Bob Lutz

It's time, Wichita: Fix Lawrence-Dumont and get a big-league affiliate

A sellout crowd greeted the team of ex-major leaguers to the NBC World Series earlier this month at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. The World Series and the Wingnuts independent team are the stadium’s main tenants.
A sellout crowd greeted the team of ex-major leaguers to the NBC World Series earlier this month at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. The World Series and the Wingnuts independent team are the stadium’s main tenants. The Wichita Eagle

There are some dominoes in the process of falling around minor-league baseball. If you use your imagination, you can create a scenario in which Wichita once again gets a franchise affiliated with a major-league team.

But you have to imagine really hard and you have to acknowledge that for the pieces to come together, strong and decisive leadership will be required.

The owner of the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox, David Elmore, announced in April that he was moving his team to San Antonio for the 2019 season, contingent on a new downtown ballpark. The Double-A San Antonio Missions, also owned by Elmore, will stay in San Antonio through the 2018 season.

The Texas panhandle cities of Amarillo and Lubbock have been mentioned as potential landing spots for the Double-A franchise that plays in the Texas League.

J. David Nelson, a former Lubbock city council member, runs Southpaw Sports & Entertainment, which has a stated goal “to bring minor league baseball to Lubbock and the South Plains.”

Here’s where it gets interesting. Nelson has said the Missions are considering Lubbock, Amarillo and Wichita for possible relocation.

Wichita?

Our city has been without affiliated minor-league baseball since the Double-A Wranglers departed for Springdale, Ark., after the 2007 season.

The void has been filled, at least partially, by the Wingnuts, an independent team in the American Association. It has been a highly-successful franchise on the field for nearly a decade. But Wichita needs to be a player again in the affiliated world of minor-league baseball.

During the decade since the Wranglers inhabited Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, one of the oldest stadiums in the country, the ballpark has continued to deteriorate. There’s only so much that can be done to the place unless someone – that dynamic leadership we talked about earlier – can come up with $25 million or more for a major renovation. Not the band-aids and patches that have been applied over the last 10 years.

Affiliated baseball and an updated stadium go hand in hand. It’s going to be difficult, though, to come up with a way to make those hands firmly grab one another.

Money is tight. And even if the Missions’ winding road could potentially lead them to Wichita, how big of a threat are Amarillo and Lubbock?

Wichita has a metropolitan population of around 645,000, which places it above all but nine of the 30 Double-A franchises in professional baseball: Tulsa; San Antonio; Little Rock, Ark.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Birmingham, Ala.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Richmond, Va.; Akron, Ohio; and Hartford, Conn.

But the city’s minor-league baseball history is strewn with failed franchises that departed for one reason or another. There are those who think affiliated minor-league baseball in Wichita is destined to fail and that the Wingnuts, National Baseball Congress World Series and Wichita State provide plenty for those who enjoy the sport.

I disagree, but can’t dispute the city’s up-and-down minor-league history.

For Wichita, though, affiliated minor-league baseball can be a key component of potential development around Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.

The Delano District, to the north of the stadium, is a popular area for nightlife and shopping. Intrust Bank Arena is just a few blocks away, as are the Hyatt and Drury Plaza Broadview hotels. The view from Lawrence-Dumont into downtown Wichita has always been epic.

A renovated L-D could be a spark that ignites even more development near the Arkansas River, which has been underdeveloped and underused for decades.

There is a new library being built less than a mile from Lawrence-Dumont and many more people are living downtown now than when the Wranglers departed.

With the right management and a ballpark that entices, affiliated minor-league baseball can work here.

But there are many hoops to jump through before it can happen, and the most challenging will be the hoop labeled “money.” Can city leaders find a way to come up with the cash to fix — or even rebuild — the stadium?

A major-league franchise that relocates its Double-A team to Wichita – San Antonio is currently a San Diego Padres affiliate – will most likely want to get rid of artificial turf. The stadium’s current concourse area, restrooms and clubhouses will need to be replaced by more fan- and player-friendly facilities.

There is great potential for Lawrence-Dumont, but so far it hasn’t been realized. The stadium has provided a sense of frustration, not pride. The more uses the stadium has, the more appealing it will be for a new owner or ownership group.

More restaurants and bars could be added with an expanded parking lot. If Wichita pursues an affiliated baseball team, it should do so with gusto and set as few limitations as possible.

Wichita has made strides in recent years, but Lawrence-Dumont has been a glaring landmark of unsightliness. Instead of doing what needs to be done, the city has provided touchups that do no more than delay the inevitable.

If there is a chance to attract affiliated minor-league baseball back to Wichita, it’s time to pull out all the stops. That starts with a stadium that can provide more than just a baseball venue.

Leadership, again, is essential.

Wichita’s metro population is 52 percent more than Lubbock and 60 percent more than Amarillo.

If attracting the Double-A, Texas League franchise in San Antonio is a race among these three cities, Wichita should not lose.

No way, no how.

Pitching sensation Roger Clemens delighted the crowd as he pitched for the Kansas Stars in the National Baseball Congress Tournament on Wednesday at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. (Video by Fernando Salazar/The Wichita Eagle/Aug. 10, 2016)

Members of the Kansas Stars, a team consisting of former big leaguers, along with country star Toby Keith, signed autographs for fans outside of Lawrence-Dumont Stadium on Monday night. Proceeds for tickets sold for the autograph session went towa

Pete Rose Jr., whose father is Major League Baseball's all-time leader in hits, is the new manager for the Wichita Wingnuts. Rose was introduced during a news conference at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium on Wednesday. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle/Feb

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