September 13, 2012

Bob Lutz: Can Wichita catch Wingnuts playoff fever in time?

Use whatever analogy you want – and “backs against the wall” would seem to be the most accurate, if overused – the Wichita Wingnuts are in trouble.

Use whatever analogy you want – and “backs against the wall” would seem to be the most accurate, if overused – the Wichita Wingnuts are in trouble.

Their trip north of the border to Winnipeg for the first two games in the American Association championship series did not go well. They dropped both and return home tonight in need of a victory to keep the season, let alone championship hopes, alive.

Winnipeg’s best pitcher, right-hander Matthew Rusch (10-4), will try to nail this best-of-five series down. He led the league in ERA (2.40) and strikeouts (113).

What I wonder is how many fans will be at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium tonight to root for the Wingnuts. I’m also curious about how many Winnipeg Goldeyes fans will make the 950-mile journey to Wichita in hopes of watching their team dogpile near the mound to celebrate a championship.

It’s not that crazy to think there will be more than a few Winnipeg fans in town in frothy anticipation.

After all, the average attendance at Shaw Park for Goldeyes games was 5,705, best in the AA. The Wingnuts, by comparison, averaged 3,055 fans, good for ninth-best in the 13-team league.

And in the Wingnuts’ only home playoff game so far, last Friday against Laredo when Wichita wrapped up its first-round series, the crowd was announced at 1,100.

Baseball has dropped off the map, it seems, nudged to the sideline by college football, high school football, professional football, pee-wee football, fantasy football and kick the can and pretend it’s a football.

In Winnipeg, though, crowds for the baseball playoffs have been large and raucous at the downtown stadium. The Goldeyes drew 5,117 on Tuesday night for Game 1 and packed 5,886 in the next night.

Winnipeg’s baseball history has been spent mostly in the Northern League, another independent league that disbanded after the 2010 season and saw four of its members – the Goldeyes, Kansas City, Fargo-Moorhead and Gary SouthShore – jump to the American Association for the 2011 season. Winnipeg has one Northern League championship, in 1994.

The Wingnuts, meanwhile, are deeper into the AA playoffs than they have ever been in their fifth year of existence. And championships, at any level, are a big deal.

The Wingnuts, though, haven’t done a whole lot to make people aware the team is within three victories of a championship. There hasn’t been much promotion of the team during the playoffs and it showed with the minuscule crowd that showed up last week. The team could use a highly-charged atmosphere tonight at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, but my sense is that they won’t get one.

It was the same way when one of Wichita’s professional baseball teams in affiliated baseball made it to the playoffs. After the National Baseball Congress World Series – and some would argue that even before it – the city’s baseball fans appear to go into hibernation.

Not so in Winnipeg, where 20 Goldeyes games were televised this season and the team had several sellouts.

Winnipeg is a hockey town, abuzz that the NHL returned in 2012 after a 15-year absence. The former Winnipeg Jets up and moved to Phoenix in 1996, causing an outbreak of depression in the city of 685,000.

Hockey, of course, makes sense in any Canadian city and Winnipeg sold out all 41 home games last season to support the return of the Jets. But Winnipeg is also a proven baseball town with citizens who have bought in to independent league baseball of all things.

Here in Wichita, with a team that could still win a championship, it will be interesting to see what kind of interest there is. My sense is that we have collectively moved on from baseball and that only a few brave souls will show up at the ballpark tonight and, if necessary, this weekend.

I would love to be wrong. It would be great if 3,000 to 4,000 fans showed up tonight to support the Wingnuts, who need all the support they can get at the moment.

There’s just not a buzz in town, though. Are there any big pre-game parties going on? Any raucous pep rallies or special ticket offers?

Unfortunately, no.

The Wingnuts will put up a fight, against the biggest of odds. They’re facing a tough pitcher in a must-win game. The ingredients are all there for an enticing and exciting weekend of baseball.

It could have everything, except a crowd.

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