The Wingnuts have been a hit. It's a good thing. I didn't know whether independent baseball was going to fly, especially the way affiliated baseball had crashed and burned here.
Thanks to clever marketing, a good product and Kevin Hooper, people are nutty for the Nuts, who play their home opener tonight at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium after opening the season with three losses at St. Paul.
And while I'm not trying to be a damp rag, especially on opening day, a part of me longs for the Double-A and Triple-A days for Wichita baseball. Not that a lot of you are joining me in this melancholy.
Since 1950, all of Wichita's professional baseball teams — before the Nuts — were farm teams of a major-league franchise. Lots of Wichita teams came and went. It's a checkered past, at best. But it still chafes me that our city wasn't more supportive of affiliated minor-league baseball.
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Then again, I sort of get it. Those who stop here along the minor-league road don't want to stay long. Wichita is nothing more than a pit stop, they hope, on the path to immortality. Naive, perhaps, but I never met a Double-A or Triple-A player who didn't think they were headed for bigger things.
Most of the Wingnuts, fortunately, know better. They're here mostly for love of the game. Don't get me wrong, every player in the American Association, which is where the Wingnuts play, has a dream. But 99.9 percent of them know, deep down, that the major leagues are a major long shot.
I prefer watching prospects just passing through town. The difference between Double-A affiliated baseball and independent baseball, which are often compared, is that Double-A players generally are younger and going up while independent players are older and coming down.
It's a generalization, but not a bad one.
The other day, I took a look at the roster for the Texas League's Northwest Arkansas Naturals, formerly the Wichita Wranglers. Because of dropping attendance and other factors, the Wranglers left town after the 2007 season and moved to Springdale, Ark.
The Naturals, by the way, are in first place in the Texas League North and several of the parent Kansas City Royals' top prospects are there, including former first-round draft picks Mike Moustakas (third base) and pitchers Mike Montgomery and Aaron Crow.
Fifteen of the 24 players on the Naturals' roster were drafted, 10 in the top 10 rounds of the draft.
Double-A is considered the make-or-break level for professional baseball players. It's the end of the dream for many, but the beginning of bigger and better things for some.
Eleven of the 22 players on the Wingnuts' roster were not drafted. The highest former draft picks are outfielder Ryan Patterson, who was a fourth-round pick for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2005, and catcher Jeff Christy, a sixth-rounder for Minnesota in 2006.
Christy was in Triple-A last season with the Rochester (N.Y.) Red Wings, a Twins affiliate.
Wingnuts right-hander Will Morgan also was in affiliated baseball in 2009, pitching for the St. Lucie Mets in the Class-A Florida State League.
Patterson has an interesting track record in professional baseball. As a fourth-round pick, Toronto gave him every chance to succeed in its system and for a while it looked as if he would.
After an outstanding career at LSU, where he batted .353 with 50 homers and 172 RBIs in 190 games, Patterson began his pro career in rookie ball with Auburn (Pa.) in the New York-Penn League in 2005, batting .339 with 13 homers.
A year later, splitting time between Class-A Dunedin and Double-A New Hampshire in the Eastern League, Patterson had 25 homers and 88 RBIs as a 23-year-old. He was on track.
Instead, in what must have been a surprise to Patterson, that's where the track ended. He never rose above Double-A for Toronto and was released after the 2009 season.
A player like Patterson is looking for, and would seem to have a legitimate chance, of hooking on with another big-league franchise.
But it's a tricky proposition in independent baseball. Once in a while, you'll hear about a player who was picked up from an independent league and made a mark in the major leagues. But not often.
Does that matter?
Not to most. Those of you who go out to watch the Wingnuts probably aren't doing so because you're excited about watching future big leaguers. And the Wingnuts have had better attendance in their first two seasons than the Wranglers had at the end of their run in Wichita.
The ballpark is alive and popping when the Wingnuts are in town. That's a good thing. But forgive me for occasionally missing the old days.