catherines Blue Jays, and experienced success for the first time with a 44-32 record, losing a deciding game for the NYPL championship.

The follow-up in 1997 was mediocre (35-40), but Wheeler moved up in 1998 to helm a full season team for the first time in Dunedin, finishing 82-58. 1999 was even better, with a league high 86 wins and runner-up finish. From there, it was up to AA for 2000-02, totaling 220-200. It appeared Rocket’s trajectory was up, with Gord Ash mentioning him in February 2000 as a potential managerial candidate to replace Jim Fregosi at some point.

Alas, the job went to Buck Martinez, but more significant was Ash being replaced by J.P. Riccardi after 2001. He brought in his own guy in Dick Scott to run the minor league system as director of player personnel, and after a year in a job wanted to put his own stamp on the organization. That meant the departures of a number of long time baseball people. One of the original Blue Jays, Hector Torres was one; Rocket Wheeler was another.

It apparently wasn’t well telegraphed or communicated, with Wheeler telling the Knowville News-Sentinel: “They said they were making changes and I wasn’t part of the changes. It’s a shock. I spent all my life with the organization—all my adult life”.

J.P. Riccardi was typically blunt: “Any time someone has been with the organization for a long time, it’s understandable they would be upset but Dicky Scott is our farm director and he wants to go in a different direction. He feels there can be an upgrade there”. (As an aside, I will simply note that the downfall of the Riccardi/Scott/etc regime was ultimately that the pipeline of young players dried up from the mid-2000s onward).

Adding some insult to injury, changes made to severance packages after Rogers took over disgruntled a number of the dismissed employees. Previously, contracts called for one month of severance for each year or service up to 12 months, paid out as a lump sum or monthly regardless of future employment. Under Rogers, it was only available monthly, and cutoff if the employee took a position with another team. Perhaps the first instance #Rogersischeap.

Wheeler moved over the Atlanta system, managing low-A Rome for 2003-05, high-A Myrtle Beach for five years through 2010, and then a year at AA Mississippi in 2011. He was then re-assigned to the GCL for 2012-14. In 2015, he managed his first season in the Appalachian League, where his Danville squad faced off nine times with Bluefield, led by a familiar face in Dennis Holmberg. He got a measure of revenge, winning seven and sweeping two three game sets.

His last three years in the Atlanta system saw him lead three different teams, high-A Carolina, then the inaugural season of the Florida Fire Frogs, and then low-A Rome. It then appears he was once again the victim of organization turnover after Alex Anthopoulos succeeded the disgraced John Coppolella and brought his own people in. Ironically, many of whom worked under him in Toronto, but that didn’t extend to Wheeler who was let go after 16 years in Atlanta.

But that was not the end, as he moved over the Washington and was named manager of their Auburn affiliate in the NYPL — ironically, another link to Toronto as it was their long-time affiliate through 2010 until they switched to Vancouver. Maybe he was the lucky charm, as it was just in time for them the organization to push over the playoff hump and win it all.

In late December, the Nationals announced their 2020 minor league coaching staffs, with Rocket Wheeler slated to be skipper of the GCL Nationals for his 44th year in professional baseball. There aren’t too many people who have been in baseball almost as long as the Blue Jays.

Sources:

  • Baseball-Reference’s Rocket Wheeler player page
  • The Sporting News Player Contract Card
  • Toronto Star: 12/5/1991, D6 (Neil MacCarl, “Leyva, Iorg get new jobs on Jay farm”); 11/20/1994, E4; 9/12/2002, E1 (Richard Griffin, “Jay purge hints at Riccardi’s departure”)
  • Globe and Mail: 11/24/1987, D3 (Larry Millson, “McMurtry foresakes Jays for free agency”); 9/27/1994, C10 (Larry Millson, “Jays fire Ault as Florida skipper”); 6/23/1998, S4 (Larry Millson, “Jays’ other Rockey and unheralded hero”); 2/8/2000, S2 (Marty York, “Whitt odds-on favourite to become next Blue Jays manager”); 10/31/2002, S5 (Larry Millson, “Severance package questioned”)