It was November 2011, when the SnakePit went to the Arizona Fall League. To quote our report, “It was so chilly, that the grounds crew didn't rake the base-paths, they used a zamboni, and the fielders wore gloves on both hands.” But the AFL rosters that year were packed: Mike Trout and Bryce Harper took part, while the opposition on this particular night included some guy called “Nolan Arenado, who the word is, could be a starter for Colorado in 2013.” Whatever happened to him? But we were there for the D-backs, including Adam Eaton and Ryan Wheeler. Or “Good Wheeler”, as we dubbed him, for there was a Tim Wheeler from the Rockies on the Salt River roster...
Fast forward to now. During the five and a half years since, Wheeler made it to the show and was traded - ironically, to Colorado, where he hit a grand-slam (so he’s one up on Ozzie Smith!). He finished his career back with the D-backs in spring last year, then retired from baseball, having appeared in 109 major-league games with a .233 batting average. But he’s still in Arizona - he worked in IT, and now helps run a sports drink company. The SnakePit recently chatted with Wheeler, both about life in and after the majors.
AZSP: How’s life outside baseball?
Ryan Wheeler: Nice. I sleep in the same bed every night, I see my wife every day, I learn new things, and I get to vacation in fun places (scheduled around my PTO...). Of course I miss baseball. It's one of the best jobs in the world, but I'm happy I've been able to figure out some of the other things I want to do. Luckily, I've stayed close with a few old teammates, including some D-backs guys, so I can live vicariously through them.
Where were you when you got the call to the majors?
I was in Tucson playing against the Padres Triple-A team. I remember I was hitting around .350 when I lined out in my final at-bat of the game and slammed my helmet on the ground. Bugsy (Brett Butler) caught me on the way in and said in a stern voice "Please come into my office before you get on the bus." He sat me down and started to explain how important sportsmanship was and "that it would be even more important when I was in the big leagues tomorrow." WHAT!! It definitely caught me off guard because the tone of his voice was so far from anything excited. I jumped up to see him smiling and gave him a hug along with the coaches who had snuck in behind me. It was a pretty cool moment.
What do you remember about your debut (above)?
Not sleeping much the night before! Getting onto the field, I was amazed at how large Chase Field was. It is actually quite a majestic sight from the infield dirt. My first pitches from Bud Norris felt like they were about 105 mph. I'll always respect him because he challenged me with middle-away fastballs for the first two pitches of my first two at bats. Unfortunately all I could do was foul them off before swinging at bouncing sliders for strike three. I also remember the 3 hitter laying down a bunt to me in the first inning. [The #3 hitter with a guy on first and one out... That's probably why the Astros ended up with 107 losses that year.] I ended up salvaging the night with a bloop single for my first big-league hit and being part of a D-back win.
Is there anything about life in the big leagues that would surprise outsiders?
I think it would surprise people how much sweeter life in the big leagues is than they already thought it was. Private flights with only first class seats, 5-star hotels, gourmet meals after each game (Pittsburgh had prime rib and lobster one of the days), and sleeping in. I got to see a lot of the country and do a lot of cool things. I think it would also surprise a lot of fans how low key the players are. There is not a lot of partying for the most part, as most guys are just trying to rest for the long season. I did play with a few crazy relief pitchers, but they're a bit of a different breed. Every now and then we'd catch an off day near a beach and have a drink looking at the water. My best off day was spent exploring South Beach.
Crazy relief pitchers? You have to tell us more...
I can't get into too much detail on this one but in short-season ball I roomed with a relief pitcher who woke me up with his stream of pee into the corner of our hotel room. That was special. I yelled "What are you doing?!..." He had no response at all, just finished up casually and walked to his bed in a drunken stupor.
I can't detail many off the field stories but relief pitchers seemed to do the weirdest things at the field too. There was a game I saw relief pitchers play, where instead of catching balls hit during BP, they would get points depending on where the ball hit them on their body. Guys were taking lasers off their chest, their shins, catching fly balls bare-handed with their glove hand. They all had specific points awarded that were accumulated daily or weekly. I do not recommend this game to anyone.
The mobile game “Clash of Clans” was also a huge favorite among a lot of bullpen guys I played with. They even got me hooked for about a year.
Did you have to go through any rookie hazing?
Yes! My hair! When I got called up I had really nice hair. So nice that fans even created twitter accounts for it. @WheelersMane is still an active Twitter account, and there were some other handles [@wheelersshampoo?]. @WheelersMane tweeted some really funny stuff when I was playing. I think they live in OKC because the last tweet asked me if they should go say hello to Jason, my brother, when he was playing for the Dodgers’ Triple A team...
Anyway, no one on the team seemed to like my hair very much. One day, J.J. Putz and Henry Blanco apparently had seen enough and asked me sit down in a chair in front of a mirror in the bathroom. I heard the clippers turn on and I knew what was next. J.J. went into some soliloquy about how great I would look if I cut my hair like Henry. Henry proceeded to shave only the sides of my head (very quickly..) so that I had a horrible mullet. I figured this was going to happen some day and looking back, it's pretty funny the way it unfolded. I played one game with horrible hair before shaving my entire head. It was August so I didn't mind shaving a few layers off for the AZ heat. I can’t lie though, I really missed my hair for a few days.
