Before Ryan Khoury arrived to play baseball in Wichita, he couldn’t believe it when he was told that the Wingnuts and their manager, Kevin Hooper, had cultivated an environment similar to those in affiliated ball.
Now Khoury is one who’s spreading the message.
Hooper has helped Wichita become one of the most attractive destinations for independent baseball players, luring former major leaguers and those looking to work their way back to major-league organizations.
The players Hooper has acquired during his six years as manager have become de facto recruiters themselves, helping bring in potential skeptics like Khoury who quickly become believers.
“Guys have called me or I’ve talked to my buddies who have gotten released (by major league clubs) or want to play independent ball, and numerous ones of them have said, ‘I’ve heard nothing but good things about Wichita,’ ” Khoury said. “Other guys off of teams in this league will be like, ‘(Hooper) seems cool,’ and other guys will say they’ve heard really good things about Wichita.”
Hooper spent much of his career in Triple-A with a handful of games in the big leagues with the Detroit Tigers and has tried to create a setting that at least approaches that level of luxury, even though many aspects can’t be duplicated.
Hooper offers those indulgences at a price, though. He often says that he’s easy to play for but that not everyone can play for him, meaning his expectations are clear but not attainable by all players. An old-school manager, Hooper calls for running out groundballs and giving maximum effort that sometimes includes sacrificing personal statistics.
“I’m about as professional, confident, structured – I’m very structured,” Hooper said. “I think guys like the structure. Guys who play for me and they haven’t had that structure, you put them in this situation and they thrive off of that. Other places they’ve been, it’s been kind of scattered. These guys always need to know where they need to be, when they need to be there.”
Once players meet Hooper’s demands, they find a mostly relaxed atmosphere built around clarity and firmness but with room for looseness and comfort. Hooper has learned more about the general makeup of players who can succeed under his guidance, and those players typically gel with one another, too.
In that way, roster building becomes easier for Hooper and general manager Josh Robertson. Holdovers rarely want to leave, and word of mouth brings forth numerous options every offseason, so Hooper can often take his pick while following the American Association’s roster guidelines.
“I was here a couple years back for an award thing,” said Wichita newcomer J.T. Wise, who was presented the Johnny Bench Award as college baseball’s best catcher at a ceremony in Wichita in 2009. “I got familiar with some people, and it seemed like it would be a fun place to play and a good opportunity to keep playing baseball.”
The Wingnuts travel in accommodating sleeper buses, stay at nice hotels and eat multi-course meals after games. Rare is the independent team that lives so large, and all of those factors entice players to Wichita each year.
So does the baseball. The Wingnuts have reached the postseason four times in six years, play in a stadium that once housed Triple-A baseball, and they frequently send players to affiliated ball. As the message about Wichita spreads, playing for the Wingnuts becomes increasingly appealing.
“Baseball is such a fraternity,” Hooper said. “So many guys know each other. As a player, you ask other players whether they know anyone who’s played here and how is it. That’s, I think, a big reason why word has kind of gotten out about how we do things. We travel well, we eat well, we dress well. We take really good care of guys while they’re here.”