Bob Lutz

Covering Wichita’s minor-league teams scratched a baseball itch

The Pittsburgh Pirates were one of three teams managed by former Wichita Aero Jim Tracy.
The Pittsburgh Pirates were one of three teams managed by former Wichita Aero Jim Tracy. Associated Press

Editor’s note: Bob Lutz is retiring from The Eagle this month after 43 years at the paper. He’s writing about some of his best memories covering Wichita and Kansas sports.

I’ll never forget Jim Tracy.

He played for the Wichita Aeros back in the day, 1980. That’s a long time ago.

I covered the Triple-A Aeros at the time for The Eagle and my job was to be at the ballpark early to catch up with players, talk to the manager and get a feel for what was going on with the team.

Covering minor-league baseball was one of the best experiences of my career. And it’s why I’ve been pushing for affiliated minor-league ball to return to Wichita, which looks like it may happen in a couple of years.

Tracy was special. I knew it at the time, which is why I made it a point to talk to him every day before games. We would often sit on the bullpen bench near the clubhouse at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium and talk baseball. I’ve always considered myself a baseball guy, a student of the game. But Tracy was on another level.

I was 25 at the time and so was Tracy. So we had that in common, too. He was one of the friendliest guys I’ve been around and was never threatened by me being in the dreaded media. There were times, believe it or not, when he even sought me out for chats. I gained great insight into the Aeros, into Tracy and into baseball.

Tracy, a left-handed hitter who played the outfield and a little first base, made it to the big leagues with the Cubs for a few games in 1980 and again in 1981. He played in a total of 87 games and batted .249. His playing career was nondescript.

But obviously I wasn’t the only one who knew there was something different about Tracy. In 1987 he became a manager in the Cubs’ system for Class-A Peoria. And after a steady ascent, he finally got an opportunity to manage in the big leagues, taking over the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2001. He managed LA, Pittsburgh and Colorado for a combined 11 seasons and was manager of the year in the NL with the Rockies in 2009.

Tracy eventually left the Rockies after a bad 2012 season, in part because the Rockies were bad. But he also publicly disagreed with the organization’s philosophy of the planned usage of multiple pitchers in games. He hasn’t managed since.

I covered minor-league baseball for seven seasons, two for the Aeros and five when affiliated baseball returned to Wichita after a two-year absence in 1987 with the Pilots and Wranglers. Tracy is a guy that stood out.

But there were others.

Right-handed pitcher Doug Brocail was so much fun to be around when he pitched for the Aeros from 1989-91. Brocail finally got his shot at the big leagues in 1992 with the Padres and he made it last 15 years with five teams and is currently the pitching coach for the Texas Rangers.

Brocail was another of those gregarious, fun guys to cover. Not everyone was like him.

I remember walking into the Aeros’ clubhouse in 1980, apparently after writing something to which left-handed relief pitcher George Riley had taken offense.

Riley was a hothead and he was more than willing to make a scene on this particular day. He started to chastise me and I tried my best to offer an explanation. But he didn’t relent and I’m not always the best at just walking away, so the exchange was heated. Eventually, I did walk away and Riley went on to a short and unimpressive career (1-4, 4.97 ERA) in the majors.

As a reporter covering the minors, you work especially closely with managers, of course. Harry Dunlop, Jack Hiatt, Steve Smith, Pat Kelly and Steve Lubratich were the skippers of the teams I was around. Hiatt was especially interesting to me because he was a catcher for the San Francisco Giants from 1965-69, when he was a teammate of future Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry.

Hiatt was a low-key guy who enjoyed talking about his experiences with the Giants, so some of those conversations were captivating.

Smith was the toughest manager to deal with just because he was so competitive and, since he was relatively new to managing, he was eager to prove himself. He wasn’t belligerent but could be touchy. He went on to coach in the big leagues with five teams and was a coach for the Cincinnati Reds as recently as 2014.

There was a time when I wanted to be a beat writer for a major-league baseball team. That was my goal when I broke into this business. The days on the road and the grind of being at the park every day didn’t deter my aspirations.

As time went on, though, I discovered that maybe there were better things to do in this business. Covering minor-league baseball, when you’re just working at the home games, was enough for to satisfy my baseball appetite.