Wichita Wingnuts Owner Steve Ruud Proving Old Adage Far from Truth
There is an old adage that says that nice guys finish last. In the business world, this is as prevalent of an idea as any you will find. There are many that think that if you are going to be successful you have to be as cutthroat as possible. If you show any kind of kindness and compassion for others, then you will be an abysmal failure.
This may sound like a great theory, especially for those who have all the personality of a barracuda, but one man is showing that when you are a nice guy and treat people like they are a part of your family then you can be a success, especially in one of the most cutthroat businesses of them all – professional baseball. That man is Wichita Wingnuts owner Steve Ruud.
Keeping Baseball in His Hometown
Steve Ruud grew up in the Wichita area and was always a huge baseball fan. In the 1960s through the mid-70s there was a semi-pro league that played in Wichita and drew some quality talent. Steve pitched in that league, appearing in 150-games. The league not only helped to inspire his love for the game, but playing at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium brought a great desire in him to ensure that professional baseball remained in his beloved Wichita.
“I’ve got a deep background in baseball. In the 1960s into the middle 70s they had a semipro league here in the city of Wichita called the Victory League. We had eight or 10 teams based right out of here. There were probably some of the best semipro baseball teams in the country right here. One of them had five or six big-time former Big Leaguers who were playing for them. That league played every one of their games out here at Lawrence Dumont Stadium.
“I pitched 150 games off that mound out there in the 60s and 70s and that’s where my love for the game really blossomed, where my roots became so ingrained that it’s not even funny. I have a lot of memories of a lifetime here.”
Keeping a Professional Baseball Team in the City
There had been a long history of baseball in the city, especially on the professional side. This first began nearly 130 years ago, when the Wichita Braves played one season in the Western League and the Wichita Eagles played their inaugural season in the Kansas State League beginning that same year. The Eagles would play just one year in Wichita but would return 11 seasons later to play one additional season in the city.
That would be the last season of professional baseball in Wichita until after the turn of the century. The Witcha Jobbers would begin play in 1905 and would later become the Wichita Witches before becoming the Jobbers once again. The team would remain a single-A club in the Western League until 1955, changing names several times and seeing a gap in play from 1934 to 1950.
In 1956, Wichita became a AAA-affiliate as the Wichita Braves for three-seasons. The 1958 season would be the last one, but 12-years later the Wichita Aeros, an affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, began a 15-year run in the city. The interesting thing was that at the time there were actually three different AAA leagues, with the two Wichita clubs playing in the American Association. Later, that league would disband and its teams would join the International and Pacific Leagues. The American Association would become non-existent, but would later become the independent league that the Wichita Wingnuts would joined.
The Aeros would play their final season in 1984 and for two years Lawrence-Dumont would be vacant of a professional team. In 1987, the Wichita Pilots would move to the city, and they would play there for two seasons, before renaming themselves the Wichita Wranglers. The team would play in the Texas League for 21-seasons before the Royals moved their AA team.
The city had shown that they could support a professional team, but affiliates seemed to be looking for newer ballparks and Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, built in 1936, didn’t seem to fit into many club’s plans. That was when a different direction emerged.
The city looked to add an independent team in the American Association and the Wichita Wingnuts were about to be born. Steve jumped at the opportunity to be part of the group that owned the team.
“When the Wingnuts opportunity came up after the Wranglers left we had an opportunity to put together a bid for the operations here in Wichita. I just said, ‘You don’t need to look any further; I’ll do this in a heartbeat.’”
At the time, Chicago businessman Horn Chen earned the inside track on being the majority owner, but the city wanted local ownership as well, so Steve and his group were able to buy 45 percent ownership in the team. The opportunity helped to fill his primary goal – keeping a team in the city of Wichita.
While Steve was happy to have a team in his city, the deals that were made to get the team started were not very good ones. There was very little that he could do about it since he was not the majority owner, but he made it a goal to gain control of the team and ensure that his investment was a good one. He realized that his own success in building the team also ensured that the team would prosper.
Within three years of the Wingnuts becoming a professional team, Steve Ruud announced that he, Nate Robertson, and Gary Austerman purchased complete control of the team. They then began the process of renegotiating bad deals made by the previous owners, increasing the chances that the team had for success.
Doing What He Does Best
Once in control of the team, Steve did what he does best – putting the right people in place to make his new business thrive. This is where Steve Ruud excels above virtually all others, and why he has been a successful business man in the Wichita area for nearly 50-years, successfully building nine companies from scratch.
While being a great businessman is part of the mystique of the Wingnuts owner, it is also an understanding of his own limitations that helps to make him so successful. That guiding principle has carried over into his ownership with the Wingnuts. He pitched in semi-pro baseball himself, but in no way felt like he was an expert in running a baseball team. That is why he made sure he put the right people in charge.
“I know I’m not a brilliant baseball guy. I played a lot of years of it and I know the ins and out of it, and I know the mistakes and can anticipate the mistakes that can possibly happen, especially from the pitching side since I was a pitcher. However, I don’t know how to run a baseball organization. I wanted this to have the best chance to succeed, and so I had to hire the best people.”
“I can’t take the credit for the success of this organization, because the nuts and bolts of it I don’t really have much to do with it. That’s by my design, because I know that if I tried to get in there and do some things I would probably screw it up in like five minutes. When I know that there are people who were 10 are smarter than I am doing the jobs that need to be done, they don’t need me coming around and making stupid mistakes.”
The Wichita Wingnuts aren’t making any stupid mistakes, and that is because the owner has turned this into one of the best organizations in all of sports. It is a great place to work because he trusts the people he has hired to do the job. That has led to great results, and he is the first to recognize how his staff has made this into independent baseball’s best organization.
