Marlins’ Wichita farm team to bring better baseball, execs vow at home-plate ceremony

Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner is promising Wichita better baseball than it’s ever seen when Major League-affiliated ball returns to the city after a 12-year absence.

“Players today are bigger, faster, stronger,” than in 2007, when the last MLB affiliated team, the Wichita Wranglers, packed their bags for Springdale, Ark., O’Conner said.

“Since the Wranglers left, I think the game at the minor league level has elevated,” he said. “It will be a different game, it will be a higher level of enthusiasm, a higher level of energy, a more sophisticated presentation.”

O’Conner was among about a dozen baseball bigwigs who traveled to Wichita to ceremonially place the home plate for Wichita’s new stadium, under construction at the northeast corner of Maple and Sycamore.

Branch Rickey, president of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, said it marks a new era for Wichita baseball.

“Per se, setting a home plate is insignificant,” Rickey said. “But it’s symbolic in the respect that baseball has so many ways of reinventing itself and it’s emblematic of the way this sports embeds itself in communities, in people’s lives.”

That symbolism was on display during Thursday’s plate-setting.

Rickey, the league president, is named after his grandfather, the late and legendary Dodgers owner/executive who signed Jackie Robinson as Major League Baseball’s first African-American player.

Members of League 42, a northeast Wichita youth league named for Robinson’s jersey number, acted as an honor guard at the ceremonial plate setting.

“You never can count baseball out from finding some way of perpetuating that magic that it is in the American culture,” Rickey said.

Wichita’s future team is currently named the Baby Cakes and playing its final season in New Orleans.

Wichita is rushing to complete the new $75 million stadium, at the site where the 1930s-vintage Lawrence-Dumont Stadium has been demolished.

Although construction has begun, the final design of the ball park is still on the drawing board and the naming rights haven’t been sold, so no one knows what it will be called.

The team doesn’t yet have its “Wichita” name either.

But it will be a farm team in the Miami Marlins organization and two Marlins executives were on hand at the plate setting.

They gave Mayor Jeff Longwell a Marlins jersey with the word “Wichita” and the number 20 — the year the new team will start play here — printed on the back.

“I know the Marlins are down a little bit right now,” said Dick Scott, the Marlins’ director of player development. “I promise you we are going to turn it around.”

He said the new stadium in Wichita will play a role in that.

“We’re going to be coming here with a lot of good players,” he said. “One thing we always talk about is having . . . good facilities, and certainly this is going to be the cream of the crop.”

There will be a noticeable difference between Triple-A play, which is one step removed from the majors, and Double-A, which was the level the Wranglers played at, O’Conner said.

“In many respects, Double A is where you find out if a player can play or an umpire can umpire,” he said. “The game picks up a notch (at Triple-A).”

There are basically three types of Triple-A players, O’Conner said.

“You have players who are on their way to the big leagues,” he said. “You have players who are serviceable Major League players but can’t stay there, who are back and forth. And then you have that occasional Major League player who’s coming down for a rehab or whatever.”

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Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.