Odd Couple Makes Wichita Wingnuts Double-Play Combo Truly Special
There are many things that, when put together, don’t seem like they would mesh well, but actually are quite extraordinary. Take peanut butter and jelly for example. Why a pulverized peanut that is turned into a creamy mixture would taste so well with a congealed jelly that is flavored with grape or strawberry seems quite repulsive when examined closely, but this is the most popularly eaten sandwich on the planet. It is so good because of the unique properties of each of the two substances.
Combining two things that are quite unique to one another can make for an exponentially better result. This is what the Wichita Wingnuts have learned this season, as they have combined Christian Stringer and Leo Vargas, two very un-alike players, to form what is arguably the best double-play combination in the American Association. This duo has not only made the Wingnuts one of the best hitting and fielding teams in the American Association, but they have generated a unique chemistry that has made them incredible friends, and helped to make the Wichita locker room one of the best atmospheres in all of baseball. That double-play combination is second baseman Christian Stringer and shortstop Leo Vargas.
The Development of a Love for the Game
The uniqueness started from their youth. John Christian Stringer grew up in Longview, Texas, a small town in the eastern part of the state. He loved baseball from the moment that he began to play, asking him mom to throw the ball to him every day so he could practice making diving catches.
Leonard Tobias Vargas grew up in the Dominican Republic before moving to Miami, FL. The love of the sport in his native country made it only natural that he would want to play baseball. His dad would toss him the ball virtually every day, encouraging the very young Leo to toss it back, working with him to gain a good throwing motion.
While the two grew up in very different environments, one thing that was very much the same was that they both came from families with a baseball background. Christian’s uncle Richard played baseball at Paris Junior College, and his uncle Johnny lettered three years at Baylor University. Leo also had an uncle, Yorkis Miguel Vargas Perez, who played baseball, reaching all the way to the Major Leagues with the Baltimore Orioles.
Clearly baseball was in the blood of both of them, and each starred in high school. They both had the opportunity to join elite traveling teams in their area, but both opted to remain with their friends and family rather than to play in more select baseball leagues. Both players saw themselves as having a shot at playing professional baseball one day, but the friendships that they had developed were significantly more important than a sport.
“I came from a small town in Texas where I could have gone and played in Dallas every day,
Christian explains, “But I played in East Texas with my friends, and I don’t regret that at all. Those are still my friends today. I might’ve made some more friends in Dallas but it wasn’t going to be as close knit as my friends that I grew up with are.”
Leo agrees and adds an interesting reality to what the future would have looked like had he played in these select leagues.
“Where I grew up in Miami they also had all of these select clubs where you have to pay a bunch of money so you get to travel. I didn’t really play on that and I’m kind of glad that I didn’t because you can still wind up in the same place where you are right now, even if you spent all that money.”
To College They Went
Both men graduated from high school in 2009, Leo Vargas from Miami Southridge and Christian Stringer from Hallsville High School. In high school, both infielders had made a name for themselves as well. Christian was a four-year starter and helped his school to the 2009 4-A Region II semi-finals following a 25-5 regular season. He was given All-East Texas honors, All-District honors, and was named the team’s offensive MVP.
Leo was lighting up in Miami as well. He was named to the Varsity Gold Glove team in Dade County in 2008 and 2009, and was an All-Dade County honoree in 2009. Both men proved that they had what it took to take their game to the college level.
In 2010, Leo moved onto Frank Phillips College. In his one season there, he performed so well that he was a conference Gold Glove winner and was named to the All-Star team. The following season he would move to Nichols State University (Thibodaux, LA) where he would see limited action in his first two seasons at the school.
In 2013 that changed. As a redshirt junior, Leo played virtually every day, appearing in 49-games and hitting .253 with 21-runs scored and 22-RBI. He also stole 8-bases. While performing well at the plate, his real area of expertise was in the field, where he showed the same kind of success and flair with the glove he had been known for since high school.
In 2014, he returned as a red shirt senior and had an even more productive season at the plate. In 58-games, the shortstop hit .299 with 47-runs scored. That led the team. He also drove in 24 and stole 17-bases. His fielding percentage even improved and he helped the team to a 32-26 record.
Sadly, the numbers were not enough to catch the attention of pro scouts. Following his senior season, Leo was not drafted and was left looking for a job in the game.
Christian found himself heading off to college following high school as well. In 2009, he went to Navarro College (Corsicana, TX) where he helped the Bulldogs to win the 2011 Junior College National Championship. That team finished 26-18, and Stringer was a huge part of their success, hitting .356 with a .453 on-base percentage. In his previous season, Christian hit .352 in 40-games giving him a .355 average in his two seasons at the school.
