After a 2011 season that ended with a Wingnuts trip to the postseason but included clubhouse tension that kept the team from reaching its potential, manager Kevin Hooper spent a tireless offseason building a roster he was sure wouldn’t have similar issues.
Hooper’s work was on display all season as, almost to a man. The Wingnuts trumpeted chemistry as not only a reason for success but the element that got them through a prolonged losing stretch.
The 2012 Wingnuts, who lost in the American Association championship series to Winnipeg last week, have set a new standard for Hooper in roster construction. Getting the best players will always be important, but finding the best players who also advance the cause of off-the-field harmony is just as crucial.
"I’m going to be wrong on guys — you can do as much homework as you want on guys and hear good things about him and he still may not fit," Hooper said. "This was by far the most special group. They sure did get along with each other."
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Hooper found himself almost instantly attached with a group of players that meshed immediately, thanks to common goals and personalities. He discovered the degree of his attachment in the team’s final meeting, when Hooper spoke before giving way to veterans, whose messages often echoed that of the manager.
The Wingnuts’ chemistry might be impossible to recreate because roster rules dictate at least some turnover every season. That, combined with players looking for opportunities elsewhere or giving up the game altogether, could give the Wingnuts a sharply different look in 2013.
"I miss them already," Hooper said. "It was just a different feel this year and everybody was pretty sad to leave each other. From what I hear this week, guys are missing one another. It was just one of those special groups. We may never have another group like that again. You never know in this game."
The Wingnuts’ season was marked with numerous individual accomplishments as the team advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs for the first time in its five-year existence. Josh Lowey was named the league’s pitcher of the year after posting a league-record 15 wins. Jake Kahaulelio won the batting title with a .372 average, Nick Walters set a league record with 57 appearances and Ryan Khoury established a team mark with 37 stolen bases.
The hallmark for the Wingnuts wasn’t its individuals, though — it was the collection of 22.
Hooper, ever a player’s manager, was a major part of that makeup. He established the necessary separation between his office and the clubhouse, but he was often in the center of pregame hacky-sack games and he participated in the on-field celebrations after the Wingnuts clinched a postseason spot and when they won their first-round playoff series. He’ll return next season for his fifth as manager.
"My door is always open whether (players) want to talk about baseball or something else," Hooper said. "I have a lot of talks with these guys that don’t involve baseball, even. I take a lot of pride in getting to know them because I want to be here for them if they ever need anything."
Decisions to make — The Wingnuts’ contracts with Select-A-Seat and two other companies ended after the season and the ownership group will meet soon to determine operations of concessions and ticket sales. Contracts for Savor, Lawrence-Dumont Stadium’s concessions provider, and Total Venue Control, which runs the cashless concessions system, have also expired.
It might not be a surprise to see the Wingnuts end their relationship with Total Venue Control, as Robertson estimated 90 percent of fans would prefer a return to a cash-based system.