The directive was straightforward: place the ball in Dan Wheeler’s glove, stand back and enjoy. For Jim Dawber this habitual walk to the mound became a regular occurrence for him, no matter what level of baseball he coached Wheeler.
“We had this internal joke saying ‘Here Dan.’ Simply that. We just gave him the ball and that’s all we had to do,” recalled Dawber, head coach of Hurd Post 14, about the close bonds he forged with Wheeler while the latest Red Sox acquisition was cutting his teeth in Little League, Babe Ruth and American Legion ball in his hometown of Warwick. “We basically gave him room.”
To Dawber, Wheeler had always been gifted. That’s why the longtime American Legion mentor scoffs when he reads Wheeler fits the profile of your classic late bloomer. Most see Wheeler’s draft position – 34th round in 1996 by Tampa Bay, then the Devil Rays – and automatically jump to the conclusion that the story of the 33-year-old relief pitcher is more appropriate for a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale rather than hardcore David Halberstam non-fiction.
Being perceived a late bloomer “doesn’t begin to tell Dan’s complete story,” feels Dawber. “He continued to get better as a professional whereas other guys around him either leveled off or even disappeared.”
Dawber first met Wheeler as an 8-year-old playing catch in his backyard with his son David, who was two years older.
“At the time I was a coach [in Warwick’s Westside Little League] and was always on the lookout for good players,” Dawber said. “ Little kids come and go, but I’m looking out the window and before long David comes in for a drink of water. I go, ‘Who is that boy you’re playing catch with?’ He says, ‘That’s Danny Wheeler. He’s got a good arm.’”
So began a player-coach partnership, one that would stock the shelves with plenty of championship hardware. The pinnacle came in 1995-96, when Wheeler served as the centerpiece on consecutive Legion state titles for Shields Post 43, coached by Dawber.
“Of all the talented players I’ve had the privilege to coach, he was clearly the most prominent,” Dawber gushed. “He was successful long before people knew who he was. He was that good.”
That could be an understatement, considering Wheeler is widely regarded as one of the best non-closer options in the game. Sure, being blessed with the ability to throw a baseball with precision and guile is on display every time Wheeler toes the rubber. To someone like Dawber, who often speaks about the totality of the game, the way Wheeler handles himself whenever there’s a conference on the mound speaks volumes about just how unflappable he is. There’s no looking down at the dirt or looking up at the sky for guidance; his eyes are squarely focused on the manager or pitching coach. Such behavior is one of the teaching tools Dawber regularly draws upon when instructing his Post 14 club and the freshman baseball lads at Cumberland High School.
“One of the attributes that totally separated Dan from everyone else was that he was coachable,” said Dawber. “When the pitching coach would come out to speak in those moments of pressure and tension, Dan would give him his complete and undivided attention. Dan’s willingness to submit to what was being said was a big thing. He was constantly eager to improve.
“Then there’s the position he plays, being a relief pitcher, where you’re always coming in either with your team behind, tied or slightly ahead,” Dawber added. “His mental toughness has allowed him to succeed.”
It’s never been Wheeler’s nature to sling I-told-you-so’s to the detractors who pegged him a longshot to stick after bouncing from the minors to the majors and vice versa so often early in his career. To those who know him best, he’s always spoke softly while carrying a big stick, a mantra Red Sox fans are about to acquaint themselves with.
“Anybody who saw him compete as a young person wishes they had Dan on their team,” Dawber stated matter-of-factly.
Dawber closed by sharing a story of how Wheeler’s love for the Red Sox ran deep, even when he was a part of other organizations.
“The Red Sox were in the playoffs and Dan was over our house,” was the picture Dawber pained. “Even though he was a professional player he was a fan again and it was interesting to see. He’s always secretly been a Red Sox fan, but when he was with Tampa, he was going to do his best to beat them. That was his job.”
EXTRA BASES: The fact eight weeks have elapsed since the PawSox had a manager in place tells us a couple of things. First, there doesn’t seem to be any external candidate that’s bowled the Red Sox brass over, which was the case when Torey Lovullo arrived from the Indians organization last year. Second, the long wait can only strengthen the idea that Arnie Beyeler will wind up in Pawtucket as either the manager or hitting coach. Beyeler is currently the skipper for Double-A Portland. … The Colorado Rockies traded for a catcher last week, acquiring 27-year-old Jose Morales from Minnesota. In the newsletter the team sent out, it stated, “Morales will be the primary backup to catcher Chris Iannetta.” Iannetta, a product of St. Raphael Academy, has entered the last few seasons as Colorado’s starter only to lose playing time as the season has gone on. Time will tell if Morales will follow suit of Yorvit Torrealba and Miguel Olivo, the two Rockies backstops who eventually rendered Iannetta a backup.