Brian Turner Looking to Maintain Excellence Under Shroud of Uncertainty
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, we feature Brian Turner, who takes over as the Wichita Wingnuts General Manager in what could be the team’s last season in existence.
Introducing Brian Turner
Succession. The dictionary defines this as the process by which one inherits a title, office, or property. When thought of it from that perspective, it sounds like a pretty easy task. After all, what is so big about getting a new title or having a new position?
It is a big deal when the person you are replacing is a living legend. Not only in his hometown, but also in the league where he has so masterfully built an organization that is one of the best in all of baseball.
That is the challenge that new Wichita Wingnuts General Manager Brian Turner faces, as he steps into the shoes of Josh Robertson, looking to keep the team’s excellence alive, while also battling the specter of an uncertain future for the team. It is the job that the new G.M. has long coveted, but comes at a time when there is a lot of concern as to if there will even be a team in 2019.
A Kansan Through and Through
Brian Turner was born in Emporia, Kansas, and would attend Emporia State University upon graduating high school. He earned a degree in Sports Management before becoming an intern with the Wichita Wingnuts. It was a great chance to get involved in professional athletics but one, he admits, that nearly ended prematurely.
“He almost fired me as an intern,” Brian explains of Josh Robertson. “I was being a little turd back then. Josh had a way of doing things, and he would show us how we were to go through each level picking up trash. This is an older stadium, so it needs a lot of maintenance, and Josh made sure that we did it so that the stadium was ready for baseball each night. It was kind of a pain, but it taught me a lot, especially about being humble.”
After completing his internship, Brian stayed on, becoming the Wingnuts Group Sales Manager. He would leave the organization for a brief period, but returned to become the club’s assistant general manager, a role he filled over the last three seasons.
The position gave him the opportunity to work closely with his mentor, and that has been the best learning experience of all for Turner.
“I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve been around Josh for 10 years and working with him very closely the last three years as his assistant GM. So, I’ve had the opportunity to pick his brain and, because of the kind of guy that he is, he shares information with you and it’s kind of like we have as much of a friendship as we do a working relationship. He kind of grooms you unknowingly.”
The Day that Wichita Stood Still
Josh Robertson had been a part of professional baseball in Wichita for nearly 20 years. He had been the general manager with the Wichita Wranglers, and became the first and only G.M. that the Wichita Wingnuts had ever had. In his 10 seasons with the club, the Wingnuts won seven division titles, were crowned the American Association champions in 2014, and 42 former players had their contracts purchased by Major League organizations. Robertson had created the St. Louis Cardinals of independent baseball.
He had become a fixture in Wichita sports. However, on January 12, a dramatic change was about to occur. Robertson stepped down as the club’s general manager, turning the duties over to his right-hand man. The news was a shock to everyone, but no more so that Brian Turner.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh crap, is this really happening?’ It was exciting, but it was also nerve wracking at the same time. I wanted to be a general manager but, to be honest, I didn’t think it would be here in Wichita because I didn’t think that Josh would ever leave.”
It was a surprise to most, but one that Robertson felt confident in making, primarily because he knew who he was turning the team over to.
“I would not have stepped down if Brian did not take the job,” the former G.M explained. “He is the reason I felt comfortable in making this decision, and I would not have done it if he would not have taken the job. He has proven to be someone that the team and ownership can have confidence in, and I knew that there would be no question that the culture of this team would continue with Brian as the G.M.”
The Key to Wichita Wingnuts Baseball
Greatness is really hard to define, especially in sports. Is it the career numbers? Is it the championships won? Is the leadership of an individual? Maybe all of those things go into it.
However, it is usually quite easy to look at a club that has had success for a long time and be able to see exactly what it is that has made that team great. It is hiring the right staff, finding the best players, and developing a relationship with the fans. In other words, it is about culture.
There is no team in sports that gets this better than the Wichita Wingnuts. In 10 seasons of play, they have been to the playoffs eight times and have made five appearances in the championship series. They have lured some of the best talent in the sport to play in the city, and most players admit that the Wingnuts were their first and only choice for continuing their careers.
This is the culture that Josh Robertson built in Wichita, and it is one that Brian Turner is well equipped to continue. In fact, it is the foundation he is ready to build upon.
“It is exciting to build a team around the culture that you want. That’s the fun thing about this level, too. Being able to sign players, higher coaching staff, and having a manager that you want is what comes with being a general manager at this level. You get to build your organization from top to bottom the way that you do things, and the way you want things to be done. That’s why we’ve been so successful. That’s why Josh has been so successful for the last 10 years because there is a culture that has been developed, and there’s a way that you do things from a front-office standpoint, from the manager to the players.
