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Fans Welcome Minor League Baseball With Big League Ties Back To Wichita

Fans fill Riverfront Stadium Tuesday night for the Wind Surge's home opener against the Amarillo Sod Poodles.
Brian Grimmett
Fans fill Riverfront Stadium Tuesday night for the Wind Surge's home opener against the Amarillo Sod Poodles.

The city saw its first home opener for its new team, the Wind Surge, in a brand new stadium.

For the first time in almost 14 years, Wichita baseball fans cheered on a minor-league team in their hometown.

The Wichita Wind Surge played their inaugural game Tuesday night at Riverfront Stadium against the Amarillo Sod Poodles to an almost sold-out crowd.

Despite the chilly weather and the final losing score of 3-2, the game was a welcome respite after the pandemic shut most things — including the 2020 baseball season — down last year.

“It feels great,” said Jim Rheem. “It feels like it’s starting to get back to normal.”

Following Major League Baseball’s rules, the Wind Surge are requiring masks or face coverings inside the stadium. But Rheem said he was glad to see so many people enjoying the game.

“Baseball is America,” he said. “Baseball is America’s sport. And it feels good to be back out here.”

The crowds surprised Brooke Porter: She said parking was stressful.

“This is a sold-out game, so I don’t know if every game parking is going to be kind of a bear,” she said. “Lawrence Dumont Stadium didn’t have as much traffic. It was never hard to find parking.”

She and her friends arrived a couple of hours before the first pitch to tailgate in one of the lots next to the stadium.

“It’s a really awesome stadium. I’m just excited to see something new,” said Taylor Mayfield. “I’m not the biggest baseball fan but it’s something new in Wichita to do and it’s exciting.”

Credit Brian Grimmett / KMUW

Tuesday night’s home opener was a long time coming.

The Wind Surge was supposed to begin play last spring, but the season was delayed and then later canceled because of the pandemic.

During the offseason, Major League Baseball reshuffled its minor leagues, eliminating dozens of teams and changing the affiliation of others. So the Wind Surge, which began its existence as a Triple-A affiliate of the Miami Marlins, became a Double-A team in the Minnesota Twins organization.

The gap between affiliated minor-league games in Wichita was, of course, even longer.

The Wichita Wranglers played their last game at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium in August 2007 before moving to Arkansas. The Wingnuts, an independent team with no major-league affiliation, played here from 2008 through 2018.

They left as the city prepared to welcome back affiliated minor league baseball. Mayor Jeff Longwell announced in the fall of 2018 that the New Orleans Baby Cakes would move to Wichita for the 2020 season.

He also said that Lawrence-Dumont, 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. Longwell threw out Tuesday’s first pitch in a pre-recorded video.

The turf of the baseball field as seen through the netting behind home plate.
Credit Brian Grimmett

The man who brought the team to Wichita, Lou Schwechheimer, never saw the Wind Surge play here. He died last July, just after the season was canceled, from COVID-19.

The team remembered Schwechheimer Tuesday night with a memorial video, and will honor him this season by wearing a patch on their uniforms that says, “Lou.” His name is also stamped behind home plate in bright yellow cursive.

Tuesday's game was the second event held at the stadium. Wichita State and the University of Houston played a baseball game there last month, attracting more than 7,000 fans.

Copyright 2021 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.

Tom is the Director of News and Public Affairs. He joins KMUW after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle in a variety of reporting and editing roles.
Nadya joined KMUW in May 2015 (which will sound more impressive when it’s not June 2015) after a year at a newspaper in western North Dakota, where she did not pick up an accent.
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