The Wingnuts begin their 10th season in the American Association on Thursday, nine years after they began from scratch.
The story of the Wingnuts existence begins in 2006, when Wranglers owners Bob and Mindy Rich decided to move Wichita’s Double-A Texas League team out of 71-year-old Lawrence-Dumont Stadium to a new ballpark in Springdale, Ark. after the 2007 season.
The following is a recounting of the events that led to the Wingnuts’ existence, told by many of the people – listed with their 2008 titles – most closely involved.
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Josh Robertson (general manager): That was the year (2006) we finished second in the Texas League and it was also the year my brother (Nate Robertson) pitched Game 3 of the World Series against the Cardinals. My entire family was there but me because I was in Buffalo, N.Y., meeting with (representatives for) the owners of the Wranglers.
Nate Robertson (part owner): Minor-league clubs were not going to put their clubs in facilities that were less than the best. Wichita wasn’t going in that direction with their facilities, so we lost our Double-A team.
Josh Robertson: (Wranglers personnel were) just trying to prepare us for the boos and the hisses of the team leaving, season-ticket holders being upset and fans being upset. With the Wranglers leaving, it had a huge effect on the attendance for the 2007 season, and the team wasn’t that good that year. It was a year to just get through it.
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Kevin Hooper (infielder): The first time that it became known to me was Josh and I just talking on the phone one night, after I had signed with the Astros. I had heard that the team was getting developed and it was kind of happening, and the first time I really heard about what was developing was when I spoke with Josh.
Josh Robertson: The city put an RFP out, a request for proposal, and each of the leagues (the American Association, the United League, the Northern League) had to put an RFP in of why they felt that they’d be the most suitable league for Wichita. The city of Wichita reviewed those RFPs and Horn Chen, representing the American Association, won that bid.
Steve Ruud (part owner): I think that the stipulation for Horn was that he had to have some local ownership because he had owned the hockey team for some time. He lived in Chicago and had been in Wichita three times.
Josh Robertson: So there was a local ownership group put together which consisted of Steve Ruud, my brother Nate, Dan Waller who was the VP of Conco construction; Nick Easter, the owner of NCRI; and Gary Austerman, partner and owner of Klenda Austerman law firm. Those five owners made up 45 percent and Horn made up 55 percent.
Nate Robertson: I did not want professional baseball to leave this town. Being a proud Wichitan and growing up here and going to Wichita State, I didn’t want professional baseball to leave, so I really wanted to back the cause.
Ruud: I had a lot of fond memories of Lawrence-Dumont Stadium through the old Victory League. I played there for 13 years. I had the opportunity and just kind of jumped at it, put a little group together and we jumped in there with Horn.
Josh Robertson: All of the hockey staff moved into the stadium. Chris Presson was the president of everything and was the GM of the Thunder, and I was the GM of the Wingnuts. That’s how we operated for two years.
Joel Lomurno (Thunder senior vice president): It was very exciting. It basically meant that for two years, when Horn owned it that we didn’t have a day off. But it was so much fun for people that had been in hockey for so long and having a chance to do something brand new was really exciting.
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Josh Robertson: I didn’t know what independent baseball was about. I didn’t know how to deal with the salary cap, I didn’t know that I needed to hire my own manager and trainer. All these things that I didn’t have to deal with in affiliated ball that I was going to have to deal with now. But I was excited for the challenge.
Ruud: We kept Josh (from the Wranglers’ staff) and we kept Jerry Taylor, who was running the NBC at that time, and we kept the groundskeeper, Jeff Kline. That’s all we kept. We started with absolutely nothing. We didn’t have a name, we didn’t have a desk, we didn’t have a baseball, we had nothing. Started from scratch.
Josh Robertson: I knew in that very first year that I was going to have absolutely zero part in building this team. I needed to find somebody that had experience in independent baseball of building a baseball team, and let them do that so I could get the business side of it going. Kash Beauchamp had 10 years of experience doing that and was recommended by the league.
Kash Beauchamp (first Wingnuts manager): To me, it was a really good opportunity because I was really wanting to get back closer to home, which is Oklahoma. I was really excited about it. I just love this part of the country and this is my home. I was familiar with Wichita, I really liked the town.
