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Despite not being used, Wheeler enjoys 'cool moment' of MLB call-up

This got lost in the historic late-inning collapse by the Twins bullpen on Monday but pitcher Jason Wheeler got his first call-up to the majors, a special moment for him and his family.

Wheeler wasn’t used as the bullpen unraveled in a 16-8 loss to the Houston Astros. It’s unclear how long his stay will last, but the 26-year-old savored his first opportunity in the big leagues after being in the minors since 2012.

He was practically giddy after seeing his jersey hanging in his locker stall when he walked into the clubhouse at Target Field on Monday morning.

“You’ve got to somewhat act like you’ve been here [before] but I don’t really care too much about acting like that,” he said. “This is a cool moment. I’m going to enjoy it.”

Wheeler was roasting s’mores Sunday evening with a few friends in Rochester, N.Y., when he received a phone call from a Chicago area code. He didn’t recognize the number but he decided to answer it rather than let it go to voicemail.

Rochester manager Mike Quade was on the other end, telling him to pack his bags for a 6:45 a.m. flight to Minneapolis.

“Joy is the word I would use to describe it,” Wheeler said. “With some nerves mixed in.”

Baseball players get called up from the minors every day, a normal business transaction that allows teams to fill a hole in their roster.

But that phone call and plane ride become pinch-me moments for players experiencing it for the first time. Wheeler was selected in the eighth round of the 2011 draft.

“It’s good to be rewarded and to be seen as someone they want to come up here and help out,” he said.

Wheeler hung up with Quade and called his wife, Maddie, back in North Carolina. His hands were shaking and sweaty.

“She was in disbelief,” Wheeler said.

His next call went to his mom Heather in California. His parents were out to dinner with their nephew when Heather’s phone rang around 7:30 p.m. She remarked that it was an unusual time for her son to be calling.

He told her that he only had a few minutes to chat but wanted to let her know that he was just called up to the majors.

His mom shrieked so loud that the whole restaurant looked, thinking something was wrong.

“I had tears in my eyes I was so excited,” she said.

Out of breath, she passed the phone to her husband, Gerry.

“That was pretty cool to hear that reaction,” Jason said.

Wheeler’s parents immediately dialed Delta to make plans, hoping to get to Target Field for Monday’s afternoon game, if possible. They found a red-eye leaving at 12:30 a.m.

Heather was so excited and consumed by travel plans that she didn’t even take a bite of her prime rib sandwich.

“It looked pretty good,” she said. “It’s in my refrigerator.”

His parents hustled home from the restaurant, threw some clothes in a suitcase and made it to LAX at 10:30 p.m. Their plane landed at MSP around 6:30 a.m. Monday.

“It’s been crazy, no sleep,” Heather said a few hours before first pitch.

Jason’s wife, Maddie, flew in from North Carolina. Her parents and two brothers flew from Massachusetts.  

Wheeler’s brother Ryan, who played in three major-league seasons split between Arizona and Colorado, found an overnight flight, along with his wife.

In all, Wheeler’s cheering section totaled 14 people, including his best friend from California and his host family from St. Cloud where he played in the Northwoods League in 2010.

Heather’s sister is arriving in town Tuesday.

They all came on short notice. Heather took pictures of her son on the field signing autographs for fans before Monday’s game.

“No way were we going to miss this,” she said. “This is very special. We’re very grateful to all the people that helped him develop.”

Wheeler was scheduled to start for Rochester on Monday. Instead, he took an early flight to Minneapolis, dropped his stuff at the hotel and made his way to Target Field.

He attended Twinsfest a few years ago so he had been to the ballpark. This time was extra special.

“It’s a really cool thing to be here and see a jersey with my name on it in this awesome clubhouse,” he said. “I’ve never been in a clubhouse this big.”

Wheeler is in his sixth professional season as a starting pitcher. The Twins added him to the 40-man roster before 2015 season but removed him after a disappointing season.

 In 15 starts at Rochester that season, he went 1-7 with a 6.58 earned run average.

“It’s obviously not fun to get taken off the roster and get a call from the general manager saying they have to make a move,” Wheeler said. “It was just a hurdle. I knew I was better than what I did in that 2015 season. I just had to figure out some things.”

Wheeler said he never lost faith that he could keep climbing the organizational ladder. She spent most of last season at Rochester and pitched much better. He is 4-1 with a 4.50 ERA this season with 37 strikeouts and 10 walks.

The Twins called him up as a reliever because their bullpen is running on fumes. Wheeler doesn’t know if he will be used or how long he will stay. But he described his first taste of major league baseball as a “pretty surreal feeling.”

He also won’t complain when he’s sent back to the minors.

“You get up and play baseball every day. How much can you really complain?” he said. “Yeah, it’s not fun to take a seven-hour bus ride overnight. But you’re playing baseball. There are people in life who are struggling with a lot worse stuff than me having to deal with a long bus ride.”

Mike Sherels to receive Courage Award as recovery continues

The Minnesota chapter of the National Football Foundation is honoring former Gophers captain and assistant coach Mike Sherels at its annual ceremony May 7.

Sherels will receive the Courage Award at the 10th annual Minnesota Football Honors banquet at U.S. Bank Stadium.

I can’t think of a more deserving person for this honor.

For those unfamiliar with Sherels’ story, he nearly died last summer after suffering an intestinal problem that led to a series of complications.

He underwent four surgeries in one week. Doctors said chances of his survival were poor. If he did live, one doctor told his wife Emily that Mike would not eat again, work again and his quality of life should be considered as his family weighed additional surgeries.

Mike overcame incredible odds and returned to coaching Gophers linebackers this past season only a few weeks after his last surgery. Mike and Emily invited me to their home last fall to share his miraculous story. Here is their story.

