Editor's note: NESN.com Red Sox reporter Tony Lee will be profiling Dan Wheeler each day this week. Last week, Lee took a look at Bobby Jenks.
Dan Wheeler is a veteran. He is entering his 12th season in the major leagues and is a member of his fifth organization. Fewer than 300 men in the history of baseball have pitched in more career games than Wheeler's 530, and he's just 33.
When he sees that Red Sox uniform hanging in his locker for the first time, Wheeler will know how to put it on. Still, the idea that he is a major leaguer in the first place continues to have a slight element of surprise.
"I was always good in high school, but never the best," Wheeler once said. "There was nothing that stood out about me in high school."
That "Average Joe" existence took place at Pilgrim High School in Warwick, R.I., some 60 miles from Fenway Park, where Wheeler's favorite team played. However, Wheeler actually sells himself short, no pun intended. He did stand out due to his size. The boy who grew up across the street from a Little League field with dreams of making it to a big one stood a few inches north of 6-feet and weighed 200 pounds. The fact that he didn't have the velocity to match other top high school prospects left him somewhat under the radar, but there was potential for his skills to match his size at some point down the road.
That road would stretch for roughly 3,000 miles. Following his solid, if not attention-grabbing, high school career, Wheeler headed to Arizona to resume his baseball career at Central Arizona College, an institution which also has produced major league standouts Ian Kinsler and Rich Harden.
In two quick years, during which that big frame began to uncork major league caliber heat and dominate peers in a way it had not always done at Pilgrim High, Wheeler had gone from a relative unknown toiling in Rhode Island's short seasons to a legitimate prospect. He had 10 wins in his first year at Central Arizona in 1996, after which the Tampa Bay Rays (then Devil Rays) took him in the 34th round. He posted a 1.26 ERA in his second year, sixth-lowest in school history, after which he formally signed with Tampa Bay for $125,000.
Wheeler was still a teenager who had been overshadowed even in his tiny home state, and he was taken in a round that has produced exactly one other major leaguer (Carl Sadler, who pitched in 42 games for Cleveland in 2003-03). But the simple fact that he had been drafted meant that the dream he had of playing on that small diamond across from his home could still be realized.
As Wheeler himself put it, he "had a chance."
Sometimes, that's all a player needs. With that window of opportunity open, the 34th-round pick whose yearbook photo was probably passed over from time to time began to hurtle himself toward the major leagues.
Check back Tuesday for details on Wheeler's time in the minors.
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