Growing up in Warwick, R.I., in the late 1980s, Dan Wheeler's favorite Red Sox players were pretty much the same as everyone else's: Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Mike Greenwell, Dwight Evans. Wheeler didn't actually get to Fenway Park a ton — maybe 10 or 12 times in his childhood, he estimates — because summer meant playing baseball, not watching it.

As the years passed and Wheeler developed the kind of talent that transformed him from Rhode Island star to junior college standout to 34th-round draft pick and then established big leaguer, the Sox always remained in the back of his mind.

When Wheeler became a free agent after last season and the Red Sox came calling, he didn't have to think long before saying yes.

"I'm very excited about it," Wheeler said yesterday after taking his physical. "I don't know how you couldn't be. I guess a little part of me has always wanted to play for the Red Sox, even growing up obviously, that was big for me. The first thing was I wanted to be a major leaguer.

"I didn't really think about it too much until we started talking about this year, and now I'm fortunate enough to put on a Red Sox uniform, so I'm excited about it."

It should be a mutually beneficial relationship. With the Tampa Bay Rays in the thick of the pennant race during the last three seasons, Wheeler played a prominent role in their deep bullpen, going 11-15 with a 3.24 ERA in 203 appearances.

While Bobby Jenks' signing understandably received more attention, manager Terry Francona is just as happy to have Wheeler at his disposal for the sixth, seventh or eighth innings.

"I was thrilled," Francona said. "He's a veteran guy who can throw an inning or multiple innings. He doesn't shy away from big innings. He's been through the AL East with Tampa (Bay) and all that brings. He's a stand-up guy, great teammate. I think we're really excited."

Leaving the Rays will be a bit of an adjustment for Wheeler, and not just because his father-in-law, Dewayne Staats, is the team's television play-by-play announcer.