Sherels’ recovery continues to amaze. He had two surgeries in January to re-connect what remains of his intestines. He is now able to eat again and almost all of the tubes have been removed from his body.

Sherels had a tube in his stomach that removed fluids and bile through ostomy bags worn on his leg. He no longer has that tube or his ostomy bags. The scar from the 12-inch incision down the middle of his abdomen has nearly healed.

Sherels still has a port in his chest that provides him nutrients at night to supplement his diet. He suffered a severe infection with his stomach tube and his port last month. That required him to return to Mayo Clinic for additional surgeries.

“That was the rough patch,” he said. “It was a bad, bad deal.”

Doctors fixed the problem and Sherels is on the mend. Now that he is no longer restricted by tubes, ostomy bags and a PICC line in his arm, he is hopeful that he soon can begin swimming for exercise several times a week.

 “I tried to skip rocks the other day and thought my stomach was going to explode,” he said, laughing. “It’s inside of a year from everything happening. It’s still pretty surreal. It’s not without its challenges. Some days I get into the why me and all that kind of stuff. Some days I feel pretty blessed.”

Especially with his family. Emily learned that she was pregnant with twins while Mike was on a ventilator fighting for his life. Their twin girls are now seven weeks old and doing well. The Sherels have four kids – three girls and a boy – ages 4, 2 and seven weeks.

 “Things are finally trending upward,” he said. “I’ve had a string of good luck recently so things are looking up.”

Sherels remains on medical leave from the university and unsure about his coaching future. He’s focusing solely on his health and getting stronger but he hopes to be around football at some level this fall.

“Whether that’s volunteering or coaching high school or asking Coach Zimmer if I can hang out and learn from him,” Sherels said. “I can’t just sit. That’s never been my personality. Ultimately I want to be the best coach I can be.”

Here is more from my conversation with Sherels this week.

Q: You getting much sleep with newborn twins?

Sherels: Not sleeping much. Usually one of them sleeps pretty well. [Laughing].

Q: How are you feeling physically?

Sherels: I’m feeling pretty good. I’m still figuring everything out. I can eat again, which is awesome. I don’t have a whole lot of restrictions. For the most part, I eat what I want. It’s been really good. What’s left of my large intestine has responded better than even my doctors had anticipated up to this point.

Q: We talked a few days after you had re-attachment surgery. When did you start eating again?

Sherels: I had my first food three days after. I had mashed potatoes and gravy. It was awesome. And it stayed in my digestive track for roughly two minutes before it left. [laughing]. That’s been the other side of things. What’s left of my digestive track had to learn how to do everything over again. My large bowel was not used to taking solid food and doing anything with it so it just passes it along. I really have to watch what I drink. I can’t drink water. Anything I drink has to have certain sodium content. I drink a lot of Pedialyte and G2 Gatorade with salt added. Liquids are probably the biggest restrictions.

Q: Have you had steak yet?

Sherels: I’ve had steak and it was glorious. [laughing].

Q: Was there a favorite food that you couldn’t wait to eat again?

Sherels: Well, I was 290 pounds. I didn’t have many foods I didn’t like. [laughing]. … When I couldn’t eat, I craved nothing but pasta. The team during the home games we had a pasta bar [at the hotel]. That’s about the only time I cried over food. I walked down and was going to sit with my linebackers during the meal. The smell hit me about halfway down the hallway. By the time I got to the door, I was bawling. I turned around and went back to my room. I came back for meetings. …

I was able to coach through the season and be around my guys. I told myself I’m going to listen to every word the doctor says from now on. I’m a horrible patient because I’m pushy and I like to do things my way and I want to get back. I did that the first time. I was able to coach through the year and I really feel like I did right by all my guys. But I limped to the finish. I wanted to make it to the [postseason team] banquet. Well, after the banquet I collapsed and went to the hospital.

This time I’m not going to do that. If coaching is something I’m going to be able to do long term, I can’t just regress through the entire year and then crash.

Q: You literally collapsed after the team banquet?

Sherels: Yes. My fever spiked, I couldn’t move. I ended up in the ER. I had worn myself down. I was badly dehydrated and overly tired. I ran myself into the ground.

Q: What are your plans now? You weren’t offered a job of Fleck’s coaching staff but I’ve heard Mark Coyle has indicated that he’d like to find a position for you in the athletic department.

Sherels: I’m on medical leave so I can’t accept a job even if I was offered one. I’m trying to listen to my doctors this time. I’m fully prepared to sit out this year if that’s what the doctors determine is best for my health.

NOTE: The NCAA is expected to vote to approve a rule that would allow football teams to hire a 10th full-time assistant coach. Sherels said he believes that rule could go into effect in January.

Sherels: The U of M has been great about handling this. If and when the time comes and the 10th coach passes and I’m able to work, all I would ask of Coach Fleck is that I get interview. If I’m not the guy for the job, by all means give it to somebody else.

Q: Do you want to stay in coaching if that happens or would you accept an administrative job inside the athletic department?

Sherels: I’m not sure. I go back and forth. I went and visited [former Gophers defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel at Wake Forest] for four days. It was eye-opening. I really, really love coaching and I’m good at it. I really enjoy being around the kids. I enjoy being around other coaches and drawing stuff up on the backboard and shooting stuff back and forth and coming up with ideas. The question will be, can I do it in a way that’s fair to the kids? If I can’t do that, if I have an infection one week and have to miss three days here and three days there, then I won’t coach. I’ll go do something else. But if things continue the way that I feel like they’re continuing, I feel like I’ve got a good shot.

NOTE: The NFF even is open to the public. Registration and more information can be found at www.minnesotafootballhonors.com.

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