Sunday, February 22, 2015

Interview Part 1: Dave Wheeler, Just Clicked

Dave Wheeler tried out for the Reds at Riverfront Stadium. Riverfront was on Joe Nuxhall Way. Photo is from 2010. Greatest 21 Days)
Part 1: Just Clicked | Part 2: That Opportunity

David Wheeler had been to tryout camps before, but this one was different.

"Everything just clicked really well," Wheeler recalled to The Greatest 21 Days recently of that camp. "I threw the ball really well. I probably threw the ball better at that time than any other time."

This was 1990 and Wheeler was trying out in front of scouts for the Cincinnati Reds at Riverfront Stadium. He was one of many players at the camp. He was also one of the ones who was signed.

"I'd made up my mind what I was going to do," Wheeler recalled. "I came back home a couple days later, I signed and I was gone."

The Kentucky-native Wheeler was off to the Pioneer League and rookie Billings. His career ended up being brief, lasting that single season.

But Wheeler had some highlights in that season, including facing a future Hall of Famer in Pedro Martinez - in rookie ball. He also recalled getting hit by a pitch from that future Hall of Famer.

Wheeler spoke to The Greatest 21 Days by phone from his home state of Kentucky. He talked of growing up there, learning the game in youth ball and American Legion ball. He then went on to play professionally in Billings and go on to a career outside of baseball, but one that includes coaching.

Wheeler grew up in Louisa, KY. Louisa was a small farming community on the Big Sandy River, the border with West Virginia. It was about a half hour south of the Ohio River.
Dave Wheeler grew up and lives in eastern Kentucky. Photo is of the Kentucky State Capitol Building in 2002. (Greatest 21 Days)
"There really wasn't a whole lot to do except hunt and fish and play ball," Wheeler said.

He recalled being introduced to the game by his father. His dad would get home and the two played catch in the yard.

By 8 years old, he was playing organized baseball. He then went up through the local youth system into high school and American Legion ball.

The American Legion team he played with was about an hour away, Post 2224 in Catlettsburg, Ky. He recalled his father having the foresight to sign him up at the age of 15.

His parents would drive him to practice each day and then bring him back home.

He recalled it wasn't an environment he was completely comfortable with. He was away from his friends. But that wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

"I really liked it because it was a high level," Wheeler said. "I was playing against older kids, playing against kids going to college. Some guys ended up playing professionally. It really helped me grow."

Wheeler split time between third base and catching. He recalled working closely with his coaches there and improving his game.
Dave Wheeler played his college ball at Morehead State, where he faced Youngstown State. Photo is of Youngstown State's head coach in 2012. (Greatest 21 Days)
Around his junior year in high school is when he started getting recruited to college. That's when he recalled Morehead State head coach and former major leaguer Steve Hamilton showed up at a district tournament. Then he came more games.

Wheeler recalled there being some uncertainty over whether Hamilton would stay on as coach or move elsewhere. When he remained coach - and became the school's athletic director - Wheeler signed.

Wheeler had some familiarity with the Kentucky school. Some friends and players he knew went there. The team was one where players went who needed some polish, he recalled.

He recalled the transition from high school to college as one of starting over. The good players were known in high school. In college, nothing could be taken for granted. Players had to rely more on hard work than ability.

He recalled his coach as letting his players get used to what was going on, the making changes and adjustments with his players.

"He was a great coach," Wheeler said of Hamilton. "He ran the program like a minor league program as far as practicewise and travelwise. He was great to play for."

Wheeler played three seasons at Morehead. He also spent time in summers in the Great Lakes Collegiate Baseball League. He was playing in that league when he signed with the Reds.

Wheeler had thought about trying to turn pro. But after his junior year seemed the right time. He had two classes left to get his degree. He'd also seen guys who had good junior years come back for senior years and never get another opportunity.
Dave Wheeler played catcher at Morehead State, whee he played against Youngstown State. Photo is of a Youngstown State catcher in 2012. (Greatest 21 Days)
"I kind of weighed it out," Wheeler said. "If it works out, great. If not, I've got two classes to graduate college. I took advantage of an opportunity."

Wheeler had seen scouts at his games as early as high school. His coach would get  a questionnaire to fill out. He thought the attention was neat, but he didn't play too much attention to it.

Reds scouts had seen him several times over the years. Wheeler recalled it seeming like every time the crosschecker was at a game, he played well.

He'd also been to four or five tryout camps for the Reds, three times in college and once or twice in high school. The 1990 camp was at Riverfront Stadium, the stadium of the team that he grew up watching.

"It's pretty neat," Wheeler said of getting to play at Riverfront. "It's a lot different than when you're sitting in the bleachers watching."

Wheeler got to hit in the tunnel. He also got to play in a scrimmage game afterward with 20 of the other guys. As for the tryout itself, he felt really comfortable afterward with what he did and he told his collegiate league coach that afterward.

"I told him I thin I got a really good chance of getting an opportunity," Wheeler said.

Wheeler got that opportunity. Soon, he was off to Billings. (Go to Part 2)

Part 1: Just Clicked | Part 2: That Opportunity

Go to Part 2: Dave Wheeler, That Opportunity

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