I remember what a big deal it was on opening night of the American Association in April, 1970. The Wichita Aeros were a new team, the Triple-A farm club of the Cleveland Indians. Minor league baseball had been gone from Wichita for 12 seasons and the town was hungry for a team.
The Aeros played for 15 seasons, from 1970-84. Some good teams, some not so good. But a lot ofFormer Wichita Aeros first baseman Chris Chambliss hit one of the most famous home runs in New York Yankees history in Game 5 of the 1976 American League Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals. And he lived to talk about it, despite what looks to be happening in this somewhat harrowing photograph.interesting players and as part of my continuing blog series on affiliated minor league baseball in Wichita, today I’m going to pick my 15 favorite players from the Aeros era. In alphabetical order, of course, because I would hate to hurt anyone’s feelings.
Buddy Bell, 1971 – As a 19-year-old, Bell batted .289 for the Aeros with 11 homers and 59 RBI. He spent 18 years in the big leagues, mostly with Cleveland and Texas, and had 2,514 hits and a .279 average. His best season was with the Rangers in 1979, when he batted .299 with 200 hits, 18 homers and 101 RBI. He was a five-time MLB All-Star.
Chris Chambliss, 1970-71 - Chambliss was the Most Valuable Player of the 1969 National Baseball Congress World Series when he led the Anchorage (Alaska) Glacier Pilots to their first title. Then he was the first pick of the 1970 MLB draft by the Cleveland Indians. The stars aligned that Chambliss started his professional career in the same spot – at first base inside Lawrence Dumont-Stadium – that his amateur career ended. He batted .342 for the Aeros in 1970 and after spending just a few games back in Wichita the following season, he was off and running on a 17-year career that produced more than 2,100 hits. Chambliss played in three World Series for the New York Yankees and will forever be a hero to Yankees fans for his dramatic homer off of Kansas City right-hander Mark Littell to win the deciding Game 5 of that American League Championship Series. Royals fans probably don’t love him as much.
Eric Davis, 1984 - Davis was one of the top prospects in the big leagues when he played for the Aeros in 1984, and it was easy to see why. He batted .314 in only 54 games before being called up by the Cincinnati Reds, where he became an All-Star outfielder. Davis batted .293 with 37 homers and 100 RBI for the Reds in 1987 and had 282 homers during his 17-year career.
Jim Dwyer, 1977 - Dwyer had a magnificent season with the Aeros, batting .332 with 38 doubles, 12 triples, 18 homers and 70 RBI. He also walked 108 times to go with only 40 strikeouts. He spent 18 seasons in the majors, mostly as a platoon player and pinch-hitter. He did bat .286 with the Baltimore Orioles in 1983 with 17 doubles and eight home runs.
Alan Knicely, 1984 – Knicely looked like a sure-thing power prospect after slugging 33 homers, driving in 126 runs and batting .333 for the Aeros. But his big league career never got off the ground and he batted just .213 in 228 games.
Mike Krukow, 1976, 1978 – Krukow is currently one of the best television analysts in baseball, working San Francisco Giants broadcasts. After pitching briefly in Wichita in ’76, he showed up again two seasons later and was 7-9 with a 3.31 ERA. His 14-year major league career produced a 124-117 record and he was 20-9 with a 3.05 ERA for the Giants in 1986.
Pete LaCock, 1973-74 – It looked for a while like LaCock’s baseball exploits might help him exceed the popularity of his father, Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall. But that never happened. LaCock did have two productive seasons in Wichita, batting well over .300 with 32 homers and 160 RBIs during his two seasons. And he did play in the majors for parts of nine seasons, debuting for the Cubs when he was just 20. He did bat .277 for the 1979 Kansas City Royals.
Karl Pagel, 1978-79 – Pagel had a good season in 1978 (.268, 23 homers, 86 RBI) but a great one a season later when he batted .316 with 39 homers and 123 RBI. The world seemed to have no limits for the left-handed hitting first baseman/outfielder. But Pagel never found his swing in the majors with the Cubs and Cleveland Indians. He batted only .232 in parts of five seasons.
Ken Phelps, 1982 – Nobody had a better season in Wichita’s minor league history than Phelps, who batted .333 with 46 homers and 141 RBI in only 132 games for the Aeros. He was a machine and he went on to have a good big league career, but nothing like the potential he showed for one season in Wichita. Phelps did have 27 homers and 68 RBI for the 1987 Seattle Mariners and became a productive bat off the bench later in his career.
Rick Reuschel, 1972 - To this day, I miss Reuschel. It was so enjoyable to watch him pitch. He had such a measured motion on the mound and didn’t throw particularly hard. But he was masterful with his control and it showed with the Aeros, for whom he was 9-2 with a 1.32 ERA in 12 starts before earning a promotion to the Chicago Cubs. For the Cubbies that season, Reuschel was 10-8. He was 214-191 during his 19-year career, including a 20-10 mark for the Cubs in 1977.
Dan Rohn, 1980 – I was fortunate enough to cover the Aeros for several years during their existence and the 1980 season was one of those years. It was a great team to be around and Rohn was one of the best. He was such a good baseball guy and so approachable and he’s someone I’ll always remember. He batted only .244 for the Aeros and played in only 54 major league games. But he went on to manage 16 seasons in the minors, most recently for the Las Vegas 51s in 2010. Good guy.
Richie Scheinblum, 1970 – If you forced me to pick, this guy was my favorite. He was a colorful right fielder with a strong bat and his name was Richie Scheinblum (Shine-bloom). He batted .337 for the Aeros with 24 homers and 84 RBI. I remember him playing briefly for the St. Louis Cardinals late in his career and that was a tremendous moment for yours truly, even though there wasn’t much in Scheinblum’s tank by that point. He did spent parts of eight seasons in the majors with Cleveland, Kansas City, Washington, Cincinnati, California and the Cardinals. He batted .300 with eight homers and 66 RBI for the 1972 Royals.
Scipio Spinks, 1974 – I first saw Spinks pitch when he was with the Oklahoma City 89ers, an American Association rival of the Aeros. He threw really hard and it looked like he would be a major league force. But injuries curtailed Spinks’ career. He was with the Aeros for only eight games as he attempted to come back from arm injuries. But he couldn’t make it and finished his big league career with a 7-11 record. But he was 5-5 for the Cardinals in 1972, prompting me to name my Peekapoo after him. Yes, I named a dog “Scipio,” when I was 17 years old. He went on to have a fruitful life under the watchful eyes of my parents.
Andre Thornton, 1973 – Thornton arrived in Wichita in July of 1973 after being traded to the Cubs by the Atlanta Braves for Joe Pepitone. I imagine it was pretty cool to be traded for Joe Pepitone. And Thornton made the best of it during his brief time with the Aeros. In 40 games, he slugged 17 homers and drove in 45 runs. He went on a rampage and played 14 years in the majors. His best season was with Cleveland in 1982, when he batted .273 with 32 homers and 116 RBI.
Jim Tracy, 1979-80 – Remember how much I told you I enjoyed being around Dan Rohn? Well, Tracy might have even been better and they were teammates on the 1980 club, when Tracy batted .320 with 16 homers and 63 RBI. He played in only 87 games in the big leagues but managed for 11 years with the Dodgers, Pirates and Rockies. And it was always fun to talk baseball with Tracy. We would do so before about every home game, I recall, on the bench in the Aeros bullpen. What a nice guy and always one of my favorites.