One long bus ride from SF airport to the hotel, the team veterans were asking rookies to sing, or beat-box, or tell a joke, or anything else random. If we "failed" (which all of us did) we were told to sit in the bus bathroom until they next guy took your spot. Somehow Jake Elmore and I "failed" at the same time so we were both asked to get into the bathroom. Meanwhile, we could hear the music playing from J.J.'s iPhone cutting in and out because his wife was texting him often. Each text the team would boo J.J. because the music would stop. After one of the texts, Jake and I could hear J.J. say "I'm sorry, guys - this is unacceptable.” We could hear his footsteps headed toward the bathroom until the door opened and he said, "Hey guys, I belong in here too..."
All three of us crammed into this tiny bathroom for like 15 minutes. Had to have been close to 700 pounds of meat. It was actually quite impressive. Even though J.J. played a role in a lot of the rookie teasing, he was always great about making guys feel like they were an equal part of the team, and this was another example.
You played for both Colorado and Arizona. Was there much difference between the organizations?
The baseball part did not have many differences. Colorado did some weird stuff trying to protect pitcher's innings and mind sets playing in the altitude but nothing that interesting. Off the field was a little bit different. The D-backs had good team chemistry between the younger players but it was so apparent that the 2012 team was a let down compared to the 2011 team, that it started to weigh on a few of the relationships within the clubhouse.
Things were much different during my last stint with the D-backs (Spring Training 2016). Paul and AJ had taken form as the stars of the team, and their cool, calm demeanor resonated across the team. Adding Greinke didn’t hurt either. Even though 2016 was disappointing, I really think this team is going to be good. Pat Corbin, Chris Owings, Archie Bradley will continue to get better, and as some of the expectations from the 2016 spending spree die down, the team will gel and make a run for the NL West title this year.
The Rockies' teams I was a part of were a little bit different because no one expected anything out of us. The team record was never that great during my stints there, but you could tell the young core was going to be good. I like some of the player moves that have been made over the past 2 years and I think it's set them up to start defining a new persona. We are starting to see how good the Rockies can be and they won't be the team everyone beats up on anymore.
I was just watching footage of the go-ahead grand-slam you hit with the Rockies (above) - was that the most memorable moment of your career?
The grand slam is the moment that is most fun to talk about, but I think my most memorable AB came against the Giants. I was facing Romo with 2 strikes, down by two, on the road, top of the 9th. I battled and hit a single up the middle to tie a game we eventually won. It was one of my more clutch moments and the fact that it was in SF made it that much more special. That place is definitely my favorite place to play. Every game feels like the playoffs (I never went to the playoffs but I imagine it feels something like that!).
You retired from baseball at a relatively early age. What were the driving forces in the decision?
I've been asked this by quite a few people but for me it came down to opportunity, and opportunity cost. After my last release in 2016 (3rd one in 12 months) the only offers I had were Independent Ball, Mexico, and Venezuela. The salary I had just been released from was already barely enough to pay my bills and I would only be fighting for a chance to get back to a position where I was fighting for a long shot. Technically most players are always in that position, but at the time it seemed like I could create more value for myself and my family doing something else. I found a good opportunity in IT, at a great company called Republic Services, and the transition felt right.
Did you keep any memorabilia from your time in the game?
I've only kept the plaque that the D-backs staff made for me after my first game, and my MLB jerseys. The D-backs did a wonderful job making that day special for me and my family. The security staff makes everything so easy for the players and anyone we designate as friends and family. Here’s what I received the next day after I got called up. The photo is a shot of the swing I took for my first MLB hit.
What aspects of the game do you particularly miss?
Hitting, studying videos of my ABs, and taking grounders during BP, trying to be as smooth I could. I don't think I actually ever got to the point where I looked smooth, but there were definitely days I convinced myself I was! It was also cool to be able to answer the "What do you do?" question with "I am a baseball player."
What else are you doing now?
I’ll soon be working for a nutrition company called Liquid I.V.. My college friends started the company in 2013 and approached me with a sample to see if I wanted to invest in the company. I drank a bottle before the game and got two hits, so I was sold. It works off a formula called Cellular Transport Technology - a specific ratio of potassium, sodium, and glucose, proven to hydrate you faster and more efficiently than water alone.
One Liquid I.V. can provide the same hydration as 2-3 bottles of water. When the powder is mixed with water and consumed, the body is able to absorb more of it, making it a perfect option for those who don't drink enough throughout the day (which is most people). Fast forward 4 years, and we've grown from being sold around our alma mater, Loyola Marymount University, to over 12,000 stores nationwide including many locations in AZ! Find us at Arizona Whole Foods Markets, most GNCs and Bashas, and some Bed Bath and Beyonds. Or, check out www.liquid-iv.com. We’re building some momentum off of getting our first MLB team to order some product.
OK, I'm done selling!