Wichita Wingnuts

Wingnuts say they could be supported in new ballpark

Lawrence-Dumont Stadium was built in 1934 and has been home to the American Association’s Wingnuts since 2008.
Lawrence-Dumont Stadium was built in 1934 and has been home to the American Association’s Wingnuts since 2008. The Wichita Eagle

The Wingnuts support the planned construction of a new baseball stadium downtown, even if it leaves the independent baseball team’s fate uncertain at best.

The team wants a place in the discussion about the future of baseball in Wichita, though it appears increasingly likely it could continue without them.

“We are all for a new stadium, and if a new stadium means affiliated baseball, we’re all for that,” said Gary Austerman, who owns the Wingnuts along with Steve Ruud and Nate Robertson. “We want the best for Wichita. We understand, we’re realistic as a business, so we’re all in as far as that’s concerned.”

Mayor Jeff Longwell is attempting to find a Double-A or Triple-A team to play in the new stadium, for which he said he has secured funding through sales-tax revenue bonds and other money from the state.

Longwell said the bonds, with sales expected to raise about $40 million, were granted by the state on the contingency that a new stadium will be used for affiliated baseball. Austerman said that was news to him.

“They’ve already said, ‘Here’s what you have to do to get the $40 million in STAR bonds. You have to have an affiliated team,’ ” Longwell said. “The reality is, it is a different brand of baseball.”

That is a point on which Austerman and the Wingnuts disagree. Most players in the American Association, in which the Wingnuts play, were drafted by major-league organizations and have minor-league experience.

The Wingnuts, league champions in 2014, have reached the playoffs in 7 of 9 seasons. Last year, four former Wichita players played in the major leagues.

“The quality of the baseball is no better, that’s one thing,” Austerman said of Double-A ball. “I do think that the Wichita Wingnuts have tried to put the best level of baseball out there, and I think that’s been a little underappreciated.”

Longwell hopes to attract a franchise in Double-A, where players have a clearer, more direct path to the majors. Independent players, while experienced, are often playing out their last months or years as professionals.

The most discussed team for Wichita is the Double-A Texas League’s franchise in San Antonio. The Elmore Sports Group owns that club and wants to move another of its teams, Triple-A Colorado Springs, to San Antonio.

That would create an opening in the Texas League, where Wichita had a team from 1987-2007, before the Wranglers moved to Springdale, Ark.

Longwell has been hesitant to discuss the likelihood of San Antonio’s franchise moving to Wichita since talks are ongoing and because the Colorado Springs team also has an unclear future.

“It’s too early to talk about it,” Longwell said. “What you could say is that there is a pathway for the current Wingnuts owners to acquire or move into an affiliated team that would be capable of filling the stadium.”

That pathway, it appears, is to purchase shares of the San Antonio team not kept by one owner who wants to keep his stake if the team moves, Longwell said.

The Wingnuts paid a $1 million franchise fee to enter the American Association and have a $200,000 letter of credit for yearly league expenses. A minor-league team may cost at least 20 times the initial American Association fee. Day-to-day operations, according to Austerman, would be similar.

“If an affiliated team came up, we would be willing to look at that,” Austerman said. “We would bring other (owners) in, of course, because that’s a totally different animal. We’ve already looked at all of this, and we know what the deal is as far as an affiliated team.”

A new ballpark would be built where 83-year-old Lawrence-Dumont Stadium resides. The city-owned ballpark has had renovations over the years but has deteriorated because of age and isn’t as fan-friendly as newer minor-league parks around the country.