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FLEMING — Auburn Doubledays fans got their first chance to meet the team's new manager Thursday.

Ralph "Rocket" Wheeler introduced himself personally to fans during a cocktail hour then later fielded questions during a nearly hour-long question and answer session at the Doubledays Hot Stove Dinner at the Springside Inn.

"This is going to be awesome," Wheeler said. "I'm walking into a brand new park. I'm going to get to meet a whole new family, and I'm with a new organization. I'm looking forward. I'm excited. I've spent a long time in this game and I've been on a bus for a million miles. ... If I didn't have fun, I wouldn't be doing this job."

Originally drafted by Toronto out of the University of Houston in 1977, Wheeler played in the Blue Jays organization until 1982. He began his managerial career in 1985 and coached at various levels in the Blue Jays and Braves organizations, including multiple stints with Syracuse.

Now Wheeler is tasked with learning the ways of his new organization, the Washington Nationals.

"I signed on Nov. 1, but I haven't had a chance to learn the organization," Wheeler said. "That is going to be the biggest challenge for me, learning names. But baseball is baseball."

Wheeler had stories about giving gum to fans — a tradition he plans to keep in Auburn — and gave advice to young fans in attendance. The 64-year-old briefly went over his managerial mindset, with his No. 1 rule being on time.

Wheeler also discussed the importance of the relationships baseball builds, and said he still has ties to Utica from his playing days. He plans to reconnect with 92-year-old "Grandma Gloria" over the summer.

"There's a lot of great relationships that can happen in a town like this," Wheeler said. "This town has been baseball for a long time. I played here in 1977 when they were the Phillies and I know it goes beyond that. There's a lot of history and culture here. I'm right there to help out as much as I can. We'll do what we can to get this community going."

One relationship Wheeler made through baseball is with a former Doubledays manager. Wheeler played under Dennis Holmberg and then the two coached together, and have stayed close friends since.

Before the Q&A, a video message from Holmberg was played on the projector.

"You could not ask for a better manager to come into Auburn. ... Not only will he be involved in player development, but he'll be a fan favorite off the field with his community service," Holmberg said.

Wheeler said he learned all about managing from Holmberg. Holmberg joked that Wheeler has over 1,400 wins — almost as good as his 1,500 wins.

"Dennis was my mentor," Wheeler said. "The six years I played, Dennis was either my coach or my manager for three of them. The other guy was Duane Larson, so between the two of them that's where I learned the professional side of the game. Dennis gave me the path to go and I took it. I have a lot of Dennis Holmberg in me.

"I'm here. I'm at your service. We will do this community right."

PARK UPGRADES

Doubeldays general manager Adam Winslow fielded questions about the new turf going into Falcon Park, and announced there will be a new scoreboard installed before next season.

The new scoreboard is about the same size as the old one, but fully digital.

"It was really something everyone looked at and said 'OK, we have a new playing service, a new padded wall that's going to go up ... and we've got new roofs going on and insulation in all three buildings. We've got all these sports going on,' and (Cayuga athletic director) Pete Liddell is great at — once we get something off the check list — saying 'OK, what more can we get?'" Winslow said. "At the time it made sense. We look at the numbers ... from (Cayuga president) Dr. (Brian) Durant, the city, the mayor and the council, we're looking at all these things and again ... the pieces just fit and we were able to do that with the partnership with Cayuga Community College and the city."

City manager Jeff Dygert also announced the new LED lighting is already installed.

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Sports writer Jeremy Houghtaling can be reached at 315-282-2256 or at jeremy.houghtaling@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenHough.

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