I don’t really know who is playing for the Wichita Wingnuts anymore, I just know the team has a chance to win an American Association championship.
The names, I suppose, are not as important as the accomplishments, which have been immense considering the heavy turnover the Nuts have endured this summer.
What looked like a juggernaut to begin the season was transformed into a patsy as the Mexican League came calling for some of the team’s best players. A mad scramble to fill the roster turned into something more than could have reasonably been expected; a team that clicked during the stretch run and landed the Wingnuts in the American Association divisional playoffs against Laredo.
“A roller-coaster of a season,” manager Kevin Hooper said. “Definitely the most challenging we’ve had.”
Hooper is the one Wingnuts constant, a bulldog of a skipper who works every connection he’s made in the game during a long minor-league playing career to tweak and polish the Wichita roster. But a 1-10 stretch in early July that turned into a 3-14 skid threatened to undo all the good that Hooper and Wingnuts general manager Josh Robertson had done.
“You take three guys (second baseman Jake Kahauleio, first baseman C.J. Ziegler and third baseman Juan Richardson) away in one day, that’s pretty tough,” Hooper said. “Then we lost James Hoyt, our setup guy in the bullpen, who went to Mexico. Those aren’t easy holes to fill.”
And it looked as if the Wingnuts might not be able to fill them as the Lawrence-Dumont Stadium home clubhouse started to resemble Grand Central Station. Some guys weren’t in Wichita long enough to know they were in Wichita.
Eventually, though, the ship was righted. And the Wingnuts, in their fifth year of existence, are chasing their first championship.
“We bounced back and we hung on throughout the ride,” Hooper said. “We ran through some guys because we had to. We had to find some rookies just to have some bodies to fill spots. But I never had that fear that we were going to bottom out because I’m a confident guy and a positive guy. I had confidence in myself and in our staff that we were going to find the right guys.”
It’s tough enough to build a united clubhouse with minimal player upheaval. The Wingnuts have used 28 position players and 24 pitchers this season.
“But we never had a clubhouse issue,” Hooper said. “This is a special group and it’s the most fun I’ve had managing a team. They’re always dancing to the music and keeping things loose and light. There’s a really light atmosphere around this team. I just do a lot of laughing.”
Hooper credits veteran outfielder/DH John Rodriguez with helping to keep things on an even keel, even when the roster is turning over almost nightly.
Rodriguez, who won a World Series ring with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006, has given the Wingnuts a lot of bang for the buck. It’s not only because of his .332 average, 16 homers and 81 RBIs, Hooper says, but because Rodriguez is such a leader.
“I don’t even know the words to use to describe him,” Hooper said. “It’s been like having another coach. I played with him in 2004 at (Triple-A) Columbus and he’s priceless, absolutely priceless. He’s our leader, hands down. Our go-to guy. He wants to manage eventually so he’s always wanting to learn and spends time around me wanting to get input.”
This has probably been the year in which Hooper has grown most as a manager. The dizzying pace of 100 games in four months is something he’s gotten used to but he proved this season that nothing rattles him, not even a near collapse of a roster he worked so hard to put together.
More and more, Hooper looks like a guy who could do some big things as a manager, at a much higher level than independent baseball. He has the perfect temperament, one that commands respect but doesn’t have to demand it. The Wingnuts have been over .500 four straight seasons under Hooper and have been a threat to win championships.
This season, they might be the favorite.
“I love managing here,” said Hooper, who signed a two-year deal to stay with the Wingnuts after the 2011 season. “This organization is outstanding to work for and I love my job. I love being home and around my family. That’s the most important thing to me.”