Thoughts on Brian Wheeler, Jim Bouton and more
A few notes heading into the weekend ...
• The Brian Wheeler era with the Trail Blazers appears over, though the window may be cracked open with an opportunity for a return to the microphone.
The Blazers released a four-paragraph statement on Friday announcing that Wheeler will not return as the club's radio play-by-play voice next season.
Wheeler, who had one year left on his contract, will be paid for the upcoming season. Sources say if he is able to overcome obesity issues that led to health problems in recent years — and caused him to miss a good portion of last season — the Blazers might consider re-hiring him for the 2020-21 campaign.
Wheeler, 57, served 21 years behind the mike for the Blazers, replacing Bill Schonely in 1998. Wheeler developed his own strong legion of supporters, who loved his enthusiastic game calls and trademark catch phrases.
Asked for information on Wheeler's status, Chris McGowan, the club's president and CEO, responded via email: "Other than the press release, I am not providing any further comments on Brian."
If this is the last of Wheeler as the Blazers' radio voice, I won't think about the alliterative admonitions of opposing coaches or the emotional outbursts about offending referees or the jingoistic support that his fans adored.
I'll remember how much I enjoyed chatting with him at Moda Center, or sharing an occasional dinner on the road, or joining him for a movie or a baseball game over the years. I was a guest many times on the excellent radio talk show he hosted for several years. He's a sweet guy, someone I very much enjoyed as a person. He was always kind and complimentary to me, and it was a pleasure to share a press box with him.
It makes sense that Travis Demers — who filled in capably last season and called almost all of the Blazers' road games — will be retained for the upcoming season on a one-year deal until the Wheeler situation is 100 percent resolved. As of Friday night, however, Blazer executives hadn't contacted Demers.
• Another employee, albeit one less known to the public, has left the Blazers.
Michael Lewellen, who spent seven seasons as the club's vice president/corporate communications, is now vice president for marketing and communications at the University of Portland.
"After seven good years with the Blazers, it was time to do something else," says Lewellen, 59, who has also worked in various positions with Nike in Portland, Turner Sports in Atlanta, Fox Sports in New York and BET Network in Washington, D.C. "The UP opportunity came up, and I'm excited.
"There are good things happening on The Bluff. It's the first time I've worked in higher education, so a learning curve comes with it. But much of what I'll be doing is the stuff I've done corporately."
Lewellen worked behind the scenes with the Blazers alongside the club's able media relations directors, Jim Taylor and Collin Romer, handling a variety of duties, including providing a link to owner Paul Allen. Whenever I asked Lewellen for help, he responded in earnest fashion. He's an old-school PR guy who understands the value of the traditional media, and his professional manner and warm style will be missed by those of us who cover the Blazers.
• Mike Riley will not return to Oregon State as an in-house consultant to head coach Jonathan Smith and his staff for the 2019 season.
Riley, who turned 66 last week, was recently named as offensive coordinator for the Seattle franchise of the new XFL, which will begin operation next winter. He decided that his role as consultant at OSU — which meant primarily scouting opposing offenses for D-coordinator Tim Tibesar each week and then sitting in on O-coordinator Brian Lindgren's meetings during game week — were too extensive when combined with his XFL duties.
The Corvallis native will maintain his home and live there except for the four months he and wife Dee will live in Seattle during the upcoming XFL campaign.
• According to the Twin Cities Pioneer Press, ace pitcher/outfielder Drew Gilbert, who was named Minnesota's "Mr. Baseball" for the 2019 season, is not coming to Oregon State after all.
The left-handed Gilbert — who led Stillwater High to the state 4A championship, striking out 15 while pitching a seven-inning shutout in this year's title game — begged out of his commitment to the Beavers because of "a coaching staff change," according to the newspaper report. That's presumably Mitch Canham being named head coach, though interim head coach Pat Bailey — along with pitching coach Nate Yeskie — will remain on staff as an assistant.
The Pioneer Press reported that Gilbert has "de-committed," which isn't the case. Gilbert had signed a letter-of-intent last fall and asked for a release, which was granted by Oregon State.
The report said enrolling at Minnesota "could be among considerations" for the 5-9, 170-pound Gilbert.
Stillwater teammate Will Frisch, who also signed with Oregon State, is already in Corvallis preparing for his freshman year at OSU. The 6-1, 215-pound Frisch, a right-hander, was 5-0 with an 0.67 ERA as a senior. He is reported to have a fastball that tops out at 98 miles per hour.
• News of the death of former major-league pitcher Jim Bouton at 80 brought back memories of his time with the independent Portland Mavericks in the 1970s.
Bouton was most well-known for his best-selling, tell-all book, "Ball Four," written after his season with the Seattle Pilots of the American League in 1969. But above all, the right-hander was a pitching junkie who performed for 16 major- and minor-league teams over a 20-year career that ended at age 39 in 1978.
The 6-foot, 185-pound Bouton won 21 games for the New York Yankees and pitched in the All-Star Game in 1963 and won both of his starts for the Yankees in the 1964 World Series against St. Louis.
But arm troubles robbed him of his effectiveness quickly, and he was reborn as a knuckleballer by the time he came to Portland in one of his two stints with the Mavericks in 1975.
The Mavs' manager that season was Frank "The Flake" Peters, who had faced Bouton in the Triple-A International League in 1967.
"I remember thinking, 'This guy was a 20-game winner for the Yankees, and the arm trouble has robbed him of his fastball,'" Peters says now. "I felt sorry for him."
By 1975, Bouton hadn't thrown professionally in five years and just wanted a chance to pitch anywhere. The opportunity came with the brash, renegade Mavericks, who were latter immortalized in the documentary, "The Battered Bastards of Baseball."
In his first start with Portland, Bouton struggled.
"I go out to the mound in the third inning and he says, 'Don't take me out; I'm OK,'" Peters recalls. "I say, 'Jim, I read your book, and in it you say you can work your way through trouble with a knuckleball. I just came out to say hello. You tell me when you're ready to leave.'"
Bouton got through the turbulence and won the game. He finished 4-1 with a 2.20 ERA in five starts and, two years later, returned to go 5-1 with a 4.50 ERA in nine starts. The next year, at age 38, he returned to the major leagues, going 1-3 in five starts with Atlanta.
"Jim was an intellectual, but a sweetheart," says Peters, 75. "He gave the Mavericks legitimacy. He was very serious about his craft. He got along with all of our players. Our catcher (left-handed Jim Swanson) would run through a wall for him. I love Jim Bouton. I miss him already."
Peters has been asked to throw out the first ball of an upcoming home game for the Single-A Hillsboro Hops.
"I've asked to be able to throw four pitches," Peters says. "I want to throw four knuckleballs in honor of Jim Bouton and his book, 'Ball Four.'"
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