Bob Lutz: NBC World Series in need of tender, loving care

08/04/2012 5:00 AM

08/05/2014 8:21 PM

The National Baseball Congress World Series has been a Wichita institution for 78 years. Numerous players – more than you can count – have passed through the NBC on the way to Major League stardom. The tournament is as much a part of Wichita as any industry, company or individual.

But it’s in trouble.

The ownership situation is a mess. The 32-team field for this year’s tournament, ongoing at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, is filled mostly with Kansas and regional teams, making it a stretch to call it a “World Series.”

Several former NBC reliables have stopped coming to the tournament. This year, for example, there are no teams from Alaska. And given the success of Alaska teams over the past 50 years, a tournament without Fairbanks, Anchorage or Kenai is a shell of a tournament.

Worse, some of the teams that finish in the tournament’s top 10 have encountered trouble collecting their prize money in recent years. And, according to the five or six people I talked to this week who are associated with the NBC, that is becoming a crisis. If it doesn’t improve, and quickly, a few more of the most important NBC teams might pull out.

In a strange working arrangement, the NBC is owned by the city of Wichita. Yes, the same bureaucrats who decide where new sewer lines are to be installed have the power over a baseball tournament nearing its ninth decade of operation.

But while the city owns the NBC, it does little to manage the NBC World Series. Those responsibilities are left to the front office of the Wichita Wingnuts and it’s an arrangement that cannot work for the long term.

The poor NBC needs as many friends as it can get right now. Crowds this year have been so-so because of a variety of factors, including the heat. But it’s also because the World Series just doesn’t create the buzz it once did.

Outside of the Santa Barbara (Calif.) Foresters, the El Dorado Broncos, the Liberal Bee Jays and the Hays Larks, name recognition has dwindled. And offense is at an all-time low – the 32-team field was batting around .220 through Friday’s games and there was a 17-game gap without a home run.

The myriad of issues facing the NBC World Series is daunting. Yet except for a few devoted souls, including tournament manager Casey Walkup, there are not enough people coming to the tournament’s aid.

The city did a good thing by rescuing the NBC when its former owners, the Rich Family of Buffalo, N.Y., pulled Wichita’s Double-A affiliate, which it also owned, out of town following the 2006 season. But nobody ever thought that would be a long-term working arrangement. And the longer it goes, the worse it becomes.

Don’t for a second underestimate Wichita’s love affair for the NBC. Generations of families have been going to games and believe the tournament is vital. Nobody wants the NBC to die, yet nobody has stepped up to breathe new life into the organization.

Obviously, city leaders have many priorities. I wonder how many of them even realize the NBC is under their leadership. I wonder how closely the city keeps tab on the NBC’s finances.

The partnership of the NBC and professional baseball in Wichita has long been a source of consternation. Instead of enjoying a little respite while the Wingnuts are on the road, the front-office staff instead humps it for 15 hours a day during the NBC World Series. And they don’t even technically work for the NBC; their efforts are part of a contracted agreement with the city.

Can a staff whose main job is to create Wingnuts success also have its heart and soul into making the NBC successful? It’s a question I’ve had for years.

But there also have been times when the pro team and the NBC were separate entities and that didn’t work out so hot, either, because of squabbling for dates and sponsorships.

What’s needed is a summit, after this year’s World Series ends, between city administrators, and NBC organizational and team leaders. That group needs to throw everything on the table for discussion and work as long as needed to come up with a plan to make the World Series more viable. The NBC is in dire need of attention. It has been neglected for the past several years while too many people take it for granted.

Well, that approach has resulted in a tournament that is showing its susceptibility on and off the field.

The good news is that the NBC World Series has such a rich history in Wichita. It’s part of our fabric with roots that go all the way back to Satchel Paige, who pitched for champion Bismarck, N.D., in the first tournament in 1935. Paige’s uniform number in that tournament, 17, will be retired in ceremonies before the feature game of the World Series on Thursday night.

That’s a nice touch, but there are so many other touches the NBC World Series needs. Tender, loving touches required to keep it going.

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