Aside from that, Rocket Wheeler looked essentially the same as he did when he arrived in Rome in 2003 and led the Rome Braves to the South Atlantic League title in their inaugural season.
Wheeler, who endeared himself to R-Braves fans with his intense style of managing during that memorable season, returned to Rome on Thursday night to throw out the ceremonial first pitch and help the Braves kick off their 10-year anniversary at SMS.
“It’s a great feeling to be back in Rome and be back at the stadium,” said Wheeler moments before he took the field. “Seeing all these familiar faces, it really brings back some great memories … It doesn’t seem like it’s been 10 years since we won the title."
Dressed in cowboy boots and wearing his customary wrap-around shades, Wheeler walked to the mound, accompanied by his 22-year-old daughter Katie, to throw out the first pitch prior to the Braves’ 9-3 loss to Charleston.
Roughly one hour earlier, he had also been on the field, throwing batting practice for the Rome club, just like he did so often during his stint in Rome from 2003-2006.
“I was reminiscing with Katie on the way here about the 2003 season,” said Wheeler. “Hard to believe, but she was just 12 years old that season.”
Since leaving Rome, Wheeler has managed at several different levels in the Braves’ organization. He was the skipper for the high-Class A Myrtle Beach Pelicans from 2006-10, followed by a one-year stint with the Class AA Mississippi Braves last season.
Wheeler will be the manager of the rookie-level Gulf Coast Braves this summer.
“Who knows? I might be back here at some point,” said Wheeler. “I’ll go wherever they tell me to go.”
Asked how often he thinks about the 2003 season, Wheeler smiled and said, “All the time. I still wear my (championship ring), and I wear it with pride. It’s the only (championship) team I’ve been a part of. And that night (when the Braves won it) was just amazing. We didn’t want to the leave the field, and the fans didn’t want to leave.”
ANOTHER ROMAN REUNION: Wheeler wasn’t the only connection to the 2003 season on Thursday night.
County star John Berry sang the national anthem, just as he did prior to the Braves’ first-ever game at SMS in 2003.
BREAK OUT THE BLANKETS: The home opener drew a crowd of 3,696, and many of the fans were wearing coats or sitting under blankets by the end of the night.
The temperature on the outfield scoreboard read 54 degrees in the late innings, but a chilly breeze made it feel much cooler.