Every time National Baseball Congress World Series director Casey Walkup believes the bracket for this year’s tournament is complete, a wrench is thrown in his plans.
One team is dropping out. Another team is accepting a bid. Another team might come — we’ll see what happens.
Such circumstances are nothing new for Walkup or for the seemingly always in-flux 32-team field. This year is somewhat different, however, because some of the team’s most notable teams either declined their bid or didn’t qualify.
Without those teams, such as Kenai (Alaska), Clarinda (Iowa), the San Diego Stars and the Derby Twins, Walkup’s recent weeks have been spent looking for replacements while also accommodating teams who have to travel long distances to Wichita.
The 78th version of the NBC World Series starts Saturday with three games, including appearances by the Liberal BeeJays and the Haysville Heat.
“I would invite anybody to take a list of teams and their geography and take the 15 days that we have the stadium available and take the game times we have available and keep teams from playing 12 hours or less apart,” Walkup said. “I guarantee people would give up before they got through it, because it’s about a five- or six-hour process.”
The replacements for teams that drop out often come from Kansas, and with more dropouts happening in recent years due to financial constraints, the tournament is becoming less geographically diverse.
Five of the six Jayhawk League teams are in the field and six of the nine from the Walter Johnson League. When teams pull out, like the Stars did in the week leading up to the first day of the tournament, Walkup’s challenge is to find teams whose seasons haven’t ended or teams who can reorganize quickly.
Most often, those come from Kansas or the surrounding states — 21 of the 32 teams are from either Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Colorado or Nebraska, including late additions Arvada (Colo.) Colts and Tulsa Braves. Three time zones are represented, but the farthest team east is the Crestwood (Ill.) Panthers.
“Most of these teams, we don’t find out they’re not coming until the week of the tournament,” Walkup said. “... Fortunately we were able to add a team from Colorado and one from Oklahoma as fill-in teams, which is something I try to do. There are teams around here that have a good fan base and have done well traditionally in the tournament, and we give those teams consideration. But we do look outside of the area to fill as many non-Kansas teams as we can.”
Walkup said efforts are often made to expand the tournament to the eastern half of the country. Last year, the NBC had an agreement with a league in Rhode Island that ultimately decided not to come.
A rise in collegiate summer baseball on the East Coast is keeping those teams and leagues from becoming NBC affiliates. Walkup said creativity might be a key to enticing some eastern teams, such as those who don’t qualify for postseason play elsewhere, but more practical measures can also be taken.
Since the tournament is run by the Wingnuts’ staff, which includes Walkup, attention is divided among the two entities and expansion becomes more difficult with infrequent contact between new leagues and the NBC workers.
“I think we need to figure out ways to offer more incentives for teams to come here,” Walkup said. “Because it is — this tournament has been here for 78 years and it has a lot of history and a lot of tradition. It’s still the same tournament. However, I think people in this area have begun to take it for granted because it has been here so long.”
The tournament will look different without representation from the Alaska League and without the Twins and the Clarinda A’s. But some familiar teams are returning after a one-year absence, such as the El Dorado Broncos and the Conejo (Calif.) Oaks.
The NBC has a positive relationship with California leagues and with leagues in the Midwest. As he continues working to expand its connections, Walkup said he isn’t satisfied with the Kansas-heavy flavor but that the tournament remains viable and a destination for some of the country’s top college players.
“I can pretty much guarantee that this year we will have one or two guys that will make it to the major leagues,” Walkup said. “That’s the unfortunate part about our tournaments — you can’t really pick those guys out. It’s not until three years later that you (realize it). ‘At that time, we didn’t know he was going to be who he was.’ ”