The 13 years since Wichita has won a professional baseball championship may have taken at least that many years off the life of Josh Robertson.
The Wingnuts’ general manager began working for the Wranglers the year after their 1999 championship season, and most of his on-the-job thoughts since then have been about how he can help bring another title home.
Wichita has endured several near-misses since ’99, reaching the playoffs eight times, including this season, but with no championships to show for it. Thirteen years may not live pass the “long-suffering” standard, but for those involved the disappointments have become almost as memorable as the most recent championship.
The Wingnuts are close to breaking the pattern _ they begin the best-of-five American Association championship series Tuesday in Winnipeg. Game 2 is in Canada on Wednesday before the series comes to Wichita for Game 3 on Friday.
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“I’ve finished second twice, and it’s never a fun feeling,” Robertson said. “As my dad always said, ‘Second sucks.’ It’s stressful.”
Wichita pro baseball teams have had nine winning seasons since ’99, and the 2004 Wranglers (73-66) were the only ones to miss the postseason. Following their ’99 championship, the Wranglers lost in the Texas League finals in 2000 before three straight first-round exits.
Perhaps the most notable of Wichita’s recent failures to win a championship happened in 2006. The Wranglers, one season away from departing for Springdale, Ark., boasted a lineup that included current Royals stalwarts Alex Gordon and Billy Butler.
Joining Butler and Gordon, the 2006 Minor League Player of the Year, were six other former first-round draft picks, including Zack Greinke and Luke Hochevar. The signing bonuses of the eight top picks totaled $16.5 million, but the Wranglers couldn’t hold off a Corpus Christi team led by sluggers Hunter Pence and Walter Young.
In the deciding game, the Wranglers missed a scoring chance in the ninth inning when Gordon lined into a triple play, and Corpus Christi won the game and the championship with a walkoff hit in the 14th inning.
“Hunter Pence and Walter Young killed us,” Robertson said. “The 2006 team was very fun, and I see a lot of similarities between that ’06 team and this team, as far as camaraderie and how they got along together.
“Everybody got along. That was Dayton Moore’s first year as (Royals general manager), and he wanted to keep that team together. He wanted them to learn together because that was the future of the Royals.”
The Wingnuts’ brief postseason history has been equally agonizing. Manager Kevin Hooper has led the team to the playoffs three times, but this year was the first in which it won a postseason series. The Wingnuts were ousted in the first round last season and in 2009, when they had the league’s best record.
In 2010, Hooper’s only year missing the playoffs as manager, the Wingnuts were edged by one game, winning on the final day of the regular season but not getting the necessary help.
“It wasn’t really tough,” Robertson said. “I expect to go through every season and at least make the playoffs, but there is some reality to that, too, that that’s not going to happen all the time.”
Now the Wingnuts can settle not only their own negative feelings but those of Wichita baseball fans and every athlete who has played professional sports in Wichita since 1999 — none of the other Wichita franchises have won a title, either.
The one Wingnuts player who has endured all the postseason suffering possible is pitcher Derek Blacksher. He has pitched in all three of the Wingnuts’ playoff series and is slated to be the Game 3 starter in the championship series against Winnipeg.
“This is my third year here and we’ve never made it this far,” Blacksher said. “I’ve got chills just talking about it right now, it’s incredible. It’s an incredible feeling — we just need three more wins and we get one more celebration.”