Ruud: Most of the stuff that was accomplished, most of the stuff that goes on, was handled by Josh and the management team. We just stayed out of the way. It wasn’t our business to do that, that’s why we hired Josh. Those guys pretty well ran the show and we just kind of stayed out of the way.
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Josh Robertson: I had a team to get ready. I knew that we had to name the team, we had to trademark it, we had to build the logo. We had to buy letterheads and pens and paper and change the signage up and get everything that we needed to run a ballpark.
Lomurno: I remember coming up with the name was a lot of fun, unveiling the name was a lot of fun.
Josh Robertson: Chris Presson had contacted (Eagle sports editor) Kirk Seminoff. This was at the time I was still a Wranglers employee and I hadn’t made the decision whether I was going to stay or go (to Springdale). Chris had contacted Kirk and said, ‘All right, can you help us out here?’ And Kirk did a wonderful job and helped out the organization tremendously by publicizing a name-the-team contest.
Ruud: We had numerous conversations about that and it finally boiled down to a meeting on it. About the fourth or fifth meeting on it and the list got shorter and shorter and the Wingnut name kept showing up.
Josh Robertson: Wingnuts was one of the names that were submitted, only it had a Z on the end of it. I said, ‘Let’s slap an S on that instead of a Z, and let’s put that name back into the mix as the wild card.’ And the Wingnuts got voted on. That’s how that came to pass.
Ruud: I hated it. I really did.
Josh Robertson: The owners – Dan, Steve, Gary and Nick – they didn’t like the name at first.
Ruud: I said, ‘OK, guys, this is way over my head. If you think you can market this thing and that’s what you want to do, well then that’s what you’re here for.’ They did very, very well. The smartest thing I probably ever did was OK that name.
Brenan Herrera (Wingnuts infielder 2008): I knew it was on a crutch because I worked crutches I guess when I was younger. I remember someone saying it was a Wingnut. Then I saw the emblem and I was like what the hell, it’s a Wingnut? Huh.
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Beauchamp: I would have loved for Josh to have built that team and just let me manage. If I had known for one second that Josh wanted to do that, I would have let him take the whole damn thing.
Josh Robertson: I was thinking I need to make at least one contribution to this (roster). I’m focusing on the business side of things but I need to make a contribution. I remember we were looking for a middle infielder.
Hooper: Josh called and said, ‘Hey Hoop, before you’re done playing, when you decide to call it quits and retire in affiliated ball, I would love for you to play one year with me.’
Josh Robertson: I said, ‘Hoop, you’re one of the most popular players in any place that you ever played, because you were the little guy who was told that you would never make it and you went out and proved everybody wrong.’
Hooper: I hung up the phone and I told my wife, and I said, ‘What about now?’ Financially I’m coming from Triple-A where I’m making decent money. We didn’t know how that would work, if it would possibly work well.
Josh Robertson: He came in, won the batting title, and again was the most popular player with our team in the league.
Beauchamp: Kevin Hooper was the ultimate as far as a guy that had everything you look for in an independent league player. He brought leadership, work ethic, he’s an overachiever. He’s the type of guy that sets the standard for the rest of the club.
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Lomurno: I remember the buzz was tremendous. It just seems like new things in town are wildly successful for the first year of it coming on-board.
Josh Robertson: I remember opening night 2008. (My wife) Monica was driving down McLean Boulevard and she had Clara in there with her, and (daughter) Clara was 6 years old. This was 30 minutes before game time and she saw the stands were empty. She’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be the Wranglers all over again.’ Then she pulled into the parking lot and she saw the line of people backed all the way to Sycamore Street.
Our first two nights of existence drew over 6,000 people.
Beauchamp: Obviously, I wanted to be in the playoffs and I’m driven for that type of thing and it was disappointing that we didn’t, but we were pretty competitive starting from scratch. It’s something that I’m pretty proud of that team for.
Hooper: You ask any affiliated guy, you hear independent baseball and you really wanted no interest in it. I’m just being honest. And that was my opinion. How that changed quickly after being involved in it.
Ruud: We wanted it to last as long as it has. We’re tickled to death that it has. I wasn’t looking for a short-term, in and out thing. I wanted to get involved with it, have some fun with it and keep professional baseball in Wichita. That was the main thing.