“You have to stick with it, even when things don’t go your way.”
While Chas Wheatley might be offering up that advice to young baseball players, it’s hard not to think he has uttered those words to himself occasionally over the last few years.
The well-spoken 19-year-old has seen more than his fair share of adversity while chasing his baseball dreams.
Despite those challenges, Wheatley has emerged as one of the top young Alberta exports heading to an NCAA Division I school.
After being courted by several institutions, the righthander is at the University of Iowa, where he is considered one of the top incoming freshman in his division.
It’s all a far cry from where the now-listed 6-foot-6, 210-pound Wheatley was just a couple of years ago.
He remembers the injury like it was yesterday.
Playing for the South Edmonton Elite Baseball Association Cardinals, under coach Taylor Burns, Wheatley was midway through his Grade 10 season when he started struggling with some elbow soreness.
“It wasn’t anything super-major where I was like ‘I can’t play,’” Wheatley told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “It was just consistently a little bit sore.”
He was then invited to the Team Alberta tryouts for the Canada Cup. During a warm-up before one of his starts, he noticed that discomfort return.
“I thought it was just one of those days where the arm wasn’t going to feel perfect,” he said. “It happens to everyone – it felt okay.”
He powered through his pre-game routine, then took to the bump for his start, where he admits he was trying to over-power his opponents.
“I was only about five pitches into my first inning when my hand started to go completely numb,” Wheatley said. “No finger movement at all and I had a hard time gripping the ball.”
MAKE IT WORK
With the benefit of hindsight, Wheatley admits what happens next wasn’t his best idea.
“Being 15 at the time, I wasn’t very smart,” he laughed. “So I just tried to power through it and keep going.”
His next pitch resembled something coming from Ricky Vaughn in the Major League movies: just a bit outside.
Only “a bit” was what Wheatley calls “30-feet to the right of the batter’s box.”
With his arm now throbbing and fingers not cooperating, he wanted to give it one more shot.
“I just threw it right into the ground,” Wheatley remembered.
He left the game and went to the hospital, where an MRI uncovered a small ulner collateral ligament (UCL) tear.
The lanky hurler was originally told he would need Tommy John Surgery, but he thought it had more to do with his nerves than the ligament.
Instead of reconstructing the UCL, doctors took out a muscle to release a pinched-off nerve.
“Within four weeks, I had 100% movement in my finger again,” Wheatley beamed. “But then I had to go through the pitcher-elbow recovery, which took a long time.”
When you see Wheatley up close, the first thing you notice is his height.
It’s something he’s been comfortable with for a long time, using it to his advantage as a volleyball player throughout his childhood.
But at the time of his injury, he also weighed just 170 pounds.
“When I started my rehab and started throwing again, my shoulder couldn’t handle how much I was throwing because of how skinny I was,” he said.
He ended up with shoulder bursitis, leading to another stint of rehabilitation. That’s where Burns coaxed him into gaining more weight.
“He made me bring two sandwiches to every workout that I went to,” the now 210-pound Wheatley smiled.
Burns says it was more than just peanut butter and jelly that was on his mind, as he saw a young man who needed to refine his athletic prowess, adding the young hurler didn’t touch a baseball for the first six months of rehabilitation.
“When I think of Chas, I first think of the evolution as a person,” Burns said. “In the span of just two years, he went from being the young pitcher in the gym who needed to learn how to go about his work, to being the old dog in our facility and the absolute best role model I can think of.”
While it was a grind trying to get his strength back and return to what he was used to from a physical standpoint, Wheatley admits the mental challenge was the toughest to overcome.
“I didn’t trust my arm,” he admitted. “I thought it might tear again and I had no confidence in myself throwing.”
For about five months, he says he got “the yips” from 60 feet as he felt he was babying his throws.
Little-by-little, his confidence finally started to come back, and he reached a moment where he realized he had to trust his arm and think “whatever happens, happens.”
He also used the opportunity to develop his pitching repertoire.
“I realized you can’t just throw a fastball down the middle every single time,” Wheatley said. “It’s not really going to work for you, so I had to trust my other stuff like the changeup and slider.”
The moment when he realized he was back to his old self was when he pitched a bullpen session at 80 percent strength.
“My coach had the radar gun but he wasn’t telling me about the speed,” Wheatley said. “Everything felt so loose and I felt strong, then afterwards I found out I was sitting at 80 miles an hour at 80 percent. It felt great.”
He then had one final obstacle before he would find himself back on a field again – the COVID-19 pandemic.
All of the time he missed on the field started to weigh on his mind, and while he was talking to schools, nothing was set in stone.
“I started seeing all my friends getting this recognition and they were talking to schools and stuff,” Wheatley said. “I was just sort of sitting in the back watching and missed a lot of time.”
PATIENCE PAYS OFF
While he might have been off the field for a while, many programs were aware of Wheatley and what he brought to the table.
Initially, he didn’t have a preference on whether he wanted to take the junior college path or head to NCAA.
“Then I started thinking about wanting to be at a place for four years,” Wheatley said. “I wanted to get an offer where everything fits for me and be there for four years – that would be the best choice.”
He had a few offers to mull over, finally deciding on Iowa. It’s a state he’s never been to but one that he’s heard is similar to his home province.
“The biggest thing for me was pitcher development, considering I’ve almost missed two years of throwing,” Wheatley stated. “They have, out of all the schools I’ve looked at, the best pitcher development by far and it really wasn’t even close.”
The computer science student is enamoured by the technology and data used by the Hawkeyes coaching staff, which includes pitching coach Robin Lund – who is also an Albertan.
“I’ve developed a connection with him really quick,” Wheatley said. “The way they do everything is unbelievable as they have data from literally every aspect of throwing. It’s awesome and that’s what really turned the table for me.”
LONG WAY TO THE TOP
Even before Wheatley was able to suit up for the Hawkeyes, he garnered a lot of attention.
He was named to the Perfect Game All-Region (Canada and Puerto Rico) Team earlier this year and is ranked as one of Perfect Game’s Top 500 Incoming Freshman.
Hawkeyes assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator Marty Sutherland says he was impressed with what he saw from the videos sent to him.
“This is one we are pretty excited about because there are just a lot of really good things there,” Sutherland said in an interview with Hawkeye Report. “With how big the body is, the way the arm works and then, all of a sudden, he’s kicking up in velocity – we could have gotten a pretty big steal in our opinion.”
From a baseball perspective, Burns believes the sky is the limit for Wheatley.
“His athleticism and consequently potential have always been through the roof,” the owner of Absolute Human Performance said. “He’s getting better and better at figuring out how to express that athleticism on the mound in order to fine-tune his abilities, manipulate the baseball, and ultimately get people out.”
Through the obstacles and adversity, Burns says he had many talks with Wheatley to keep him motivated, but credits his young protege for putting in the work, trusting the process and overcoming all that’s been thrown at him.
“He’s been able to combine two qualities that few people are able to: patience and diligence,” Burns continued. “He has worked extremely hard for a long time and he’s starting to reap the rewards now – but I believe this is just the beginning for him.”
Wheatley, who spent this past summer with the Western Canadian Baseball League’s Sylvan Lake Gulls, knows he has come a long way and worked hard to get to this point, appreciating that it didn’t always go his way.
“I’m super-proud,” Wheatley concluded. “I was just kind of grinding it out there, trying to get back to 100 percent and I’ve now kind of come to my senses to realize that it was a big deal that I actually did it.”