Wichita Wingnuts

Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper focused on the now

Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper hugs catcher Chris McMurray after winning the American Association title at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium on Sept. 13.
Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper hugs catcher Chris McMurray after winning the American Association title at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium on Sept. 13. The Wichita Eagle

Kevin Hooper possesses a rare quality among ambitious people — he doesn’t plan ahead.

Instead of formulating a long-term plan, Hooper, the Wingnuts manager, prefers a micro approach. So while he may not know where he’ll be in five years, Hooper knows where he’ll be for the Wingnuts’ home opener on Tuesday, and that’s good enough for him.

“I’m going to enjoy Tuesday, and I mean that,” Hooper said. “That’s my focus. I think that’s why we’ve been so successful, because I try to keep our guys’ minds off of that. I try to keep their minds off of down the road. Let’s just focus on today. Let’s work as hard as we can today to win a game tonight, and that’s it.”

The 38-year-old Hooper guided the Wingnuts to their first American Association championship last September and has led Wichita to the playoffs in five of his six seasons, missing the 2010 postseason by one game.

There doesn’t seem to be much left for Hooper to accomplish in independent baseball, but he finds day-by-day challenges to keep himself engaged.

The Wingnuts, who started the season 2-1 at Joplin, are already dealing with a slew of injuries, and reliever Jarret Leverett was signed into affiliated baseball, so Hooper is scrambling to fill his lineup and his roster.

Hooper lives in Valley Center with his wife and two daughters, and he values the 20-minute commute to Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. He also recognizes that a career advancement would present greater sacrifices and wouldn’t be all that much different from what he’s doing now. It’s still baseball, after all.

“I just love to teach,” Hooper said. “I love to coach, I love to teach. I think that’s what I love so much about being a manager is work. I love to work. I’m just so fortunate that I get to do what I do. I know I say it over and over, but I could never say it enough – I’ve been involved in a kid’s game and made pretty good money doing it for a long time.

“Hopefully it’s what I get to be able to do for however long I want to do it. Getting to do it at home is priceless.”

Hooper, a Lawrence native who played at Wichita State from 1996-99, played six major-league games in 2005 and eight more with the Detroit Tigers the following season.

The majority of his playing career was spent in Triple-A with the Tigers and Marlins, and those organizations grew so fond of Hooper that they offered him managing jobs in the minor leagues early in Hooper’s Wingnuts career.

Hooper turned those down while still expressing, at the time, a desire to manage in affiliated baseball. He has since changed his mind as he’s found a niche with players humbled by failures in major-league organizations and more eager to learn than high-round draft picks coddled by their teams.

“I don’t know how much that intrigues me,” Hooper said. “…I don’t do egos. And in the minor leagues, your lineup is made out for you. It really is. I always give the example of, you have the first-rounder who got paid a lot of money, and he’s hitting third every night. He has no respect for you and you have no respect for him. It doesn’t matter. He’s got to hit third and you’re invested in him.

“That’s why I love this level so much. I report to one guy, and that’s (general manager) Josh Robertson. He has the final say, but he pretty much gives me the reins to do what I want with this team.”

College baseball might be Hooper’s destination, though his one-day-at-a-time philosophy doesn’t suggest an impending departure from the Wingnuts.

Hooper’s name surfaced when WSU was looking to replace coach Gene Stephenson two summers ago, and Hooper publicly expressed his interest. He didn’t get an interview, though, because he had never coached the college game.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that the college level is very intriguing to me,” Hooper said. “My wife (Lindsey) says she can’t imagine the impact (I’d have) on an 18-year-old kid and having him for four years.

“You always talk about not only making a difference in someone’s ability on the field, but off the field for me, too. Just making a difference in their lives and trying to make our guys that put this uniform on better people while they’re here, too. That would be very intriguing for me at the college level.”

If Hooper keeps winning with the Wingnuts, more opportunities are sure to present themselves. But first to present itself is Wichita’s home opener, Hooper’s singular priority.

“I don’t consume myself with (other jobs),” Hooper said. “I’m going to focus on Tuesday night, and that’s it right now.”

Winnipeg at Wingnuts

When: 7:05 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Lawrence-Dumont Stadium

Records: Winnipeg 3-1, Wingnuts 2-1

Radio: KWME, 92.7-FM