Master Baseball Guru Kevin Hooper Guides Wichita Wingnuts Success
Last season, we here at the Minor League Sports Report jokingly referred to the Wichita Wingnuts baseball team as “Wingnuts University.” It was a term of endearment for a club that not only understood the fundamentals of playing baseball, but lived them out on the field in every play, every out, every run scored, and every pitch thrown. It was the epitome of how a baseball team should play each and every time they took to the field.
While he will divert much of the credit away from himself, the reason the Wichita Wingnuts play such amazingly sound baseball is because the manager of the club, the President of Wingnuts University, Kevin Hooper, knows how to inspire and teach his players to perform at a standard of excellence that few can attain. He has motivated his team to see that the 100 level courses taught at Wingnuts U are as vital to the success of this team as any other teaching they will receive.
Kevin Hooper, or “Hoop” as he is known around baseball, stresses three fundamental keys to the game: pitching, defense, and solid base-running. In a day and age where stolen bases have lost its cache and teams build their game plans around advanced metrics and defensive shifts, Hooper is teaching his team that winning comes from doing the little things better than everyone else. As a result, he has built a dynasty in the American Association that has made the Wichita Wingnuts the premier organization in independent baseball.
The False Perception About Independent Baseball
To many, that may not seem like much of an accomplishment. Many in baseball view independent organizations as nothing more than a set of leagues for guys who couldn’t hack it in affiliate ball any longer. That is as far from the truth as it gets, and the success of players like former Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and former Boston Red Sox slugger Kevin Millar prove that these leagues have quality talent in them.
The American Association may be the best example of this. “The talent level is off the charts. That is the biggest difference between now and when I started. The talent has really grown.” Hoop explains. “I compare this to the AA level in affiliate ball. There are some guys here who have the talent to be playing at the Major League level.”
For those who may disagree with Hooper, they should be aware that his credentials for making such an assessment stand for themselves. The Wichita manager played for the Detroit Tigers in 2005 and 2006, and he is a career .280 hitter at the minor league level, including a .301 average at AAA-Toledo his last season of affiliate ball.
Major League organizations would be the first to agree with the Wingnuts skipper. Six times last season one of his players found themselves signed to a contract by a Major League organization, including catcher JT Wise and pitchers Jon Link and Matt Nevarez. There is great talent at this level, and the big boys know it.
The Guy Everyone Wants to Manager Their Team
The talent isn’t just on the field however. The Wingnuts skipper is in a class by himself as far as managers go. No matter where one goes in the American Association there is a pretty clear consensus that this is the league’s top manager. That is not an affront to any other manager, because there are some outstanding individuals guiding teams in this league; Hooper has simply set himself apart. A fact he is a bit overwhelmed by.
“I am very humbled to hear how I am perceived. There are so many people that play a role in making us successful, and I am just one piece of that. You can’t be successful without a great staff. We wouldn’t have success without the three coaches I have and the players we have here. They are the ones that make the difference”
While he is a bit uncomfortable receiving praise, the reality is that it does not take much for him to pinpoint the things that make him stand out. “I hold guys accountable here. Whether you have played in the big leagues or not, I expect you to give your all. That means we are going to run out balls here. We are going to play hard every night. We are going to stay focused on playing the game to the best of our ability each and every night.”
The Same Guy On and Off the Field
The Wingnuts U President is doing something that is fairly unique in the sports world. He is coaching and leading a team with great success, while just being himself on the field. There is no front he puts up during games or when dealing with players. Hoop is the same guy walking through the mall that he is in the dugout although, admittedly, he is a bit more intense in the dugout. “I think I am more worn out after managing a game than I ever was when I played.”
The Wingnuts manager is a brilliant tactician who gets his team prepared as well as anyone in the game. However, he is also the most unassuming guy you will ever meet. He is the guy who would be grilling the hot dogs at the family cookout. He is the kind of guy that his kids would roll their eyes and giggle at because he isn’t afraid to show his goofy side in front of them. Kevin Hooper is the same guy talking with his neighbors or pushing a shopping cart through the grocery store that he is during Game 1 of the league championship series.
The Lessons of the Wingnuts Guru
Those may be perfect descriptions of his character, but make no mistake; Kevin Hooper is a guy who really knows baseball well, and he not only knows how to teach it, but how to get people to listen and follow his directions as if he is a kind of baseball guru. He gets a group of guys who want nothing more than to leave Wichita to join an affiliate club to buy into everything he teaches, because they know he has the ability to teach them to use their talent to a level they may not have even known they had.
He not only inspires his players to hustle and play a more sound game, but he gets them to see that the team is more than just 22 guys who see the Wichita Wingnuts as a stepping stone to playing Major League baseball. “A big key to our success is the family atmosphere. We are going to pull for each other. That is just the expectation here.”
The family-oriented atmosphere works because it is coupled with a commitment to the game of baseball itself. “If you don’t know how to be a professional already, you are going to learn how to be a professional here,” Hooper explains. “I expect these guys to give their all every night and they show me and the game respect by doing so.”
In return for their respect for the game he commits his own respect and dedication to his players. “Every player on this team is important. The last guy on the bench is just as important as my 4-hole hitter. We are a team here.”
What separates the game of baseball from any other sport is that the personality of the athletes is as important for a manager to mold as their raw physical talent. In other team sports the mentality of the sport molds players to the dynamic of the team. That is not true in baseball. In America’s pastime, the manager often times has to adapt himself to work with those around him. This is where Hooper excels far above others.
“I try to get to know these guys the best I can because we are all individuals and I need to be able to treat people differently based upon what I learn. You can’t talk to everyone the same, and I need to know that.”
The Wingnuts Curriculum Brings Success
The President of Wingnuts U has built a curriculum that makes the Wichita Wingnuts unique. It is building the right chemistry of the team, understanding the psychology of human interaction and inspiration, teaching the physics of improved performance and ability, and combining all of that into a mathematical formula of sorts that has helped this mad genius of a manager to create one of the most successful sports teams in the country.
Like kids were taught in the 60s and 70s to focus on the three Rs (Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic), Hoop has stressed his own set of fundamentals at Wingnuts University. Let’s call them the three Ps (Play defense, pitch and pressure). “We’re going to pitch and play defense. I am a big believer in putting pressure on opposing defenses. Look at what we did last year and you can see how this worked to our advantage. Pressure causes opponents to make mistakes.”
His Method Has Proven Results
What should be understood is that Kevin Hooper has not just created an atmosphere where players have a better chance of reaching the Majors. He has created a winner. Last season’s team won an American Association record 73 ball games. That is out of 100 games! An unbelievable winning percentage. In six seasons he has a record of 363-229, a winning percentage of .613. His teams have ranked in one of the top three spots in the league in pitching and batting average in all but one season. And let us not forget that last season the team set a league record for stolen bases (174) on their way to the American Association championship.
The Wingnuts manager’s success is not just measured in wins and league records however. It is the reputation that he has earned around baseball that has made him so special. Many players and executives around the league tout how great of a manager he is. Players have the utmost respect for him and his managerial style, and are frequently willing to take less money to play for Hooper. Scouts trust that his roster is loaded with quality ball players and even higher quality men, and make Wichita a priority stop when looking for a player to fill a vacancy. Players love playing for him, and he draws the best out of them.
Of all the things he has accomplished it appears that he gets the most satisfaction out of building something special in his hometown. The skipper grew up in the Kansas area and attended Wichita State University, where he was named to the All-Missouri Valley Conference team in 1999. He played for the Wingnuts in their inaugural season, and set a team record for batting with a .373 average, stealing an amazing 34 bases while being caught just once that year.
He has turned down other job offers because Wichita is where he wants to be, and it allows him a lot more time to spend with his kids; the latter is, of course, his greatest motivator of all. “I am around my kids, and it is no secret that is a primary reason I am here.”
Embracing the New Challenges
This 2015 American Association season poses two new challenges that Hooper has not faced before. First, his team returns as the defending champion. That means there will be a big target on his team’s backs, a thought he relishes. “We are the hunted now. I love that thought because it means we are going to get the absolute best from our opponents every single night. I love that challenge.”
The challenge will be a daunting one, because much of the everyday lineup from last year’s team is gone. Of his starting eight fielders, only David Espinosa remains from the team that won 73-games last year. Most managers would be concerned, but not Kevin Hooper. “There are a lot of new faces, which is exciting for me personally. I turn a negative into a positive real quick, and I think this is going to be positive for us. Don’t get me wrong; there is great talent we lost, but we are gaining a lot as well. That’s exciting.”
Over the last five seasons, the win total of the Witchita Wingnuts has increased by at least four every season. Does that mean that 77-wins is on the horizon? “That would be amazing, but that is not my focus. I approach games with the idea that we are going to win tonight, and that is our focus.” That kind of focus has led the team to 50-wins in 2010, 55 in 2011, 59 in 2012, 68 in 2013, and finally to 73 last season, so no one would be surprised to see them win 77.
The Wichita Wingnuts guru has always been a guy that people wanted on their team. Now he is the guy that players wish were on his team. Kevin Hooper has created something really special in Wichita, and he is making a positive stamp on his players, the community, his team, and baseball as a whole. Most important to him, he is making an impact on his children. In a day and age when many fathers are ignoring the needs of their children to pursue their own desires, the Wingnuts skipper is bucking the system. Who would expect anything less? After all, this is not a guy who just teaches; he lives it.
On May 21st the season will begin with umpires yelling “Play Ball!” In Wichita, fans, players and the front office will begin by saying, “Thank God Kevin Hooper is our manager.”
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA