Lidge, Wheeler reunite as rivals in WS
Former Astros bullpen mates share close bond on, off field
ST. PETERSBURG -- Brad Lidge and Dan Wheeler met in the weight room at Tropicana Field on Tuesday and said very little as they embraced and congratulated each other -- two old friends, old teammates, and now, beginning this week, new rivals.
"We gave each other a big hug and we couldn't help but smile," Lidge said. "We didn't need to say anything. We've been talking for a long time, we've been following each other so much. This is a good feeling."
Lidge, the Phillies' closer, and Wheeler, a key part of the back of the Rays' bullpen, were once teammates with the Astros, two peas in a pod that helped to form multiple playoff-caliber bullpens. They anchored the relief corps through October runs in 2004 and '05, reaching the pinnacle in '05 with a World Series appearance, the first and only in club history.
This year, both relievers have returned to the Fall Classic, but this time as opponents. Wheeler was dealt to the Rays in July 2007, and Lidge was shipped to Philadelphia last November, the first of a slew of housecleaning moves made by new Astros general manager Ed Wade.
Despite the geographical differences, Lidge and Wheeler never lost touch and have continued their correspondence through the playoffs. Wheeler sent a text message to Lidge when the Phillies won the NL East division: "I hope to see you in the Series." Competitively, each wants to win. But personally, the two revel in the other's successes.
This shouldn't come as a surprise, considering the tests of friendship the two faced while teammates with the Astros. Lidge, who struggled mightily after enjoying an All-Star year in '05, lost his job twice in 2006 and once in '07. All three times, it was Wheeler who took his place.
Despite myriad emotions from Lidge -- disappointment, anger, bewilderment -- he never blamed Wheeler for taking his job. It was all business on the field, while the friendship remained intact off it. Lidge pulled for Wheeler and Wheeler pulled for Lidge. They never considered handling it differently.
"The bigger goal was to win," Wheeler said. "It didn't matter who was out there for the final out. We wanted to win a championship in Houston. Whatever at that particular time was the best way to do it ... we didn't care. I think that was why we were so good as a bullpen. We didn't care about any of that other stuff. We just wanted to help the team win a game."
Former manager Phil Garner sensed the same attitude when he made the first change in the middle of 2006. And the second. And the third, only one week into the 2007 season.
"They were both really great about it," Garner said. "Obviously, it was Lidge's job. He loses it to his good friend, and there was no animosity. Both wanted the other to do well. I don't think there was anything underhanded to it. It's a tribute to great professionalism, great friendship and shows that the two are just really great kids."
In 2004 and 2005, the Astros bullpen was more than just an assembly of relievers heavy on the power in the back end. It was a close, cohesive group that was more like family than co-workers. Like members of a fraternity, they enjoyed each other's company, spent time together during off-hours and spent most of that time talking about families, childhoods, politics, football ... anything but baseball.
They also ate lunch together every day on the road, rain or shine. That was a rule set by Russ Springer, the veteran voice of reason who used his extensive big league travels to influence his younger, less experienced bullpen mates. If your family wasn't on the road with you, attendance was required.
"That bullpen was so close that I don't think you could have done anything to strain it," Springer said. "Especially the four right-handers [Lidge, Springer, Wheeler and Chad Qualls] -- we did everything together. It was a good group. The friendships still remain."
And when Lidge struggled and Wheeler triumphed in his place, Springer was not at all surprised that it had no effect on the friendship.
Such is not always the case, Springer was quick to note.
"I've seen competition in the bullpen on other teams where guys didn't get along and they weren't buddies, and everyone knew why," he said. "For [Lidge and Wheeler], they never crossed that line. At that time, Lidge wanted to close and Wheeler wanted to close. But I never saw it where they weren't pulling for each other."
When Lidge won his closer job back from Wheeler for good in June 2007, Wheeler at that time said he didn't feel he lost the job as much as his friend earned it back. While disappointed, Wheeler sounded pleased for Lidge, while at the same time slipping effortlessly back into his setup role.
"It was nothing ever personal," said Wheeler, who ended up closing games for another three weeks later in '07 when Lidge strained an oblique muscle. "In my opinion, he's one of the greatest closers in the game right now. He just went through a tough spell. He continued to go out there and grind and work as hard as he does, and look what he's been able to do."
As the two headed back to their respective clubhouses Tuesday afternoon at Tropicana Field, they wished each other luck -- but not too much luck, of course.
"I think he'd probably say the same thing -- I wished him luck but I don't want him to win," Wheeler said with a smile. "It's weird. I've never actually gone through this. I'm excited."
Added Lidge: "We both have a very common goal right now. And that's to win the whole thing."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.