Carolina Mudcats manager Ralph “Rocket” Wheeler muted the baseball game on TV, took a bite of watermelon and leaned forward in his chair, revealing a balding scalp dotted with the occasional white, wispy hair.
“These kids keep me young – I’ve still got my hair,” he said. “I’m going bald, but I’ve still got it.”
Four decades into a lifelong career of playing, coaching and managing in baseball’s minor leagues, Wheeler, 61, has won one championship, last appeared in the majors 11 years ago and now finds himself coaching Single-A ball in Zebulon.
But he keeps going, keeps working to help players three times younger maximize their development and keeps loving every moment.
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“Some days, my body says, ‘you’re an old man,’ but these kids keep me going,” Wheeler said of his players. “I love being out there, and as long as I can do that, I’m going to put on the uniform until they rip it off my back.”
How it began
Born in Houston in 1955, Wheeler played as a shortstop and third baseman for the University of Houston from 1973 to 1977.
His play with the Cougars attracted the attention of Al LaMacchia, a scout who had recently switched from the Atlanta Braves to the Toronto Blue Jays organization, and Wheeler was selected in the 13th round of the 1977 draft by the Blue Jays. If LaMacchia hadn’t moved, Wheeler thinks he would’ve been drafted by the Braves – but being part of that organization would come 26 years later.
Wheeler bounced around the Blue Jays’ farm system, making it as far as a partial-season stint with Triple-A Syracuse (N.Y.) in 1979. But by 1981, his role shifted to a player-coach with Single-A Florence (S.C.) and then, the following season, with Double-A Knoxville (Tennessee).
“They left me on a roster but nobody claimed me, so I took the hint to go into coaching,” Wheeler said. “You’re never ready to quit playing, I don’t care how old you are ... there comes a time where you’ve got to look at what your future is.”
In Florence, he bonded with his then manager Dennis Holmberg, who quickly noticed the tactical mind in Wheeler that made him so well-suited for coaching.
“I tell my players to try to soak up ... as much information as you can take in, and Rocket did exactly that,” Holmberg said. “When you got into the fundamentals of the game – the pickoffs, the run-downs, the cutoffs, the relays – he was always in-tune. I think he was keeping a quiet book in his head, educating himself.”
With Knoxville in 1982, Wheeler was on the verge of becoming a full-time coach when an injury bug hit the team and he was called into action for what would be the final time in his career. On his last at-bat, he hammered a pitch over the right field wall for a home run.
Weeks later in the playoffs, another player suffered an injury, and Knoxville manager Larry Hardy immediately looked Wheeler’s way – but decided not to put him in.
“We had lunch the next day,” Wheeler said, “and Larry said, ‘Rocket, I was going to put you in, but I wanted something for you to remember: your last at-bat in pro ball’ being a home run.”
In 1983, Wheeler earned his first real job on the managerial side by joining Holmberg in Florence, beginning a coaching career that would see him reassigned almost every year to a new club – Medicine Hat, Alberta; St. Catharines, Ontario; Dunedin, Florida; and Syracuse, among others. In 1987, he was called up to Toronto for the final month of the season.
Along the way, he was mentored by Holmberg, who later served two years as a coach under Wheeler in Florida and remains a manager in the Blue Jays’ system today.
Glory, then more of the same
In 2002, Wheeler was fired following a 69-71 season in Knoxville. After two-and-a-half decades with the Blue Jays’ farm system, the minor-league lifer was ousted, but he soon landed with the organization he had nearly joined out of college – the Braves.
The 2003 season marked the first year for Wheeler in the Braves’ organization and its its new Single-A affiliate in Rome, Ga., where Wheeler was assigned.
Wheeler quickly realized he had stumbled into something special.
That 2003 Rome squad boasted nine players who would go on to play in the major leagues, including future stars Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur. Wheeler can still name every single player on the team, broken down by position.
The team rolled to a 78-61 regular-season record then went on to win the Southern Atlantic League championship.
“I said that if that ever happened, I was just going to stand back and watch, and that’s exactly what I did,” Wheeler said. “I just stood back and watched the kids celebrate on the field. To me, that would be the most memorable game of my career.”
The always meandering road of minor league baseball took many of those Rome players to higher levels for the 2004 season, and Wheeler himself was eventually promoted to manager of the Advanced-A Myrtle Beach Pelicans in 2006.
