Spent nearly 70 years in the sport
“Try your dream,” Larry Wheeler said recently. “That’s what I’ve always tried to do.”
Not only has Wheeler tried his dreams, many of them have come true.
After 13 years as an assistant coach with the Stockton Tigers, and nearly seven decades overall in baseball, Wheeler hung up his cleats for the last time when the Tigers lost 1-0 to El Dorado Springs Monday, May 13, in the Class 3 District 13 semifinals.
Although his decision to retire had already been made, it still was not easy knowing any playoff game could be his last.
“I had all year to think about it and prepare myself for it,” Wheeler said. “I told my wife I had prepared myself so when the last time comes, I wouldn’t break down. I didn’t want to look like I was really sad for the boys, ’cause I’m going to be around for them, watching them play.”
Like many boys from back in the day, Wheeler got started in baseball early.
“I was six years old playing ball in Bolivar, it was the Bolivar League at that time,” Wheeler said. “Through the years, I kept going up through Pony League and all that. My dad was the coach.
“Back then it was really interesting because we got to play teams out of Kansas City. They’d bring a team down and we’d play them as an all-star team, which was a lot of fun. These teams were really good, but we would play with them. We actually beat them a couple of times.”
Having his father as a coach led to some awkward moments for Wheeler.
“As I was growing up, my dad was pretty strict with me on how I played ball,” Wheeler said. “I remember this one all-star game I was playing. I usually played center field, but our second baseman got sick so my dad put me on second base. This kid hit a line drive at me, I mean it was hit hard. It hit my glove and came out and actually left a print in my glove.
“My dad sat me on the bench, because I made an error or two. To him, you didn’t make errors so that’s how I grew up.
“I told him, ‘I’m not used to playing there,’ but he said, ‘Don’t give me an excuse. I put you there because I thought you could play there.’
“All my life playing ball, I’ve always felt like I had to give it my best, 100%, and play the best I could play,” Wheeler said. “I credit my dad for that.”
After graduating from Pleasant Hope High School, Wheeler got a tryout with the Cincinnati Reds, but at 5-foot-6 and 140 pounds, aspirations of a major league career quickly went by the wayside.
“I talked with my dad and we decided I would be in the minors for the rest of my life,” Wheeler said with a smile.
Instead Wheeler played semipro ball, once earning an all-star selection by the National Baseball Congress. He also played while serving a year in Vietnam in the U.S. Army.
Returning home, Wheeler was a regular on the diamond, spending three nights or more a week playing baseball and fastpitch and slow-pitch softball.
“I just enjoyed playing ball,” Wheeler said. “It’s been part of my life, but not my whole life.
“After I got older and got into coaching, my main thing was baseball. I like the kids, I like helping them out in their life.
“I started coaching AAU ball around ’77 or ’78 and coached all the way up to 2002. In 2003, I went to Humansville as baseball and softball coach. I was there until I came here [to Stockton] and I’ve been here 13 years.”
Among Wheeler’s favorite memories is Stockton’s fourth-place finish in the 2010 Class 2 state tournament. He said the Tiger parents are a special asset to the program.
“I think Stockton probably has the best group of parents I’ve seen,” Wheeler said. “The parents have always been very supportive of the program here at Stockton, something you don’t see at a lot of schools.”
Wheeler said one thing casual fans may not realize is if a player makes a mistake, it does not necessarily mean he has not been coached about the situation.
“The one thing I hear at ballgames that gets me, ‘Well, why didn’t the coach tell them or why didn’t the coach teach them that?’” Wheeler said. “Well, the hardest thing for people to understand is we do teach them that. But they’re 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kids, and they’re not always going to do what you teach them to do. It isn’t they haven’t been taught, it’s just they’re not doing it. They’ve been told, but they don’t always do. The hardest part is to get them to buy into what you’re saying. They have to understand what you’re trying to teach and they have to buy into that.”
Wheeler said his greatest joy was coaching his grandchildren Alex, Jacob, Drew, Tate and Rachel in recent years and watching Alex and Jacob play college baseball at Missouri Southern and Maplewood, respectively. Devotion to his family, particularly his wife of 53 years, Kay, is what ultimately led him to step down.
“We started going together when I was 16,” Wheeler recalled. “I’ve been in baseball 69 years, and I think now it’s her time. That’s what I told her the other day, ‘It’s your time. We’re going to do what you want to do.’”