Varsity Kansas

Best of 2010: Wingnuts' Kevin Hooper must make tough call

The Eagle sports staff takes a look back at the best of 2010. Look for beat writers’ perspectives through Dec. 31.

In one season as a player and the last two as manager, Kevin Hooper hasn’t won a playoff series with the Wingnuts. He has proven, however, that he’s far too good for independent baseball and should escape it as soon as possible.

Hooper cited family reasons for turning down a job managing a Class-A affiliate in the Detroit Tigers’ organization earlier this year and returning to the Wingnuts in 2011 for his third season as manager. He loves Wichita — it’s Hooper’s comfort zone and he hasn’t been ready, so far, to uproot his wife and two young daughters and move them around to different minor-league towns while Hooper builds his resume.

There’s nothing I respect or appreciate more about any person than his or her dedication to family. Hooper played in eight cities during his minor- and major-league career before coming to the Wingnuts and didn’t spend much time at any of them. He clearly wants to build a life for his family before he hits the road again.

But how much longer will major-league organizations come calling for Hooper if he continues to turn them down, as he has during the last two offseasons? He’s only 34, but not many ex-players have the opportunity to create a path to becoming a major league manager so early. Hooper should grab it the same way another former Shocker, Eric Wedge, did.

Wedge was finished as a player by age 30. He started managing in the Cleveland Indians minor-league system and was the team’s majorleague manager at 35. Hooper has a similar ability to reach his players and attracts people with his high energy and perpetually positive disposition. When he enters a majorleague organization, he’ll be on the fast track.

The 2010 season was nearly a disaster for Hooper and the Wingnuts. Hooper built an outstanding roster in his debut season as manager in 2009 with players who had success in the high minors or major leagues, such as Greg Porter, Dustan Mohr and Kelly Hunt. They all departed after the season and Hooper built this year’s team with players who previously played well on the independent level.

The initial group never jelled and the Wingnuts continuously hit new lows in the season’s first half. Pitcher Nick Singleton tried to throw at a batter but missed and was warned by the home-plate umpire, only to throw at the batter on the next pitch and get ejected on a night the Wingnuts had a short bullpen.

Hooper and pitching coach Luke Robertson allowed a position player, Chad Rothford, to pitch in a blowout and Rothford injured his elbow before being released the next day. I was critical, for the first time, of Hooper in a blog post and made a lot of people in the organization unhappy. Hooper never said a word to me about it.

That’s because Hooper’s focus was always on improving the team. He was loyal to the players who started the season for as long as he could be, but it got to the point where I would check on roster moves as soon as I arrived at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium on game day. Usually there was one, at least.

Hooper got the Wingnuts to within a game of the playoffs by acquiring players from the Mexican League and making trades to improve pitching depth. The last day of the 2010 season should have been Hooper’s last with the Wingnuts.

The American Association is for managers on their way down or going no direction at all. Major league teams aren’t banging down their doors to earn the services of Les Lancaster or Marty Scott or Steve Shirley. Hooper is in demand, and Wichita isn’t the best place for him to exhibit his abilities.

I want to see how Hooper handles a first-round pick who makes millions and hits .320 but doesn’t always hustle to first base. I want to see how Hooper can turn around a team when he isn’t able to get rid of most of the players and bring in new ones. I want to see Hooper manage against Wedge in the big leagues.

Wichita is home to Hooper. He’s secure here, financially and otherwise. His daughters can come to his games and he can hug and kiss them afterward. The pros on Hooper’s list to stay in Wichita are more substantial than the cons.

The 2010 season showed that Hooper never retreats from a challenge. This is one that will force him to escape the comforts of home. But Hooper is ready to once again have something to prove.