Fourteen Years And A Pandemic Since It Left, Minor League Baseball Returns To Wichita
Wichita has a new baseball stadium and a new team called the Wind Surge.
Nearly three years ago, then-Mayor Jeff Longwell announced in a news conference at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium that the New Orleans Baby Cakes were planning to relocate to Wichita.
After a long, twisting journey that included controversy over the stadium development deal, the cancellation of the 2020 season and the death of the team's managing partner, affiliated minor league baseball will return to Wichita on May 11.
Fans here haven’t seen an affiliated game since the Wichita Wranglers lost 10-1 to the Tulsa Drillers on Aug. 27, 2007, in front of just 3,319 fans. The Wranglers then departed for a new stadium in Arkansas. A lot has changed since then.
Aging Lawrence-Dumont Stadium was knocked down and replaced with $75 million Riverfront Stadium. Its first event, a baseball game between Wichita State and Houston, drew more than 7,000 people.
And the Baby Cakes have become the Wichita Wind Surge, the Double-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins.
Here’s a quick recap of the journey from Longwell’s announcement to the May 11 game against the Amarillo Sod Poodles.
Coming To Wichita
The team that would become the Wind Surge — the New Orleans Baby Cakes — originally was destined for Havana, Cuba.
Lou Schwechheimer and Jordan Kobritz were part of the Caribbean Baseball Initiative, which bought the Baby Cakes in 2015. But efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, which moved forward under the Obama administration, ended when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016.
“The political winds changed in Washington, and I mean Havana was a long, long way off, if ever, at that point,” Kobritz said. “So here we are in New Orleans and wondering, ‘Now what do we do? We need a new facility.’”
But the city of Wichita had hired a consultant to find a team willing to move. Kobritz said he was initially skeptical of the idea.
“I said, ‘Lou! You’ve been around minor league baseball longer than I have. You know the history of baseball in Wichita, it’s never been successful long-term,’” Kobritz recalled. “I can tell you my gut reaction is that’s not an opportunity for us.
“He said, ‘Well, I’m going to check it out.’ So he came in, gets back to Pawtucket (Rhode Island), and he calls me, he says, ‘You need to go to Wichita.’”
Kobritz said he and Matt White, the Wind Surge’s chief financial officer, traveled to Wichita. They each got up one morning and – without the other one knowing – walked along the Arkansas River near their hotel.
“I mean, you could see the potential,” Kobritz said. “Anybody that had been in baseball for 40 years like Lou and I had could come in here and look at this and say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a tiger by the tail.’
“There were some people here that could picture it, and they were right. They were absolutely right, what this potential could be.”
The Land Deal
Longwell, who led the effort to find a team, announced in September 2018 that the Baby Cakes planned to relocate to Wichita.
The city also announced that Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, built in 1934, would be torn down. In its place would be a modern $75 million stadium, which could be used for baseball and other community events.
The city said a number of tax packages would be used to pay for the project, including a Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district, Sales Tax Revenue (STAR) Bonds, and Community Improvement District that would impose an additional 2% sales tax within the CID.
Several months later, the city announced it was selling about 4 acres of undeveloped land around the stadium to a private development group, which included the team’s owners. The cost: $1 an acre.
Many residents, and some elected officials, complained about the cost and the lack of transparency over the deal.
Kobritz said the Pacific Coast League and Minor League Baseball told the team it would not approve its move to Wichita without the land development deal.
“If we were going to move here, we had to be successful,” Kobritz said “They (Minor League Baseball) didn't want us to come in and duplicate what the last three teams in here did. So what they said was, if you can get some development land so that you are creating a city around this ballpark that will help you be successful long term, we'll approve you.
“Now, could it have been handled differently in hindsight? I'm sure it could have been. We did not drive that bus, but, of course, fingers got pointed our way, which I understand why people would do that.”
Just as the pandemic wiped out last season, it also has slowed development of the land around the stadium, including a separate private deal for about seven acres to the north.
