Wichita has to do major work to be a minor-league town again

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been blogging about Wichita’s history of affiliated minor-league baseball.

What is affiliated baseball? It’s belonging to a major-league organization, which was the case for Wichita’s 76-year history in the minor leagues. For the past six years, though, the Wichita Wingnuts have played independent baseball. They do not answer to an MLB franchise. They find and sign their own players.

Which is fine, except it’s not as fulfilling to me. Maybe it is to you. And that’s great.

As far as I’m concerned, though, there’s only one way to go for professional baseball in Wichita and that’s to do what it takes — and at this point it’s going to take a lot — to get back into the affiliated game.

I found that 734 players from Wichita’s affiliated minor-league history reached the major leagues. And there were a few big names, like Roberto Alomar, Bruce Sutter and Bob Uecker, famous more for his banter with Johnny Carson than his baseball accomplishments. Add in the countless number of future or past big leaguers from opposing teams over those many years and the number must grow into many thousands.

But apathy reached a low point in 2007, and after that season the Wichita Wranglers, the Double-A Texas League team for the Kansas City Royals, moved to Springdale, Ark. Attendance in Wichita was spotty and the Bob and Mindy Rich ownership, which had been strong for much of its 19 years, faded.

In the Wingnuts’ six seasons, 10 players who have appeared in a major-league game have gotten on the field. And most, if not all of them, were removed from their time in the big leagues.

It’s not the same. And I don’t know why the lack of affiliated minor-league baseball in town doesn’t bother more people. It bothers me. It’s as if a part of our sports soul is missing.

Minor-league ball returned to Wichita in 1970 after a 12-year absence, and except for 1985 and 1986, there was a 37-year run of minor-league baseball in town until the Wranglers were no longer.

There are no signs that it’s coming back anytime soon. Maybe people are satisfied with the Wingnuts. Again, nothing against that franchise. It’s been a winning team and attendance has been OK.

Something, though, is missing. It’s not as good a baseball experience. I enjoy going to the ballpark on a warm summer evening and watching prospects, players we know are going to get to the big leagues. There’s something cool about watching a game on television and pointing out that a particular player spent time in Wichita.

We’re running out of those players, though. The list of Wichita minor leaguers who played in the major leagues this season is short: Carlos Beltran, Chad Durbin, Mark Ellis, Jeremy Affeldt, David DeJesus, Zack Greinke, Mike Aviles, Billy Butler, Matt Diaz, J.P. Howell, Donnie Murphy, Billy Buckner, Alex Gordon, Octavio Dotel, Luke Hochevar.

Fifteen players are all that remains to connect Wichita to MLB. Doesn’t that bother you?

Admittedly, I’m baseball guy. I believe that part of a quality sports life for a city the size of Wichita is having minor-league baseball.

What needs to happen?

It’s going to be tough to convince a Double-A or Triple-A league to look at Wichita. Bridges might not be burned down, but there are flames. The eight Texas League franchises are drawing an average of 4,000 to 8,000 per night and Wichita was rarely able to reach those numbers.

The only chance is for strong leadership. It has to come from city leaders, sports leaders, civic leaders — pretty much anywhere there’s a leader. An ownership group — maybe the same people who own the Wingnuts — needs to be identified. Then there needs to be a move to renovate — or better yet, build a new Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, which sits on a prime piece of land with a great view of downtown Wichita.

The view of the stadium isn’t quite as gorgeous. It’s an old park and it needs a lot of costly work. Band-aids aren’t enough anymore. And anyway, if there is to be affiliated baseball in Wichita ever again, L-D just doesn’t have the amenities a new league would be interested in.

El Paso, Texas, has a simliar baseball story to that of Wichita. It lost its Texas League franchise several years ago and started an independent team. Now, though, a new $60.8 million stadium is under construction in downtown El Paso, which will be home to the Triple-A team of the San Diego Padres next season.

Can it happen in Wichita? It’s a longshot. It’ll require deep pockets, a new or vastly renovated ballpark and a lot of serendipity. But a man can dream, can’t he?