The Phillies broadcasters share a small office nestled behind the booths on the press level at Citizens Bank Park, and the loudest laughter before a game is found there. The seven men trade stories and jokes. The longest-tenured among them, Chris Wheeler, was the only one raised as a Phillies fan.
"He has lived and died with this team for his entire life," Phillies announcer Tom McCarthy said. "Being able to do these games was a special treat for him."
Wheeler, after 37 years, was removed from the Phillies broadcast booth Wednesday by Comcast SportsNet. So, too, was former player Gary Matthews after seven years of service.
The decisions, multiple sources said, were made by Comcast SportsNet as a result of its 25-year contract agreement last week with the Phillies for the team's TV rights. Comcast gained some editorial control over the broadcasts under the terms of the new deal.
The network will oversee the search for a replacement for Wheeler, who will be hired as a Comcast SportsNet employee, said Dave Buck, Phillies senior vice president for marketing and advertising sales. The team's TV broadcasters were previously Phillies employees. The Phillies will own a 25 percent share of Comcast SportsNet beginning in 2016.
"They will consult with us and make sure we approve," Buck said. "But it is their final say."
Both Wheeler and Matthews will remain Phillies employees and serve the club in various public relations capacities yet to be determined.
For Wheeler, it is the end of a four-decade run in the broadcast booth that began in 1977 and spanned generations of Phillies fans. None of the three voices that defined modern Phillies baseball - Harry Kalas, Richie Ashburn, and Wheeler - will be in the booth opening day for the first time since 1963.
Wheeler did not return a phone call for comment. He 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."
Wheeler, 68, started in the team's public relations department in 1971. He was regarded as an authoritative but lighthearted presence in the booth.
"For me, coming in from out of the market, Wheels was my go-to guy for historical references," radio play-by-play man Scott Franzke said. "Wheels always remembered. He always had this depth of knowledge. He had the whole context of the organization from a baseball standpoint. He was invaluable to me. Thirty-seven years in the booth is a long, long time. It's notable the variety of roles he served as a broadcaster. He was the guy who could do it all. He was a great communicator."
Wheeler and Matthews were sometimes criticized by viewers, which factored into Comcast's decision. Matthews worked with McCarthy for the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings of games. Comcast wants a consistent two-man booth for the entire game and will replace Wheeler and Matthews with one person. They are expected to seek a former Phillies player as color analyst.
Gregg Murphy, a Comcast employee, will return as a TV field reporter. Franzke, Larry Andersen, and Jim Jackson will remain on radio. Their status as Phillies employees will not be affected by the new TV contract.
Ricky Bottalico, a former Phillies reliever and current postgame analyst for Comcast, is a candidate to team with McCarthy. He is well-liked among the network's executives. Numerous former Phillies - John Kruk, Curt Schilling, Mitch Williams, and Doug Glanville - work for national outlets. They would have to be convinced a greater workload with smaller visibility is worthwhile.
Given the late timing of the changes, it is likely the replacement will be someone from within Comcast or not currently broadcasting.
Matthews, 63, spent 16 seasons in the majors, including three with the Phillies. The MVP of the 1983 National League Championship Series carved a broadcasting niche with his fedoras and cheerful mottos. McCarthy called both Wheeler and Matthews "dearest friends." Matthews sends monthly care packages to McCarthy's oldest son at Syracuse University.
"Sarge is one of a kind," McCarthy said. "He is one of the most caring people I have ever met."