Wichita makes a risky but big-time move to become a Triple-A city

Bob Lutz
Bob Lutz KSN File

There’s no turning back now. Wichita is jumping into the deep end of the pool with the announcement Thursday that the New Orleans Baby Cakes, the Triple-A franchise of the Miami Marlins, will be moving to town in 2020.

There are still a couple of I’s to dot, but this is going to happen. After three years of hard work, led by Mayor Jeff Longwell, Wichita will soon be back in the affiliated baseball game.

Not Class-A. Not Double-A. But Triple-A, joining major-market cities like Las Vegas, Nashville, Memphis, Indianapolis, Sacramento, Salt Lake City and others.

I get a little antsy just typing the names of those cities. Can Wichita measure up?

Well, we’re going to find out. And it’s my hope that the naysayers about these kinds of progressive moves zip their mouths and cool their social-media posts for the foreseeable future while we build what is going to be a big-time facility and surround it with great amenities that accentuate the Arkansas River and its banks.

Two years ago, Wichita State changed its course from the Missouri Valley to the American Athletic Conference, joining the likes of Cincinnati, Memphis, Connecticut, Central Florida, Tulane, Houston and others.

This baseball move has similarities, but affiliated minor-league baseball has a sketchier success rate in Wichita than does Shocker basketball.

But a lot has changed in Wichita since 2007, when the Double-A Wichita Wranglers departed for Northwest Arkansas after 21 seasons at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.

The ownership of the Wranglers started out strong, then faded. The ballpark began to deteriorate at a faster pace than city officials and funding could keep up with.

Fortunately, a strong local leadership group gave us the Wichita Wingnuts, who gave baseball fans a strong 11-year run as a powerhouse in the American Association.

The opportunity for another crack at affiliated baseball, though, is too great to pass on. And I don’t think anyone thought Wichita could attract another Triple-A franchise, even though the Wichita Aeros were at that level from 1970-84.

Kudos to Longwell for his perseverance. He has often stated that getting this deal done is the most difficult thing he’s done in his life. And high fives to the rest of the city council, city manager and other city officials who have been working on this for a while.

Longwell says Wichita is all in, and there’s really no other choice. The PCL is full of great ballparks in attractive locations and attendance is solid throughout the 16-city league.

The PCL has four four-team divisions and I expect Wichita to be in a division with Oklahoma City, Omaha and Iowa. Colorado Springs is currently the fourth team in that division, but that franchise is moving.

But we’ll see. For now, the excitement of this news is overwhelming. And so is my optimism that Wichita can make this work.

The city has grown, although it will be one of the two or three smallest in the Pacific Coast League. Downtown development has taken off and there will be more and more restaurants, nightclubs and retail establishments surrounding the new ballpark.

Longwell has promised a “Ballpark Village” concept that strongly utilizes the river corridor. There could be a walking bridge over the mighty Arkansas and a major entrance to the park beyond center field, which will encourage pedestrian traffic.

The plan, I’ve been told, is to keep the “Lawrence-Dumont Stadium” name and to offer sponsorship opportunities elsewhere in the park. The stadium will have, Longwell said, 7,000 permanent seats with another 3,000-4,000 that can be utilized.

Longwell said the plan is for the park to cost between $60 to $73 million and that Wichita citizens won’t bear a heavy tax burden.

A demolition crew will soon start tearing down the current stadium, making way for the new. And that new ballpark, according to plans, will be built just to the east of the current L-D.

If you love baseball, this move is obviously a no-brainer. It’s going to be fun to follow baseball’s prospects as they make their way through Wichita, either with the home or visiting team. The Marlins are a struggling franchise, but there are several interesting and exciting prospects currently at the lower level of their minor-league operation. Those prospects should be ready to hit Triple-A within the next two to three years.

But if we’re dependent on just the baseball aficionados, it’s going to be a bumpy and likely unsatisfying ride.

The key is to get people out who will use the game as a backdrop to social activity. It’s a must to find ways to appeal to kids and their parents. There have to be top-notch concessions and gathering places in the ballpark that don’t tie folks to their seats for nine innings.

I’m satisfied that those who will be in charge of this exciting Triple-A franchise will understand those things.

Wichitans have a way – and maybe it’s this way in other places, too – of strong skepticism and even outright hostility toward progressive moves like this.

It was a huge struggle to get an arena built downtown, but that’s turned out more than OK.

I’m so excited about this Triple-A news that I could run around the block. But then I’d probably die.

So instead, I’m going to raise a glass to this great news and trust the people in charge to give us a great ballpark with wonderful experiences and opportunities.

This is a great day in Wichita’s history. Have one on me.

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