In Myrtle Beach, he was able, for the first time in his career, to live with his family and sleep in his own bed during the summer baseball season.
And his lengthy stint there, which included a 81-59 season in 2008, was so well-remembered that when Wheeler in April returned with the Mudcats to face the Pelicans, now a division rival, Myrtle Beach retired his No. 18 jersey.
“That was very surprising, very humbling,” he said. ‘It caught me way off guard (that they would) do something that nice.”
Latest stop: Zebulon
In 2010, Wheeler was reassigned to Double-A Mississippi, then to the Gulf Coast League in 2011. Following four years with various rookie-league teams in Florida and Danville, Va., Wheeler was sent to Advanced-A Carolina for the 2016 season.
He got the chance to work with 2015 first overall selection Dansby Swanson for 21 games before the 22-year-old shortstop was promoted to Double-A. Swanson batted .333 with a .526 slugging percentage and 10 RBIs.
While Swanson is long gone, the Braves’ 2014 first-round pick, outfielder Braxton Davidson, remains on the Mudcats roster. So does catcher Tanner Murphy, who played under Wheeler three years ago in the Gulf Coast League.
“He can sit there and tell you, this player’s about to do this or this pitcher’s going to throw this pitch, and the majority of the time he’s right,” Murphy said about Wheeler. “Seeing his knowledge of the game and really listening to him, there’s a lot you can take from him.”
Wheeler said that winning is always his first priority, but sometimes other considerations temporarily usurp it.
“You’ve got to be patient with these kids, and I’ve got to be patient with myself,” he said. “We want it so bad for them right now, but it may take them a little while – swinging-wise, hitting-wise, throwing-wise, pitching-wise, whatever it is – so we have to have patience.”
The Mudcats have struggled through a tumultuous season, with their 31-47 record as of Friday ranking among the worst in the Carolina League.
But fortunately, the search for another title isn’t the only thing keeping Wheeler motivated as he approaches his fifth decade in the sport.
He can still enjoy a pregame snack each day of watermelon and black pepper. He can still joke about his receding hairline. And he can still intensely recount the dramatic moments of recent games as fervently as he can the glory days of last century.
“We’re in the bottom of the fifth with one out and the rains are threatening and we’ve got a lead,” Wheeler said about a Mudcats game earlier this summer, his azure eyes lighting up animatedly. “The batter hit a line drive to (Jordan) Edgerton at third, he caught it and doubled the guy off at first base, and the rains came exactly as we got the out. I’d never, ever seen that happen before.”
It’s small yet unforgettable moments like that – combined with the camaraderie and youthful spirit of minor league baseball – that Wheeler said keep him coaching with just as much ardor as always.
“These kids, they keep me young, and I stay on their tail ends and yell at them and keep them going,” he said. “These kids, they play their heart out ... in every ballgame, and that’s what I love about them.”
Rocket Wheeler’s career
1977: player in Utica, New York (short-A)
1978: player in Dunedin, Florida (A)
1979: player in Kinston (A) and Syracuse, New York (AAA)
1980: player in Knoxville, Tennessee (AA)
1981: player-coach in Florence, South Carolina (A)
1982: player-coach in Knoxville (AA)
1983: coach/manager in Florence (A)
1984: coach/manager in Medicine Hat, Alberta (rookie)
1985: coach/manager in Florida’s Gulf Coast League (rookie)
1986: coach/manager in Syracuse (AAA)
1987: coach/manager Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (A) and St. Catharines, Ontario (short-A)
1988-89: coach/manager in Medicine Hat (rookie)
1990-93: coach/manager in Syracuse (AAA)
1994: coach/manager in Dunedin (advanced-A)
1995: coach/manager in Gulf Coast League (rookie)
1996-97: coach/manager in St. Catharines (short-A)
1998-99: coach/manager in Dunedin (advanced-A)
2000-02: coach/managerin Knoxville (AA)
2003-05: coach/manager in Rome, Georgia (A)
2006-10: coach/manager in Myrtle Beach (advanced-A)
2011: coach/manager in Jackson, Mississippi (AA)
2012-14: coach/manager in Gulf Coast League (rookie)
2015: coach/manager in Danville, Virginia (rookie)
2016: coach/manager in Zebulon (advanced-A)