With that much success he was bound to draw some attention, and following his sophomore season he transferred to Rice University. Christian was an instant success at his new school. He won a Silver-Glove award in the Conference USA and was named to the All-Conference team. He hit .343 in 40games that season, which was seventh in the conference.
Most impressive was that Christian Stringer was not just a baseball player. He was also named to the Conference-USA Academic Honor Roll, performing as well in the classroom as he did on the diamond.
In 2013, the infielder played in 63-games, hitting .308 with 50-runs scored and 31-stolen bases. He also walked 43-times, for a .449-OBP and made just 8-errors.
His four-years proved that he had a real chance at a prolonged professional career, and this got him a call from the Chicago White Sox, who drafted him in the 16th round of the 2013 MLB amateur draft.
All Roads Lead to Wichita
Christian graduated in 2013 and, after being drafted, he headed to the White Sox rookie league team in Great Falls. In 47-games there, Stringer hit .312 with 42-runs scored and a .414 OBP. It was such a productive start to his career that he moved to Mid-A Kannapolis in 2014. He appeared in 76-games there, hitting .259 with 41-runs and 39-RBI. While the average was down, the homeruns were up, as the second baseman clubbed nine, up from one in rookie ball.
In 2015 he would remain in Kannapolis, but would see his opportunities decrease. Injuries limited his time on the field, as he appeared in just 57-games, but he hit .288 with 33-runs scored and 21-RBI. At the end of the season, he was given his release and would be looking for a new place to call home.
Leo Vargas graduated in 2014 but, not being drafted, he was looking for a place to continue his baseball career. That became Lincoln, NE, where Leo would appear in 6-games for the Lincoln Saltdogs of the American Association. He had 3-hits in 14 at-bats prior to the season ending, and would be back on the market at season’s end.
In 2015, former Manager Kevin Hooper was looking for a shortstop for his Wichita Wingnuts team and he signed Vargas. Hooper always believed in being as solid defensively up the middle as he could be and believed the Leo was the best fit for Wichita, regardless of what kind of production he could provide at the plate.
“Leo is so good defensively,” his former manager explained a few weeks after signing Vargas. “He is so smooth and positions himself so well. We really like what he gives us defensively.”
Leo proved to be a defensive whiz, making just 9-errors in 57-games. However, his bat did not catch up to his defense. He finished the season hitting .219 with 25-runs scored and 11-RBI.
In 2016, Hooper left to take a job with the San Diego Padres, and Pete Rose, Jr. was brought in to manage the team. He, too, wanted a strong shortstop up the middle, but also wanted to add a quality second baseman as well. The perfect choice was Christian Stringer.
Rose had been managing in Kannapolis the previous two seasons, and had the benefit of seeing Christian play for his team. When the second baseman was released, he became a natural fit. The Wichita Wingnuts double-play combination was set.
Who Says Video Games Aren’t Beneficial?
When Spring Training began there were a lot of new faces in the Wichita Wingnuts camp. Christian Stringer was one of them. Vargas was the “veteran” in the infield, as only one player from the previous season’s group was going to be playing infield this year – that was Vargas. That meant a lot of new faces, and a lot of uncertainty about how everyone was going to get along.
The two were trying to figure each other out, and were a little uneasy about what to expect. “We came to spring training and I didn’t know what to expect, who I was going to room with, and I ended up being with Leo. I didn’t really know him at the time, except for a couple of days. He was a nice guy, and I was like I know I could get along with this guy.”
The two quickly hit it off, and found that it was their love of playing the same video games that created an instantaneous bond between them. Explains Vargas: “Once Spring Training started we became roommates together and it was nice. We do all the hard stuff at the field, so we will make it back to the hotel and it’s great to be able to relax and play video games together. We go out and get great Mexican food – tacos – we’re always up for that.”
Stringer adds: “We wound up being roommates and he was one of the first guys I got to know on the team because we were roommates. We like the same things; play video games every night. We just kind of communicated that way. Early on in the season we had good chemistry up the middle and made a lot of double plays. It just worked out for us.”
The two developed great chemistry right away, and credit one man for making that happen. “I’m just thankful to (General Manager) Josh (Robertson) for putting us together in spring training. It just kind of started from there and I couldn’t have asked for a better guy to be roomed with,” explains Christian.
The great thing about the two infielders is that it is clear that there is a genuine affection for one another. These are not just two guys that are teammates. Instead, these are two young men who have found a common bond and who enjoy the differences between them as much as the similarities. They have even found those unique things about one another that are the source of great humor.
