Fans will notice positive changes to National Baseball Congress World Series

The Santa Barbara Foresters celebrate after defeating the Seattle Studs 6-2 in the NBC World Series Championship game at LD Stadium Saturday. (Aug. 11, 2012)
The Santa Barbara Foresters celebrate after defeating the Seattle Studs 6-2 in the NBC World Series Championship game at LD Stadium Saturday. (Aug. 11, 2012) The Wichita Eagle

Terry Newman grew up with the National Baseball Congress World Series. And now, the Wichita pizza man is standing behind it to help keep the tournament here.

Newman’s Papa John’s pizza franchise signed on this week as the title sponsor of the World Series’ second week, known as Championship Week. The tournament’s first week, a 16-team showdown to earn two berths in Championship Week, begins at 9 a.m. Friday at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.

“It’s about quality of life,” Newman said. “This is a big part of Wichita’s sports history. If you look at the history of this tournament and the players it has brought to Wichita, it’s unbelievable. I want this to be around for my boys and my grandkids.”

It’s the latest piece of good news in a frenetic summer of retooling the 79-year-old Wichita college baseball tournament.

In June, the NBC and the city rolled out a new format for the tournament and a redoubled marketing effort in the wake of a winter audit that showed the city-owned tournament was barely profitable and suffering from a lack of exposure. The short-term goal is quality baseball and enhanced attendance.

Fans will notice a lot of changes when they walk through the gate on Friday: There will be a post-season feel around the ballpark, with Lawrence-Dumont decorated like, well, a World Series venue.

They’ll also notice changes on the field and in their pocketbooks, said Casey Walkup, the tournament’s director.

The new first-week format puts a distinct premium on early-tournament matchups, with teams facing must-win first-round games to have any chance of advancing into Championship Week. A first-round loser could have to play seven games to qualify for Championship Week, Walkup said, a potentially destructive road for summer teams typically short on pitching.

On the other hand, a first-round winner who keeps advancing might face only four games to advance to second-week action, Walkup said. And any first-week team advancing with a loss will see its record expunged for Championship Week, going back to 0-0 and on an even keel with the other 15 teams.

There will be seven discount nights in the tournament’s schedule — five buyout, or free general admission ticket, nights and two Kwik Shop $1 nights. The Kwik Shop nights include a selection of $1 concession and gift shop items that create the tournament’s best value, Walkup said.

“So it’s possible that a family of four could come to a ballgame, get a concession item and a souvenir for $12,” Walkup said.

Several events are tailored for tournament founder Raymond “Hap” Dumont’s target demographic, kids. There will be fireworks displays Saturday and on championship night – “Commercial fireworks, not the junior high stuff,” Walkup said. “People know what to expect from us there because they’ve seen fireworks at the Wingnuts.”

The “NBC Stars of Tomorrow Clinic” at 9 a.m. Aug. 6 offers a chance for kids to polish their baseball skills with players from the remaining teams. Cost of the clinic is $35 and includes a free Launch Laser, a $50 hitting tool that helps young hitters get their hands in proper hitting position.

And every night, after the 7 p.m. feature game, kids can come down to the infield and run the bases. All kids wearing their Little League uniforms will be admitted free every night of the tournament — except fireworks nights — with a paying adult.

“What we want is to get to the kids who will be playing in the 100th NBC World Series,” Walkup said.

Meanwhile, bolstered by the Go Wichita staff, the NBC crew has enhanced community involvement, lining up corporate sponsors and partnering with hotels and restaurants to help defray expenses for participating teams. By Wednesday, Wichita restaurants had signed up to feed NBC teams before or after games for almost half of the 60 scheduled tournament games; the phone lines are open at the stadium for more hotel and restaurant partners.

In addition, the tournament now has a volunteer committee and filled up quickly with volunteer batboys.

“The results in a pretty short, compacted time this summer have been pretty positive,” said Wichita City Council member Jeff Longwell. “The vibe around the tournament has been very positive, and I’m confident we’re back on the right track.”

Once the tournament wraps up, Walkup said his staff will put the first year of the new, community-backed format under a microscope.

“We’re going to thoroughly evaluate how it went. We know the first year’s not going to be perfect,” Walkup said.

“We know there may be tweaks to be made, and we respect the tournament and its traditions enough to make the changes that might be needed.”

Newman said he’s ready to hit the ballpark.

“The direction they’re taking and the changes they’re making are great,” he said. “The tournament wasn’t horrible the years before, but we need these outsiders coming into our town to eat at our restaurants, fill our malls, rent our cars and stay in our hotels.

“A lot of what we do in this community is for kids,” Newman said. “They deserve to have everything we had. Wichita needs things like the NBC, and there is and will always be a place for it here.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle