Wichita Wingnuts Transformation Has Some Questioning Team’s Longevity
American Association Daily will provide 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 association. In today’s edition, the question is raised if this will be the last season of Wichita Wingnuts baseball. The push for a new ballpark in Wichita may lead to the demise of its current resident.
An Organization Built for Success
Since joining the American Association 11 years ago, the Wichita Wingnuts have established themselves as the premier franchise in the league, if not in all of independent baseball. With seven straight division championships, five trips to the American Association Championship series, and a 2014 title, few teams in all of baseball can claim such dominance in their league.
However, the 2017-18 off-season has been a tumultuous one, especially for an organization that has been known for its stability. Former Manager Kevin Hooper had been at the helm for seven seasons before earning a well-deserved position coaching in the San Diego Padres organization. Under his guidance, all that the Wingnuts did was go 422-270 (.610), make it to the playoffs in all seven seasons, winning the 2014 title while twice setting the league record for victories.
Pete Rose, Jr. became Hooper’s successor in 2016, and the winning continued. With Rose as the team’s manager, the Wingnuts went 123-77 (.615), and twice advanced to the championship series.
For over eight years, this team has been run by the same group of owners. Steve Ruud, who has successful built 11 different businesses in the Wichita area, highly-esteemed attorney Gary Austerman, and former Detroit Tigers star pitcher Nate Robertson gained full control of the team in October 2009. They have turned this organization into one that felt more like a family than a professional baseball team, and this showed in the loyalty and commitment that the staff within the organization demonstrated on a daily basis.
From 2008 through the 2016 season, 42 former Wichita players had their contracts purchased by Major League organizations, and the 2017 MLB season began with four former Wingnuts playing at the Major League level. It is a mark that likely no other team in independent baseball can match.
The Rock Upon Which the Wichita Wingnuts Were Built
While there have been changes within the organization, one constant has remained – General Manager Josh Robertson. The brother of co-owner Nate Robertson has been with the Wichita Wingnuts since their inception and has played as important of a role in the team’s long-term success as any within organization. While aiding Kevin Hooper in building the team’s roster from 2009-2015, Robertson was the one who exclusively built the Wingnuts the last two seasons, teams that produced back-t0-back 61-plus win seasons.
It was not just the team on the field that helped to make the Wingnuts such a winner. Josh Robertson was as astute of an observer of talent behind the scenes as he was talent on the field. From the hiring of exceptional play-by-play talent as Steve Schuster, Jason Kempf, Rob Low, and now Denning Gerig, to the exceptional business staff he has brought on board over the years – including Aaron McMullin, Tyler Harrison, Stepheny Frederiksen, Andrew Oblinger, Jordan Hall, Ashley Binder, and Cierra Christian – the GM knew how to find the right people who he could count on to keep the Wingnuts on top in more ways than just in wins and losses.
While these are remarkable feats of their own, the one area where he may have outdone himself was in the care and upkeep of Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, the home of the Wichita Wingnuts. The sixth oldest ballpark in the United States being used for professional baseball is in need of some serious renovation and the fact that Robertson was able to help keep this ballpark fully functional for baseball is a near miracle. Thanks to the hiring of Jeff Kline, who served as the heads groundkeeper for the first 10 seasons of the Wingnuts existence, and now with Kyle Baldwin in charge, the 84-year-old park continues to attract tens of thousands of fans each season.
Now, that rock upon which the foundation of the Wichita Wingnuts has been built will be stepping aside. Last Friday, Josh Robertson retired as the team’s general manager, turning the duties over to assistant GM Brian Turner. At his press conference, the retiring GM acknowledged that this was the time for him to move on, while thanking those who helped to mentor him.
“What an incredible journey God has allowed me to follow,” Robertson began. “In the sports industry, very few people have the opportunity to do what they love for as long as I have. There are many people in this room who have been a part of me, believed in me, mentored me, worked with me, and had an impact on me these last 19 years.”
The extremely superstitious Robertson explained that his decision came while watching the movie For the Love of the Game, where he saw parallels in the story and decided that this was a sign that it was time to turn the reins of the team over to others. Ultimately, it came down to wanting to spend more time with his wife and daughters.
“Thank you for always having my back,” a tearful Robertson spoke to his wife, Monica. “Thank you for accepting what I love to do, even when I got home at 2 AM six nights in a row. Thank you being my biggest fan. I love you so much.”
The words were a stark contrast to the often gruff general manager who demanded excellence, and often got it from those around him.
Capable of Maintaining the Winning Tradition
With that rock gone, the Wingnuts now turn to Brian Turner to lead the organization. Clearly, Turner has all the credentials to excel in the position. He has served with the team in some capacity for eight year, and has been the assistant general manager for the last three. No single person understands how Robertson was able to attain that success better than Turner, and so the transition should be a seamless one.
However, the 2018 season is going to be one where change extends far beyond the general manager’s office. Pete Rose, Jr. has been replaced by long-time Wingnuts star Brent Clevlen, who will be managing for the first time. The team traded some of their key pieces as right-handers Alex Boshers, Mike Devine, and Josh Goosen-Brown, and star infielders T.J. Mittelstaedt and Matt Chavez will be dawning a new uniform next season, and RHP Ryan Kussmaul, catchers Zach Fisher and Martin Medina, and infielder Christian Stringer are likely to retire.
There will be a lot of transition on the field as well but, fortunately, the now retired GM is staying around to assist in the building of the team. That should assist Clevlen by giving him time to develop his own connections he can use to build future teams.
If truth be told, no one should expect this team to suddenly struggle. Following the 2014 championship season, Hooper nearly rebuilt the entire everyday lineup, and all the team did in 2015 was win 59 games. After Hooper left, the team won two more games than the previous season and advanced to the championship series under Rose. Winning is what this organization does, and with Clevlen and Turner running the show no one should expect anything different.
Wichita Does Have a Great Baseball Team – If You Didn’t Notice
The Wichita Wingnuts have proven to be a real asset for the city, but one that the city doesn’t seem to appreciate. A bond referendum has enabled the city of Wichita to build a brand new ballpark, but that has stalled as the mayor and city council seem obsessed with luring a Major League affiliate to the community.
In October, the city council hired a consultant in an attempt to land a minor league team. In December, it was announced that the city was in an exclusive negotiation with a team and that a decision could come in January.
When the consulting firm was hired, the Wichita Eagle declared that this move was “seeking to rekindle baseball fever in Wichita.” This being written one month after the current professional team was deprived their second championship on the most egregious umpiring call in sports history. Baseball fever seemed alive and well; looks like the media didn’t know that.
According to Mayor Jeff Longwell, the city was close to signing a deal with an affiliate team in early December, and were looking to finalize that deal after the Baseball Winter Meetings which took place in the middle of the month. No word on that deal has been provided since.
The question is what the current resident of Lawrence-Dumont Stadium feels about this blatant snub. Despite the fact that three cities built brand new ballparks for American Association teams in the last four seasons (St. Paul, Cleburne, and Chicago), the city does not even seem interested in pursuing the Wingnuts as the tenant to the new ballpark, and it is clear that the ownership group is understandably frustrated by the lack of appreciation for their team.
This could mean that even if an affiliate team is not lured from another city, there may be no Wichita Wingnuts after the 2018 season. The lack of respect and appreciation for the team and its local ownership group may have sunk this team for good and, sadly, Robertson’s retirement may have been inevitable anyway.
After each Wingnuts victory, fans can hear blaring from the in-stadium sound system the lyrics “All we do is win, win, win no matter what…” It appears clear that to the City of Wichita, winning just isn’t enough.
By Robert Pannier