“Christian loves to dance,” Vargas explains with a laugh. “He is really good at it too, but he just loves it. He may be the best dancer I have ever seen.” But that is not all. “Oh ya, his gravy. He just loves his gravy.”
Stringer appreciates Leo’s demeanor on and off the field. “Leo is that guy that’s always going to have a smile on his face. I may have done some things to make him mad when we were living together, but he’s never going to let you know that. He’s always talking on the field, picking everybody up. He’s always got the good vibe going on. Oh ya, and the good hair.”
What is funny about the two is that the competition on the field and while playing video games is not enough for them. Following every victory, the two play a quick game of Rock, Paper, Scissors against one another and they have been keeping a running total of who is leading the series (Stringer is dominating according to Vargas). It is just another way that the two have found a way to become even closer with one another and to share more experiences.
“Rock, Paper, Scissors is our way of celebrating,” says Leo Vargas. “We like that added competition.”
They Have Found a Home
While both long for the day to join an affiliate club, Wichita has become a place where both feel right at home. The community has welcomed them, and they have become a part of a legacy of great middle infielders for the Wingnuts that includes Kevin Hooper, Jake Kahaulelio and Ryan Khoury. They are loving being Wichita Wingnuts, especially because of the guys that they share a locker room with.
“Being out with a bunch of guys that you are close to and like to hang out with makes it so much better than sitting in an office all day doing paperwork,” Christian Stringer describes. “We’re getting to mess around, crack jokes and have fun. I am going to do it until my body tells me I can’t do it anymore.”
Leo Vargas agrees. “We’re out here having fun. This is a great group of guys out here. We are having fun during batting practice, and it’s just fun to be out here, to come out here every night with these guys during the season.”
It is true that both young men are really enjoying their time in a Wingnuts’ uniform, but they both acknowledge that they would not be where they are at had it not been for some very special people that helped them along the way. For Leo, it starts with the three people who have been the most special to him personally.
“My mom and dad, ever since I have been little, they have taken time off of work, going to all the tournaments that I played in when I was younger. They came up to all my games in college, I don’t think they missed a single high school game. Neither did my sister.”
He adds that another plays a significant role even today.
“My trainer, Andreas, back home, I’ve been working with him since high school and I could call him up at 9 o’clock at night if I needed something and he would pick up the phone and he would talk to me about anything. He would hit ground balls to me until his hands were bleeding. He would throw me batting practice until he couldn’t reach the plate anymore. It’s always nice to have someone who will work that hard with you. Not only on the baseball side, but if I needed anything he was there for me as well. Even if I needed someone to talk to he was always there for me.”
For Christian, he is also thankful for his parents, especially his dad.
“My dad has been a great inspiration to me. He didn’t really have the baseball background so he kind of took notes from other coaches. He’s never been down on me after I’ve had a bad game and has always really supported me along the way. He just always told me to keep my head up, there’s another game tomorrow. He supported me in any way that I needed, like if I needed equipment he went out and got it for me. Even coming to watch me play, him and my mom just love the baseball atmosphere. Last year I was on the DL for two months but they still made two or three trips out to North Carolina when I wasn’t even playing. They just love the baseball life and my dad has been a great inspiration helping me all the way.”
When you really get down to it, there are a lot more similarities to the two than differences Those similarities have helped them to find commonality that has aided in them becoming great friends. The differences of one have allowed the other to learn and embrace his new friend in a way that friends should do.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca once said, “One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.” No two young men have understood and embraced that ideal better than Christian Stringer and Leo Vargas.
Taking Their Act on the Road
As the American Association Championship series is about to begin, the Wichita Wingnuts are counting on every player on their roster to make a key contribution so that they can win their second title in three seasons. Christian and Leo are ready to do just that.
This season Christian Stringer batted primarily in the leadoff spot and was a huge catalyst for the team, hitting .287 with a league leading 82-runs scored and 34-RBI. He also stole 22-bases, third on the team, and played solid defense.
Leo Vargas started out red-hot for Wichita. Batting in the No. 9 spot, he was leading the team in hitting into July, but settled out at .250 with 47-runs scored and 38-RBI. He also stole 15-bases.
It is this kind of solid production at the plate and in the field that has made the Wichita Wingnuts a title contender all season long. They have an incredible lineup and a great defense that could very well make them American Association champions. Don’t be surprised if by season’s end that the two have added three more games of Rock, Paper, Scissors to their running tally.
Wichita Wingnuts Photos Provided by Emilie Leivian
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA