American Association Daily provides insights and features on the American Association of Professional Baseball League, as well as player and coaching profiles and transactions going on with teams around the league. In today’s edition it’s a double-header, as in our second story of the day we feature Wichita Wingnuts Manager Brent Clevlen, who moves from player to manager of the team, taking over as the new Dean of Wingnuts University.
Introducing Brent Clevlen
In the decade that the Wichita Wingnuts have been a professional baseball team, no player has made his name more synonymous with the team than outfielder Brent Clevlen. Not only is the team’s all-time leader in several offensive categories, but he has also established himself as one of the classiest and most recognizable faces associated with the team.
The success has not only been here in Wichita, as the outfielder has played in the Major Leagues with both the Detroit Tigers and Atlanta Braves, and has been at AAA on seven different occasions. It has truly been an outstanding career that Brent has put together in his 16 seasons of professional baseball.
However, after playing in nearly 1,800 career games, Brent Clevlen has opted to end his time as a player, moving to the dugout full-time to become the fourth manager in Wichita Wingnuts history. A move that will likely put the focus back on the Wingnuts University tradition that Kevin Hooper founded when he managed the club (2009-2015).
When You Say Brent Clevlen, You Are Saying Wingnuts Baseball
In six of the last seven seasons, Brent Clevlen has spent some part of the year in Wichita playing for the Wingnuts. He first came to Wichita in 2011, appearing in 46 games, while hitting .310 with 10 homers and 32 RBI. The outfielder spent all of 2012 with the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, but was released the next season and returned to Wichita. He appeared in 70 games, hitting .322 with 14 homers and 51 RBI.
A year later, Brent was named the American Association Player of the Year and the Minor League Sports Report American Association Most Valuable Player, as he led the team to the league title while hitting .372 with 20 homers and 80 RBI. A year later he spent much of the season in Mexico, but returned for the final 11 games of the Wingnuts season to help the team reach the playoffs again. He hit .444 in those 11 game, while driving in 9.
The last two years, Clevlen played exclusively in Wichita. He hit .313 in 2016 with 17 homers and 63 RBI. Last season, Brent spent most of the campaign as the designated hitter for the team, but his numbers at the plate did not curtail one bit. In 94 games, he hit .302 with 9 homers and 78 RBI. He also set a single season high with 34 doubles.
Brent Clevlen had become a fixture in Wichita and is the holder of most of the offensive records for the team. In 398 games with the team (a team record), he leads in career hits (513), homers (71), doubles (132), RBI (313), runs scored (315), and total bases (879). He is also the single season record holder in slugging percentage (.647 – 2014) and doubles (34 – 2017).
Wanting to Move onto the Next Chapter in His Life
Brent Clevlen had established himself as the most important player in team history, and he was fully aware that he could continue to play and deliver big numbers, but the outfielder was looking for the next stage in his baseball career. That led him to begin to search to become a coach or manager even before the 2017 American Association season got underway.
“You have to go back before the beginning of the 2017 season. I thought about possibly managing and I did reach out to a few teams last year – Kansas City, Cleburne – just reached out to see if there was any interest, but they were already pretty far along in the process of hiring a new manager, so I was already thinking about it. I thought it was a good time in my career to start looking for a change, whether it was getting into coaching. I knew that my first opportunity or my first option would be to stay in coaching to stay in baseball.”
With the Wichita Wingnuts opting not to retain Manager Pete Rose, Jr., retired General Manager Josh Robertson was looking for a different kind of manager. One who was like Kevin Hooper, who had helped Robertson to build much of the culture of the team. Brent Clevlen became a natural choice.
Robertson offered the job to Clevlen who saw this as the ideal opportunity. He not only loved being a Wingnut, but the relationships he built would make this an easy transition.
“So, when the offer came, it was pretty easy not to pass that up. I already had a great relationship with Wichita, with the Wingnuts organization, and with ownership. Just knowing them well, I just thought this would be a good start to my career to work with the people I worked with before.”’
The Challenges of the Dream Job
Becoming the manager of the Wichita Wingnuts was definitely a golden opportunity for Brent Clevlen, but that did not mean that it came without challenges. Brent had never managed before, but loved that he was going to start his career in the league he knew so much about.
“You rarely see guys going from playing and then right into managing the next year. It’s definitely a dream job for me from a coaching side to get my feet wet and start my career coaching. It’s one of those things where in independent ball versus affiliate ball you have a little bit more control over the players that you have and what you do on the field. This is a great situation for me to start my career because this is your team and I know this league.”
There is no doubt that Brent knows baseball. This has been the sport he has played almost since he could walk, plus he has reached the highest levels of the sport. It is really his changing role that poses the biggest challenge for him. Last season he was one of 23 guys on the roster. Now he is the team’s manager. That presents an evolving set of relationships.
“You were a teammate and friends with some of these guys but you have to separate that now. Being a manager, you have to separate yourself from the players, but you can still have a relationship with those guys. You can still communicate and enjoy being around the guys but I’m not a player anymore, I’m a manager, so the players need to understand that. Some of the decisions that I have to make are difficult decisions and are not personal decisions. It’s something I’ll have to talk to some guys about, let them know that some of these decisions are going to be hard, but they’re not personal, they’re just business.”
Adapting from player to manager is not the only challenge that the new Wingnuts skipper faces. The team is in a kind of limbo, as they wait to see if the city of Wichita will lure an affiliate team to town. When the answer to that question was supposed to be given has long passed, but the mayor of the city has still been dangling that possibility, leaving the club wondering if there will even be a Wichita Wingnuts after 2018.
That is a question mark for Brent as well, but he is simply looking at this season as business as usual while also getting to showcase what he can do as a manager.
“The way I’m approaching this is that I have the opportunity to manage this team for 2018. It’s my first year, and I’m going to go out there and do my best. Really, it’s my first opportunity to manage and, if the Wingnuts are not around next year, then this will open up the opportunity for another opportunity somewhere else. If they are back, then that will be great as well. I’m just focusing on this year. I just want to go out there and learn from the mistakes that I make and try to get better each and every day.”
A Focus on the Culture of Wingnuts Baseball
When Kevin Hooper was the manager of the Wichita Wingnuts, there was a focus on the fundamentals of the game. “Hoop” turned managing as much into an education as it was directing players on the field. His teams played the game exactly the way it was to be expected, where their preparation made them win games long before they took the field.
Pete Rose, Jr. was a phenomenal manager as well, but he had a different approach to running the team. To Pete, his expectation was that players would do the things that got them to this point in the first place, and he would push them that little extra bit to turn a really good team into a great one.
This season, it will likely be a very Hooper-like team again. Brent Clevlen has his own style of managing and has been taught by the best, but what has made him the choice for the club is his commitment to the culture of Wingnuts baseball.
“We (Josh Robertson and Brent Clevlen) both have agreed to the type of team that we want to have, what kind of culture we want to have, and we have both been on the same page with some guys that he’s thought about and some guys that that I have in mind. We discuss them with each other and do a little research to see what kind of person these players are that we’re bringing in and how they fit into the culture that we want to bring to Wichita.”
What makes Brent such an ideal choice is that he truly gets Wichita Wingnuts baseball. It is as much of an artform as it is about skill and talent. It is also about creating a clubhouse where there is respect for the game and for teammates. In Wichita, building that kind of atmosphere is his first order of business.
“It falls back to how Wichita has always been. We’ve always had good teams and the focus has always been on guys having a good clubhouse; guys that are great teammates, that are great people on and off the field. Typically, if you have a good clubhouse and guys get along and enjoy being around each other you’re going to have a good team on the field, because you’re going to play for one another, you’re going to pick each other up, and you’re going to enjoy doing that. That’s a big part of the success that we’ve had in Wichita. We’ve always had guys that enjoyed being around each other, who get along but, when we get out there in the field, we get down to business. I think that’s my main focus. I have been around clubhouses that have been separate, when clubhouses start to get separate, a group of guys over here, a group of guys over there and they’re not together as one, it just doesn’t seem to work well as a team. That will not be the case here.”
This has been an interesting off-season far beyond the concern as to whether there will be a team next year or not. Only five players return from last year’s team, and one of those is Clevlen himself. It’s like starting from scratch, but Brent views this as a blessing.
“It’s great to have some guys back who have been around the organization, who know what we expect and know the tradition that we’ve always put out good ball clubs. Those guys know what we are expecting of them out there on the field. It definitely helps to have a few guys who been around and who know Wichita baseball, but it’s good to have a few new guys around. Just a fresh new look to the team. Guys who want to be here because they know that this is a place where we play to win and where we want guys moving onto the next level.”
Class Is about to Be in Session
With about 45 days until the 2018 American Association begins, Brent Clevlen is excited about what the season holds for the first year manager. Josh Robertson has already made it clear that he believes he has put together an 80 win team, and the new manager is not shying away from that possibility at all.
“I’m really excited about the guys that we signed and the guys that are coming in. On paper, we look great, but do I believe that we can win 80 games? Absolutely! That’s going to take a team effort and if guys are really willing to put in the effort to stay focused. It’s a long 1oo game season. For four months it’s a grind and there are a lot of ups and downs that you have to go through. It really depends on how the team handles that as a whole. It’s going to be a fun adventure this year.”
He is not only looking to lead this team to its second championship in franchise history, but to also help each player reach the next level of their career.
“I want to continue that winning culture here in Wichita. I think that is important. I want to be a manager that guys can come to with anything. My door is going to be open. I’m going to be upfront and honest with these guys. My goal is to get these guys moved on. I want them to continue playing at the next level or get back to the next level. I’m not going to do anything that’s going to hold them back or prevent them from getting another opportunity that’s better for them financially or better for them in their career. That’s our goal for them, and it’s also good for our organization as a whole when guys get signed and move on, who live out their dream and hopefully make it to the big leagues.”
As a former Major Leaguer, Brent Clevlen knows exactly what it takes to reach the highest levels of the game. He has also got to taste the victory of winning a title with his friends, teammates, and fans. These will be the lessons he will make as a priority at Wingnuts University this season, as the team looks to win their division for the eighth straight season, an American Association record. Winning is never easy, so reaching those goals will be a challenge, but with Brent Clevlen as the new man running the Wichita Wingnuts no one should expect anything less than a proper education on how to win on and off the field. Class begins May 18.
Images of Brent Clevlen Taken by Ed Bailey
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA