Rocket Wheeler believes that the best is yet to come from this year’s version of the Tennessee Smokies.
The third-year Smokies manager has been in the Toronto Blue Jays system since being drafted by the team as a utility player out of his home state of Texas in the 13th round on June 7th, 1977. He has been with the organization for a total of 26 years and has served as a manager for five different minor league teams in the Blue Jays system, so it would be safe to assume that he understands the tendencies of the teams in the organization.
The Smokies, a double-A farm team in the Southern League with the Blue Jays, regrouped to put themselves in the middle of a pennant race in the final week of the season’s first half after losing nine consecutive games at one point in April.
“Our starting pitching has been outstanding,” Wheeler said referring to one of the key factors in the team’s resurgence. “They (starting pitchers) get us deep into the game. Our bullpen has been up and down so far but when everything kicks in for them, and I think it will, we’ll be okay.”
“That’s the thing, we’re a young club and in the history of the Blue Jays organization, we’ve always been a second-half team.”
The Smokies entered last weekend four-games behind of division leading Carolina with four games remaining at Carolina. Tennessee won Friday nights game 11-2 but saw their chances of a first half Eastern Division title vanish after committing four errors and losing a 13-9 decision to the Mudcats on Saturday.
“We’re giving it a good run right now, we were still in the thick of the pennant race with four to go,” Wheeler said referring to his team’s sweep of West Tenn last week to keep themselves in contention for a first-half pennant. “We gave ourselves a chance and that’s all you can ask for when you’re playing for a championship.”
Wheeler played at Bill Meyer Stadium for the Knoxville Blue Jays in 1980 and 1982 and made three all-star teams during his playing days; two in the Sally League and one in the Carolina League. He sees it as a nice twist of fate to find himself as the first manager of the Tennessee Smokies and directing his current squad through a pennant race in a beautiful new ballpark just 25-minutes from where he played in the early 1980’s.
“It’s gorgeous here. It’s a big league facility, a top rate facility,” Wheeler beamed about how baseball has brought him full-circle. “I’ve been with the Toronto organization for my entire baseball career and that alone is very unusual in this day and time. They treat me outstanding and I work hard for them. The organization has been outstanding,”
“I’m thrilled and honored to be the first manager here at the new park. Twenty-years ago I played at Bill Meyer and to open this park with the team in 2000 was and still is a huge honor.” Wheeler concluded.

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