Kevin Hooper could make wallpaper strip itself, so it's not surprising he found the right buttons to push as the manager of the Wingnuts this season.
After a dreadful first half, Hooper turned the team upside down and shook. Only eight of the 22 players who started the season in a Wingnuts uniform are still around, but this mostly-new group goes into the final three games of the regular season, starting tonight at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium against El Paso, with a chance to reach the American Association playoffs for the second year in a row.
The Wingnuts will probably have to sweep the series against the lowly Diablos and hope Northern Division rival Sioux Falls stumbles, but that Hooper has his team in this position is an accomplishment on its own.
"It's been a crazy, interesting year,'' said Hooper, a Wingnut from the team's inception in 2008. He was the shortstop on that first team, then moved into the dugout. Before this season started, Hooper signed a two-year deal to manage the club.
But we all know Hooper won't manage in independent baseball much longer. The day is coming when he'll move up, either to the affiliated minor leagues or to a college coaching job.
Hooper said he recently received an offer to manage the Detroit Tigers' Class-A affiliate in the Midwest League, the West Michigan Whitecaps, in 2011. He hasn't given an answer.
"I've made no bones about wanting to manage in the big leagues someday,'' Hooper said. "And I'm not going to get that opportunity from (Wichita).''
Hooper's career is an ongoing discussion in his house.
He and his wife, Lindsey, live in Valley Center with their two young daughters, ages 5 and 2. Hooper is first a family man. He loves being able to spend time at home during the baseball season, something he wasn't able to do during a 10-year minor league career.
Managing the Wingnuts allows him the best of both worlds, but there is always that fence over which the grass is greener.
"This time with the kids, you can't get this back,'' Hooper said. "It's an important stage to be around.''
His oldest, Lucy, just started kindergarten and played T-ball this summer.
"She's going to want to continue doing that,'' Hooper said.
He is being tugged to a higher level of baseball; it's a matter of how much he wants to resist.
"My wife doesn't even like thinking about it,'' Hooper said. "And I don't know what I'm going to do. I really don't.''
Hooper said he's caught up in winding down the Wingnuts season and hopefully leading the team to the playoffs. He has had a lot to do with the restructuring of the team and is proud of the way it has played during the season's second half.
"This is a really good situation, managing here,'' Hooper said. "I love it, I absolutely love it. I enjoy playing who I want to play, recruiting who I want to recruit. There are pros and cons with every level of baseball.''
Hooper thinks he'll know when the time is right to move on and he's not sure that day has come.
This Wingnuts team has impressed him with its resolve. He's happy that a bunch of guys who were thrown together at midseason have found a way to become a cohesive and successful unit. And he's proud they've been able to overcome an injury to the Wingnuts' best starting pitcher, Nick Singleton, and the recent departure of left-handed closer Justin Dowdy, who was picked up by the Tampa Bay Rays and is pitching well at Double-A Montgomery (Ala.).
"You can't replace a Singleton, that's an ace,'' Hooper said of the right-hander who was 7-3 with a 2.36 ERA when he injured a finger. "And Dowdy was hands-down the best closer in this league.
"I tip my hat to the rest of the guys on this team because we haven't missed a beat without them.''
It wasn't easy, Hooper said, to send players packing who had been with the Wingnuts for a period of time. But he thought the team had gotten complacent and if there's one thing to know about Hooper, it's that he's never been complacent.
"We needed to change the atmosphere and it's worked out well,'' he said. "I just wasn't going to sit around and let the same things happen in the second half of the season that happened in the first half. I'm a competitor and I had to make some tough moves.
"We got a hold of anybody and everybody we could and then you see who comes out of the woodwork."
The toughest move is yet to come.
Hooper has been the identity of the Wingnuts for three years, the local guy making good. He's become just as popular to Wingnuts fans as he was to Shocker fans as a scrappy Wichita State infielder during the late 1990s.
There will come a time, though, when Hooper has to follow his ambition. He said he's not going to keep the Tigers waiting and will announce his intentions shortly after the Wingnuts are finished.
"People might call me crazy if I'm offered an affiliated job and don't take it,'' Hooper said.
He's been called worse.