“We were all prepared and the stadium was ready to go, and the wonderful pandemic hit,” said Assistant City Manager Scot Rigby. “Obviously that shelved baseball for a year, and obviously that impacted not only the stadium, but impacted everybody, whether you’re development around the stadium or development around Wichita. … That put everybody back a year.”
Rigby estimates the city lost about six months of development opportunities, but says the delay won’t have a significant impact on the tax districts funding the project. He says between $3 million and $4 million in federal funds from the American Recovery Plan Act went to back-fill the revenue the city had expected to collect in 2020.
“We’ll see commercial development here in the next year or two coming out of the ground and around the stadium,” Rigby said. “So it is … I’ll call it on project timeline.”
Kobritz said he hopes that before the end of the season, the team will make an announcement about a firm development plan.
The Wind Surge — then the Triple-A affiliate of the Miami Marlins — was scheduled to begin play on April 14, 2020, against the Memphis Redbirds.
But the start of the season was delayed by the pandemic. Then the inevitable was announced: All minor league seasons were canceled.
“While the writing might have been on the wall, certainly disappointment is the sentiment throughout the office,” Jared Forma, the Wind Surge’s senior vice president and general manager, said at the time.
During the offseason, Major League Baseball absorbed all operations of minor league baseball. It also reduced the number of minor leagues teams from 160 to 120 and changed the affiliations of many others.
Wichita was one of them, becoming part of the Twins’ organization.
Wind Surge fans, though, can still commemorate the 2020 season: During its first homestand, the team will give away baseballs and caps emblazoned with “2020 Inaugural Season.”
Lou Schwechheimer’s Death
Schwechheimer, the catalyst behind bringing minor league baseball back to Wichita, never got to see the Wind Surge play a game here.
After the 2020 season was canceled because of the pandemic, Schwechheimer died from complications of COVID-19 last July. He was 62.
“There are no words to express the loss of the entire Wind Surge family,” Forma said in a statement at the time. “Lou was truly one of a kind, someone who never met a stranger. He will be deeply missed by his family and many friends, which included an extended baseball family.”
Schwechheimer spent more than 40 years in minor league baseball. He was an active presence in Wichita in the year before his death, overseeing construction of the stadium, working on the team’s name and branding, and talking to civic groups about the team.
“We became as close as brothers during the decade that we were together with the CBI group,” Kobritz said, referring to the Caribbean Baseball Initiative. “If it wasn't for Lou, I wouldn't be here, plain and simple. So this was his idea. Nobody’s ever going to take that away from … his legacy.”
Wichita’s Baseball History
The city’s minor league baseball history stretches back more than 100 years. But Wichita hasn’t fielded an affiliated minor league team since 2007, when the Wranglers left for Arkansas.
Leigh Bellinger was a Wranglers fan, even though he didn’t live in Wichita for much of their tenure because of his Air Force career. When he was stationed in San Antonio, he had season tickets for the San Antonio Missions, who played in the same league as Wichita.
“When the Wranglers would come to town, I wasn't a San Antonio fan, I was a Wranglers fan,” Bellinger said. “So I'd wear my Wranglers jersey. Obviously my San Antonio friends didn't appreciate that. But I always rooted for the Wranglers, for the Wichita team.”
Bellinger also was a season ticket-holder for the Bowie, Maryland, Baysox when he was stationed at Fort Meade.
So he was eager to buy season tickets for Wichita’s new baseball team. So eager, in fact, that he bought the first two season tickets: box seats between the Wind Surge dugout and the on-deck circle.
“When I got here and I heard that they were working on the stadium to bring in a team, I was just, I was overjoyed,” said Bellinger, who is retired from the Air Force and now works as chief of Community Relations at McConnell Air Force Base.
“So for someone who has been involved with the Wichita Baseball 2020 from, if not day one, day two, I am counting down the minutes until opening day’s here.”
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