Common courtesy prompted Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper to tell outfielder Eric Williams that he possibly could return to the team after being released during spring training.
Williams knew better. He saw that the Wingnuts had three experienced outfielders, and as left-handed thrower, he couldn't play any other position. Chances were his last day in Wichita was May 9, when the Wingnuts made their final roster cuts.
Then left fielder and leadoff hitter Kennard Bibbs was released three days into the season and Williams got a call to come back to Wichita. He was looking to make the team as a reserve, but when he returned he was the starting left fielder and No. 2 hitter.
"I was very realistic with myself," Williams said. "All I wanted to do was show what I can do and prove to Hooper that I could play at this level and just show what I had. But I was real with myself. I knew, with the experience we had in the outfield, it wasn't looking very good."
The 25-year-old Williams spent about a week in the Frontier League with River City. Since rejoining the Wingnuts, he has been a bright spot in an otherwise anemic offense. A strikeout during Friday's game with St. Paul ended Williams' streak of reaching base in eight consecutive plate appearances.
Hooper wanted to keep Williams and help him learn by watching as mostly a part-time player. But American Association teams are allowed to keep 22 players, meaning only one extra non-catching position player can be kept. Since Williams can only play outfield, the Wingnuts kept the more versatile Jonathan Dziomba.
Williams went off to River City (located in O'Fallon, Mo.,) and expected to stay awhile. Instead, he's playing left field alongside outfielders Chris Colton and Ryan Patterson.
"I was thinking more along the lines of maybe next year (Hooper) would give me a shot," Williams said. "I was just happy for the opportunity he gave me in spring training and (thought) hopefully I showed him something in spring training. I just didn't think it would be that quick."
Wherever the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Williams was to spend the 2010 season, he needed a new challenge. In his first professional year after playing collegiately at Arizona State and Wake Forest, Williams had a .365 batting average last year with Big Bend of the Continental League. He drew 73 walks and had 25 strikeouts with a .547 on-base percentage.
The Continental League is made up mostly of young players who, like Williams in 2009, are getting their first chance at pro ball. Williams feasted on the low-level pitching, and has shown similar discipline so far this season, drawing four walks in 16 plate appearances.
"It's game-to-game," Williams said. "I've got to produce every game. My experience level still isn't very high, and I've got to prove myself every day. I've had to do that throughout my career and have to continue to do that now."
Making a comparison — Last season, 55 of the Wingnuts' 86 home runs were hit by Greg Porter, Kelly Hunt or Dustan Mohr, who usually hit in the 3-4-5 slots in the batting order. Wichita's power hitting was unmatched in the AA, but two North Division opponents now have similar home run prowess.
Sioux Falls signed former major leaguer Reggie Abercrombie and Brandon Sing, who set the league record with 22 home runs in 2008. They join Beau Torbert, the league's MVP two years ago, to give the Pheasants three power threats.
"They should lead the league in home runs every year," Hooper said. "I think everybody in the league is going to agree that (Sioux Falls Stadium) is a bandbox. They're probably going to hit some home runs there, and they have some guys who can hit home runs anywhere."
St. Paul added major-league veteran Kevin Millar and brought back Ole Sheldon, who spent the first part of the 2009 season with the Saints before signing with the Cleveland Indians organization. St. Paul already had power hitters Jason Cooper, a former Triple-A player, and Brent Krause, who has 30 homers with the Saints in the last two seasons.
It remains to be seen whether St. Paul's or Sioux Falls' power hitters can match Wichita's 2008 trio.
"That's tough," Hooper said. "Just the experience of those three (Wingnuts) players from last year. But you throw Millar in that mix with Cooper and Ole Sheldon, it probably is comparable.... It's tough to compare, but both of them definitely have three big horses in the middle, like we did last year."
Upgrade — Last season's hail storm at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium did around $1 million in damage to various areas of the stadium. One that needed immediate attention was the video board, which suffered significant damage and needed replacement.
So a significant portion of the insurance money — about $470,000 — was used to purchase and install a 16-foot by 44-foot high-definition board that Wingnuts general manager Josh Robertson believes can withstand damage from baseballs or hail.
"We've received a ton of compliments on it," Robertson said. "There's so many different things that we can do with it. The graphics are just unbelievable on it, and it's a lot less maintenance on it."