“I would be hard-pressed to find any other place in the country that has a culture built the way that we have been fortunate enough to have here in Wichita. I think it speaks to the number of players that Josh has had signed, the number of Major Leaguers that have come here to play, the number of wins, the number of division titles, the championship in 2014. That all comes back to how you build your organization. Now, being able to take what I’ve learned for last 10 years and apply that, I think that’s something that every general manager looks forward to when you get to be in the position I’m fortunate enough to be in.”
Lessons Learned from His Mentor
While Josh Robertson is stepping down from his role as G.M., he will continue as a special assistant, helping new manager Brent Clevlen to build the club. This will also give Brian Turner a little time to get fully acclimated in his new role, and better prepare him to reach all the goals he wishes to accomplish with the Wingnuts.
“You got a guy here like Josh that there’s no comparison whatsoever for building teams and what he’s done. You got to keep a guy like that around, even if he’s officing out of his house, you have to know that he’s a phone call away. I definitely want to be more involved in building the team. I’ve made it known that my interest lies more on the business side of things than on the baseball side of things like Josh was, but that’s kind of where my focus lies. As I learn more in this role, then I see myself getting more involved in player acquisition.”
Having Josh Robertson around will also be a reminder of where Brian came from and what it takes to be an exceptional general manager for arguably independent baseball’s best franchise. To implement the lessons he has learned over the past 10 years.
“Josh helps to keep you humble. When he told me that he was stepping down I was thinking, ‘Don’t forget that this is where you came from.’ It’s something that not only he has instilled but also my parents have instilled in me through my entire life. Don’t forget where you came from.”
One thing that Robertson was famous for was the glare he gave his manager from the press box. Hands on the frame, leaning his head out the window as he gave his famous death glare. Is that something that Turner has learned from his mentor as well?
“That will have to be developed,” he explains with a laugh. “I think that comes with the trials and tribulations of everything. I’m sure he will right up there with me, so that will be another thing I will learn from him. Looking over the edge, like ‘What the hell’s going on? Why are we not bunting in that situation?’ That will be a part of it.”
The new Wichita Wingnuts General Manager is very appreciative of all the lessons he has learned from his mentor, but is thankful for the help that other G.M.’s in the league have played, especially over the last couple of months.
“(St. Paul Saints G.M.) Derek (Sharrer) is somebody that I really look up to, other than Josh, with the success that he’s had. (Kanas City T-Bones G.M.) Chris Brown is a great guy. It’s guys like that who have made this transition a lot easier.”
Is This the Last Hurrah for the Wichita Wingnuts?
Entering their 11th season in existence, the Wichita Wingnuts are ready to make their third straight run to the American Association championship series, but many are wondering if this will be the last season for the team. The City of Wichita seems hell bent on attracting an affiliate club as part of building a new stadium, and that will likely mean that the city’s current tenants will fold.
Brian Turner had an opportunity to move on before the general manager position was even offered to him, however, he chose to stay knowing that the Wingnuts may be a lame duck organization.
“I was offered another job in another city with a team. My wife and I sat down and had a conversation about it. ‘You’ve put all of this time here in Wichita and you’ve been able to achieve this, and you’ve seen this achieved. Do you want to jump ship with the possibility that it might be the last year? Do you stick it out with the hopes that things turn around and that there is a new stadium for the Wingnuts?’
“For me, it was a very tough decision, I consulted with my wife. This ownership group has been good to my family and to me; to leave something like that is tough. For me, staying here and sticking it out is kind of a statement that we believe that there is a future here. I want there to be a future here for the Wingnuts, so to stay here was something I knew I had to do. Now, to relay that to our staff. 2018 is certain, but whatever comes after that we just give it everything we got, do your job right, and if an affiliate team comes you got a great chance of getting a job with the affiliate team.”
While understanding that 2018 might be the last in team history, Brian is not approaching this season like it is his last in Wichita. He understands that he has inherited one of the very best organizations in all of sports, and that the Wingnuts could very well still be in business come 2019. This has left the G.M. with both a one-year goal and a long-term one as he prepares to enter the 2018 American Association season.
“The biggest thing that I want to accomplish here is to prove that independent baseball can be just as great, if not better than what affiliate baseball is. Lawrence-Dumont Stadium has for 83 years before this year provided great entertainment. The fans were able to come out and watch a great product both on the business side and on the baseball side. That whenever you came out to Lawrence-Dumont Stadium there was a lot going on at the stadium. That’s what I want to keep here.”
Will there be a Wichita Wingnuts team in 2019? No one really knows that at this point, but what is for sure is that the club will be making a run for the American Association title in 2018. Great baseball will be played in Wichita, and the organization will provide one of the most enjoyable fan experiences of any in baseball. It’s the culture of the Wingnuts organization to do so. It’s the character of General Manager Brian Turner to uphold the tradition.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA