It would be hard for Rocket Wheeler to get back into a Rome Braves uniform and step out of the dugout at State Mutual Stadium without fans thinking back to the team’s first, magical season.
But that’s what he’ll do April 5 when the Atlanta Braves’ Class A affiliate opens the 2018 season at home against the Hagerstown Suns. And after being away from the team for 12 years, Wheeler’s return as the Rome Braves’ manager comes with some familiar friends and colleagues to help him out.
They were all together on Monday as the team held its annual Hot Stove Gathering at the Forum River Center in downtown Rome, joined by fans and staff as the countdown to spring training and opening day continues.
“It’s good to be back,” Wheeler said at a press conference held before the event.
“I got a chance to come in May when I was roving last year, and it brought back a lot of memories. And I know there’s going to be a lot of memories brought back getting back on that field again. I mean, it’s one of the top fields in minor league baseball. Kids love to come here.”
The Houston, Texas, native led Rome to the 2003 South Atlantic League championship in the team’s first season after the move from Macon. He remained through the 2004 and 2005 seasons before going to South Carolina in 2006 and becoming the skipper for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans for five years.
“When you get a chance to go home, that doesn’t happen very often. So you guys can’t blame me for that,” Wheeler said jokingly. “But I’m back home where I started. It’s fun. The energy in this ballpark is awesome.”
Rome was Wheeler’s first assignment with the Braves after he spent 26 years in the Toronto organization. He’s now in his 16th year with Atlanta and said it’s important to understand how Rome fits in with the development of players in the Braves’ farm system.
“This is their first full season of professional ball. You do the same things they do every day in the majors,” he said.
“We prepare them for the game, have our pitching staff set up to how we’re going to pitch them, then we run them out there to give them innings, give them at-bats and get them better. That’s what we do.”
While it’s been nearly 13 years since he last managed Rome, his coaching staff will include hitting coach Bobby Moore, who has been a pivotal part of Rome’s staff from the beginning, and pitching coach Dan Meyer, a former first-round pick for the Braves who pitched in Rome in 2003.
On top of that, Jonathan Schuerholz, the son of former Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz who played shortstop/third base on the 2003 Rome team, is now the Braves’ assistant director of player development.
“To me, this is pretty cool,” Wheeler said. “There are four of us out of the 30 that were on that team sitting up here that were on that club that year.”
The 2003 Rome Braves kept finding ways to win, including taking 21 of their last 30 games of the regular season and knocking off the Hickory Crawdads and Lake County Captains in the postseason.
“I’m not promising a championship, because I can’t do that,” Wheeler said.
“But what I will promise you is that we’re going to play hard. And whatever falls falls. That’s what happened that year. It fell in the right places.”