Wheeler, Matthews axed from Phillies telecasts

Posted: January 10, 2014

SCOTT FRANZKE juggled one newborn as he handled a midafternoon phone call yesterday afternoon, while his wife, Lori, was nearby with the other. The Franzkes, who also have a 3-year-old son, welcomed twin girls to their household last month.

The Phillies radio play-by-play man welcomes the challenges of caring for two babies and a toddler like any proud father. Professionally, Franzke has had hurdles to overcome, too, perhaps none greater than arriving in the rabid sports city of Philadelphia in 2006.

Philadelphia isn't always easy on outsiders - especially if they find out that outsider is from Dallas, home of the Cowboys - and jumping in to be the radio voice of one of the city's most popular teams can be overwhelming.

Franzke had the privilege, however, of joining a broadcast crew with plenty of local chops, including born-and-bred Philadelphian Chris Wheeler.

"Without a doubt, he was the first stop for me whenever I had a question about a former player or something that happened [in Phillies history]," Franzke said yesterday afternoon. "It's easy to look at the 37 years he's had in the [broadcast] booth; but he also grew up here and was a rabid fan as a boy. So his depth of knowledge goes way, way back to when he was a kid . . . It's amazing when you find a story you want more context and insight about, something more than you can find in a box score, it was uncanny what he would come up with, what was in his memory bank."

Beginning with the 2014 season, Franzke and the rest of the Phillies broadcast crew will no longer have Wheeler as a member of their regular traveling party. The Phillies announced that neither Wheeler nor color commentator Gary Matthews would be a part of the team's broadcasting team this season.

Both will remain with the club in other roles.

"These are two very dear people to all of us - I feel for them," TV play-by-play man Tom McCarthy said. "There is always so much life and personality in [our broadcast] room; that's going to be hard to replace."

"I was shocked and surprised," Franzke said of the news. "You know this is a business that brings about a lot of changes . . . but it's still surprising. It's a little sad, too, because we're all good friends, and we'll miss them as a part of our day-to-day routines."

The announcement came less than a week after the team agreed to a 25-year, $2.5 billion local TV rights deal with Comcast SportsNet, which made the decision as a part of the deal.

Comcast SportsNet will hire one person to replace Wheeler and Matthews in the TV booth. The network will consider both internal and external candidates and expects to have the new broadcaster in place before its first telecast this spring from Clearwater, Fla. As with most clubs and broadcast teams, former Phillies would seem to be the most obvious fit.

The remainder of the Phillies broadcast team - Franzke, McCarthy, radio analyst Larry Andersen, roving TV reporter Gregg Murphy and pre- and postgame radio host Jim Jackson - will return to their regular roles in 2014.

"I'm excited to see who gets in there, excited to see how things evolve over the years," McCarthy said. "But in the end, it's like everything else, it is a business, and Comcast paid a lot of money. They have every right to have a say on how things look and sound."

Somebody at Comcast obviously thought it was time to remove the longest-tenured voice on the broadcast team, a person Phillies fans have welcomed into their homes every day during the spring and summer since 1977.

Wheeler, 68, a graduate of Marple Newtown High and Penn State, joined the organization in 1971, working as an assistant director of publicity and public relations. It was the same year Harry Kalas joined the Phillies.

Known across the baseball world and Philadelphia-area as "Wheels," the meticulously prepared Wheeler brought a high dose of insight and versatility to the Phillies' broadcasts in a career that spanned 5 decades.

Wheeler did not return a phone call for comment, but issued a statement through the team: "It's been an honor and a privilege to be a part of the Phillies broadcast team for 37 years. I certainly respect the decision that was made and I look forward to my new role in the Phillies organization."

The men returning to the microphone had nothing but flattering things to say about the former elder statesman of the broadcast team.

"He was uber-prepared for every game," Franzke said. "He knew the ins and outs of our ballclub, but he also spent time learning what the opponent had to offer, something that can be lost sometimes because we're hometown announcers, but he was able to bring a complete picture to the broadcast . . .

"He was such a classy guy, taking a lot of time out for people who visit the ballpark, the stuff nobody sees. Gracious with people that come into the booth, and he always had great stories with them . . .

"And, for me, what I think is remarkable and underappreciated was his versatility. So many of us are in our own comfort zones; we do our thing and stick to our script. In 37 years, he did everything: radio, TV, on-field interviews, play-by-play, color. And he did it well."

Jackson, entering his eighth season with the Phillies while also doing TV play-by-play for the Flyers since 1995, called Wheeler "the essence of a true pro."

"It's been an honor working with Wheels," Jackson said. "I'm not sure anyone could love the game of baseball more than he does."

The praise was similar for Matthews.

Gary "Sarge" Matthews spent only seven seasons in the Phillies' broadcast booth, but gained a following for his offbeat and often unintentionally humorous take on the games. The former Phillie (and 1983 National League Championship Series MVP) was engaging with fellow broadcasters, fans and players alike.

"Sarge is just a kind soul," McCarthy said. "Every month, he'd send a care package to my son at Syracuse [University]. That's the kind of person he is. There's very few people like that."

On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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