“Our program speaks for itself. We may not be the best program in independent baseball but, I’ll tell you what, we’re real close. Were in the top two or three every year and that’s not because of me by any means. When I got into this thing, other than knowing baseball a little bit, all this, the operations of it, are way over my head. That’s what I got (GM) Josh Robertson for, and that’s why I got (Assistant GM) Brian Turner, and that’s why I got the other guys around here. I just do what they ask me to do instead of being in the way.”
If you think about a lot of the owners you see in sports today, many feel like they should be on display more than the product that is on the field. Names like Buss, Jones, and Steinbrenner, are talked about as much as their teams are. They want to be the focus of conversation and the product on the field suffers because of it.
This is not the case with Steve Ruud. He is not looking for the limelight, and openly admits that he does not deserve it. He wants the product on the field to do the talking for him.
“I want to be as inconspicuous as can be. A lot of people try to make it about me and I say all the time that it’s not about me. My name is not on the uniform. Wichita Wingnuts is on the uniform. I don’t want my name on the uniform. This is the Wichita Wingnuts. This is the Wichita team. This is not the Steve Ruud team. I just like to stay out of the way and let these guys do what they do best.”
A Philosophy Destined to Succeed
For those who doubt the success of such a philosophy, simply look at the results. Since taking over full control of the team, Steve, Nate, and Gary have laid a foundation that has made this arguably the best organization in independent baseball. The Wingnuts have been in the playoffs every season since 2011, and have been to the finals three times in that five-year span. That included a championship run that brought the team their first American Association championship in 2014. That was an especially special moment for Steve.
“That was one of the all-time highs in my life. It was an accumulation of seven years of really hard work. I was just ecstatic for the organization. Everybody really worked so hard for it and deserved it. That was what was so neat. Nothing was given to us. We went out and earned it. The record kind of speaks for itself.”
It has not just been the results on the field that has made this such a special organization. It is also the fact that the team has averaged better than six players per season that have had their contracts purchased by Major League organizations. That is something that the Wingnuts owner takes great pride in as well.
“I hate it for the Wingnuts, because we really could use those guys here. However, it is so great for them. These guys work so hard to get their chance and it is so exciting for the team and the organization when they get signed. I couldn’t be happier for them.”
A Baseball Team that Is More Like a Family
If you spend even a few hours at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, you will quickly realize that this is an organization like no other. While many don’t like to think of baseball as a business, Steve runs this team like every other business he owns. For the organization, that is a great thing.
The Wingnuts owner hires amazing people to be a part of this organization, but he has one clear demand on every one of them. He wants them to do their job well, but he wants them to have fun while doing it. To do otherwise simply does not make sense to the Wichita owner.
“We’ve got a great organization. Everyone walks around with a smile on their face. They have fun doing what they’re doing and that’s entirely the way I want it. Anybody who works for me, they have an understanding that if they’re not having fun then they can come and shake my hand and go find some other place to go where they will have fun. We’ll still be friends, I don’t have a problem with them moving on but, if you can’t have fun at any one of my organizations, I sure don’t want you around if you’re not having any fun. Life is too short.”
That is a philosophy he has had to embrace himself. Steve loves watching his team play, but openly admits that his first couple of years sitting in the owner’s box were not as easy as he had envisioned.
“The first year or two that I was involved with the team, I would go home I’d be upset all evening after a stupid loss. I still go home a little upset but not as bad as it used to be. I just kind of take things in stride these days. It happens, I don’t have to like it, but it happens and you can just sit back and think that it’s just baseball. Well, it is to a certain extent. I don’t mind losing in baseball when you play a good fundamental game, but when you beat yourself by stupid mistakes that tends to bother me, but not as much,” he explains laughing.
The 2016 American Association season is the ninth that Steve Ruud has had with his beloved Wichita Wingnuts. He is having more fun than ever. The owner has slimmed down over 100 pounds since last season and his team is leading the South Division once again. It is everything that he could have hoped for.
Sadly, there is one thing missing from Steve’s enjoyment of his team. In 2011, the Wichita Wingnuts lost their most avid fan when his wife, Jennifer, passed away from cancer. It was not only a tremendous loss for Steve, but one that has been felt across the organization.
“She was the Wingnuts No. 1 fan. She went to every game; never missed one. She loved this team and loved watching these young men play a game that they really loved.”
He is saddened by the fact that she did not get to see the Wingnuts reach the ultimate pinnacle in the league.
“She would have loved to see this team win the championship. It would have been one of the most exciting moments for her as well.”
The manner in which Steve Ruud and his partners have run this team have earned the three a lot of recognition in the league. In 2010, the Wichita Wingnuts were named the American Association’s Organization of the Year. It was quite an honor but, in typical Steve Ruud fashion, he credited virtually everyone but himself.
“I’m very excited for the organization,” the owner explained to the Wichita Business Journal. “I can’t really put it into words. I think it goes to show what a group of great people can do when they all have one common goal.”
Steve Ruud’s goal has been to create a baseball team that represented the image of the city of Wichita. If the city’s image is one of supreme success where people love to be around it and enjoy every moment within then city limits, then mission accomplished. More rightly, the Wichita Wingnuts owner has created a team that is a reflection of him. One where success occurs on and off the field because the owner allows people to do their jobs and enjoy doing it.
In this year where America will choose a new president, everyone is talking about how to grow businesses and help people find great jobs. All of these politicians are pushing agendas and theories on how to help the country to be a better place. What they should realize is that they don’t need to seek the advice of academics at Stanford or Harvard. They simply need to come to Wichita, Kansas and watch an independent league baseball team and its owner in action. If they followed his example, then America would truly be great again.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA