Brent Dean Takes “Cool” Approach to Game for Wichita Wingnuts
If you took a look around the Lawrence-Dumont Stadium during Wichita Wingnuts games, there is one player on the field who looks like he would be just as comfortable on a surf board as he would on a baseball diamond. That player is Brent Dean, who has quickly established himself as one of the most widely respected players in the American Association, not only for his play on the field, but also for his personality and character off.
The young man with the perfect Southern California looks has quickly established himself as a key member of the Wichita Wingnuts this season. Last year’s club set an American Association record for wins on their way to the league title, but following the season a series of retirements and departures left the team with only three position players from last year’s roster. Brent Dean was one of them.
An overhaul of the lineup by manager Kevin Hooper meant that there were going to be drastic changes on the field, and Brent was going to find himself as a key piece in Hooper’s puzzle to rebuild the team. After playing in just 21 games last season behind Chris McMurray, Dean was going to be in the catching rotation and play other positions to keep his bat on the field. Brent was happy to accept the challenge.
“I want to do anything I can to help this team. It’s such a great group of guys, it’s hard to let them down, and I take it a little personal at times when we struggle. Maybe I don’t come through with a big hit or on defense, you know things I expect from myself. Anytime Hoop (manager Kevin Hooper) gives me an opportunity in the lineup, whether it is starting or coming in late, it is always a blessing. I will never say no to playing.”
That attitude and his success on the diamond has made Brent a key piece in the club’s batting order and in the field. In 58 games this season, Dean has hit .273 with 23 runs scored and 20 RBI. He has also shown great ability on the base paths, successfully stealing eight of the nine bases he has attempted this year. He has also been quite adept in the field, making just five errors, including none while playing in left field.
His willingness to fill in as needed got him labeled by Hooper as “Cool.” The Wingnuts manager explains, “It does not matter what we ask Brent Dean to do, he is always cool with it. Play left, catcher, hit seventh, hit second; he is just cool with it no matter what.”
That fact that he was given this chance to play in the outfield he saw as a great honor, and proof that his manager and the rest of the coaching staff have a lot of confidence that he can play effectively no matter where he is asked to play. “I was pretty happy that Hoop and the rest of the coaching staff had enough confidence in me that I would be able to handle that.”
While taking to any position he has been asked to play, catching has become his true passion. It is the involvement in the game that has always drawn him to the position.
“At the younger level it was so much fun because you are always involved in something. You’re not sitting in the outfield thinking about your at-bats or standing in the infield maybe getting one or two ground balls an inning. I just felt like it was always fun to be involved.”
Brent has excelled behind the plate because he has done the two things that have made him an excellent catcher: learning his pitchers and building rapport with them. He has found that these two keys are as much about his relationship off the field as they are about it on.
“Talking with them outside of the field, before the game, after the game, it’s really just all of it. Getting to know them as a person, seeing how they tick, learning what kind of motivation they need in certain types of situations.”
That rapport has helped to build a staff that is third in the American Association in ERA. That is quite a stat considering the rapid and continuous changes that the Wichita Wingnuts have endured this season. Dean has had a big part in aiding in molding this staff, but he isn’t taking any credit for that.
“The staff here has just been amazing. Just true professionals. They work so hard at their craft. Really my job is to just try to get the best out of them every single day. It’s not very hard here, so I just try to stay on the same page with them in what they are trying to accomplish.”
Born in Culver City, CA, Brent was introduced to the game by his parents. They wanted their son to enjoy the sport and it didn’t take much time for him to find that diamond was the place he wanted to be more than anywhere else.
“My parents first got me interested in playing baseball. My dad got me into ball when I was real young. It was something I really enjoyed. My parents were involved, my brother was involved, my friends, so that kind of carried over into high school. I just loved being out on the field.”
Dean moved onto to play college baseball at UCLA where he starred. He not only had solid numbers, including a .278 average and a .362 on-base percentage in his final season there, but he also handled the pitching staff well and played incredible defense. Brent was the primary catcher for the Bruins when they led the Pac-10 with a 44.9 rate at throwing out base stealers, and the staff had their second lowest ERA in 16 seasons in his senior season.
He was doing it all, and his team was thriving because of it. He found that the lessons he had received from the great coaches he had were really paying dividends for him on the field.
“I have had some amazing coaches. It starts with Coach Savage at UCLA. Even back in high school, some of the great assistant coaches I had there. Those guys have been so supportive even when I go back there to train. I had an amazing manager my freshman year who really changed the way I went about my work as a baseball player. To take a little bit of a perfectionist attitude, but also to have a lot more fun playing baseball, and controlling the things that are within your control; attitude, effort level, concentration.”
Brent hoped to gain one more year of eligibility to play with the Bruins, but the NCAA ruled against him, so his fifth year he turned his attention to another endeavor. Through this he found that pursuing his dream of pro ball was closer than he had imagined.
“It never really occurred to me (playing pro ball), because I was so caught up into UCLA, trying to make that place the best that I could. Even after my senior year I had a chance to play for a fifth season of eligibility, but that kind of fell through, so I stayed on as an assistant coach, as an undergrad assistant. After seeing a different perspective I thought to myself that I could still pursue playing, and then I had the right opportunities fall in place for me. After I was done graduating I really went all in trying to play professionally and see how far I could take it. Big Leagues, minor leagues or whatever, for one year or 10 years, it was something I knew I would definitely regret if I didn’t try to do it.”
In 2009 he played six games for Sioux City, but that was enough to catch the attention of the Brewers, who signed Dean and sent him to their rookie league team in 2010. He hit .272 in 44 games there, while driving in 30 runs. In 2011 he started back in rookie league but moved to Advanced-A Brevard County. There he would remain for most of his stint with the Brewers.
In 2014 he found himself looking for a new home. The Brewers had released him after four seasons in the organization, and he quickly found that the Wichita Wingnuts were the ideal spot for him to play.
“The reputation was a key. There was a few guys I knew who had played here. A lot of them told me that this was a very well run organization from top to bottom. After being released by the Brewers I had the opportunity to play other places, but this was a priority on my list to see how I would fit into the system; to see if it was as well run as everyone said it was.”
Fitting into the system is exactly what he did. In 21 games, Brent hit .317 with 3 home runs and 11 RBI. He was a key piece to the club’s success, because Hooper could give McMurray a break behind the plate and not see a drop-off in either hitting or defense from the position.
The 2014 team finally took home the championship, after two years of falling just short. It was a magical end to the season, and one that Brent loved that he got to be a part of.
“All of the work and the effort had come to that pinnacle. It was such a relief for all those guys who had gone to the championship before but lost in previous years. It was pretty surreal.”
It was an amazing year in 2014, but 2015 was going to pose new challenges. Brent’s role on the team was going to be elevated, and he was going to have a locker room full of guys he had never met before. Many players would have been worried about this kind of challenge, but not “Cool” Brent Dean. He was happy to welcome the new players because he knew that the Wingnuts were the kind of organization that always brought in quality guys.
“I always enjoy meeting new guys on the team, and every guy that has come through this clubhouse has had a substantial commitment to the club, and a great personality. So it has never been an issue of having to reach out to make them feel comfortable. It has always been a very welcome environment. We have a lot of experienced guys, so that makes it so that it is never really an issue.”
While the club was welcoming to its new players, the results on the field were somewhat mixed. The pitching was coming together early on, but the hitting was a challenge. The struggles saw the club fall into second place in their division for the first time in three seasons. Many teams would have been pushing the panic button, but not the Wichita Wingnuts.
“It’s easy when your winning, but when you are facing adversity it makes it easy to get through that and get back on track when you have quality guys in the clubhouse. That makes a big difference in trying to get back on track and we have that here.”
Back on track is where the Wingnuts are. They are now solidly in first place in the South Division in the American Association, and are just six games away from clinching the division crown. Key additions in the last two weeks have propelled the team into first place, and the club is leaving its division rivals in the dust. Guys like Andy LaRoche and Nick Van Stratten have been the gravy and dessert, but players like Brent Dean have continued to be the main course.
“I just want to do what I can to help this team win. This is the best organization I have ever played for, and this is such a quality organization. It is easy to want to do your best for these guys.”
Doing his best is what the Wichita Wingnuts are getting from Brent Dean these days. Even when one aspect of his game is not meeting his standards he has found ways to help this club win. He has taken the perfectionist attitude and combined it with a desire to have fun on the field, and made this a season where he is making a big difference for his team. He simply has done the very things that fans expect out of Cool Brent Dean.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA