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Spinning their Wheels

As an out-of-towner who probably watches no more than one or two locally originating Phillies television broadcasts per season, I've stayed out of the developing brouhaha over who partners with who on TV. But this piece in today's Philadelphia Inquirer doth protest way, way too much.

For some reason, possibly because he was never a professional baseball player, Wheeler has become a lightning rod for criticism. He has been a member of the broadcast team since 1977 and is among the most informative analysts in the game.

So before you fire up the e-mails, here's an explanation: The job of an analyst is to give information that the average viewer may not know. Nobody does a better job of explaining hitters' and pitchers' weakness and strengths than Wheeler. It's as if he has a book on every hitter and pitcher in the league.

He has tremendous recall for situations that have occurred in Phillies history. He is always pointing out defensive strategies. Nobody is more up-to-date on the game's current events than Wheeler. It would be hard to find any announcer who comes to a game more prepared than Wheeler.
So now the Phillies have a choice. Do they appease Kalas and some of their fans, or do they go for the better broadcast on television?

There are issues on which "the fans" shouldn't get the final say: signing Billy Wagner at any cost, or trading Bobby Abreu for junk because he doesn't crash into outfield walls. But when it comes to the broadcasts, and honoring the wishes of the legendary Harry Kalas, some deference should be shown. This poll, on the same website, indicates that Phillies phollowers prefer Larry Andersen to Wheels by a ratio of 9 to 1.

It's an open secret that Kalas and Wheeler don't get along. Some ten years ago, Wheeler tried to push out the equally beloved Richie Ashburn, Kalas's best friend and a Hall of Famer, and if memory serves there were other transgressions and offenses as well. But beyond the question of personal antipathy--which, as the Inquirer piece notes, both men have dealt with professionally--this defense of Wheeler as an announcer is risibly absurd.

The fans dislike (and that might be an understatement) "Wheels" because he's a whiner and a shill for the front office. Want to plant a seed of doubt about Vicente Padilla? You can count on Wheeler to moan about his bad work habits and resistance to instruction. Wish David Bell were more appreciated by fans? Listen to Wheeler and you'll hear daily tales of Bell's gritty gamerosity. And let's not even discuss his gushy love for various players on division rivals.

Every broadcaster has his mannerisms and stock expressions. A good way to tell whether or not the announcer is loved or loathed is by observing how fans react to those phrases. "SWING AND A LONG DRIVE TO DEEP LEFT FIELD... THAT BALL'S OUTTA HEEEERE!" is as much a part of Philly baseball lore as Paul Owens' organizational genius, Steve Carlton's slider or Tug McGraw's exuberance. "Right down the middle for a ball," same deal. After a few beers, Ashburn's aphorisms of "Easy game, Harry" and to never trust pitchers can still bring a tear to the eye. Scott Graham's "Put this one in the win column for the Fightin' Phils!" is in the process of joining those indelible phrases. (As an online radio listener, these have become perhaps my favorite eleven words to hear around 10:15 on a summer weeknight.)

Does anyone feel that way about Wheeler's "fastball, middle-in" or "He dropped the bat head on it"? The answer is seen in those poll numbers. Smarten up, Phils.