Minor Miracle

By Bob Rives | March 31, 2020

When Wichita’s first real baseball stadium opened in 1905, it cost $1,500 and was painted green, like most of its kind. In fact, reverent fans spoke lovingly of their ballparks as “green cathedrals.”

But if the old green structures were cathedrals, what would those fans expect from Wichita’s new $75 million Riverfront Stadium? Pearls on the gates? A celestial choir singing a Bach arrangement of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” with golden harps in the background?

Built as the home for Wichita’s new AAA Pacific Coast League team, the Wind Surge, Riverfront Stadium is impressive on several levels. It’s mostly brick, some red and much in modern tints of gray with bursts of color here and there. Its brightly lighted left field scoreboard, as big as a gym floor, can be easily read from Kellogg.

The stadium will seat 10,000 fans for a ballgame in comfort. “We could have put in 400 more seats,” managing general partner Lou Schwechheimer explained. “We chose instead to make seats bigger and farther apart.” 

Besides the seats, grassy slopes beyond the outfield are open for those who want to bring a blanket and sit there. For concerts or other events, temporary seats on the field will bring the capacity to 18,000.

Facilities for players and their support staff equal those in many major league parks. There are three spacious locker rooms. One is for the home team, one for the visitors and one for special events.

The manager and coaches have their own locker rooms. Trainers have rooms with equipment to treat player injuries. There are indoor batting cages, pitching facilities and a weight room. The bullpens have rest rooms, a rare feature in ballparks.

The parks’ LED lighting system produces more natural-looking light with less glare than did older systems. That means players looking for fly balls are less likely to lose them in the lights — and have fewer excuses for missing a catch.

Concession stands, food courts and picnic tables abound, accessible via a wide concourse that circles the entire stadium. (If you prefer to walk instead of sit while watching the game, five trips around equal a mile.)  

There is a protective screen around the diamond that will keep line-drive foul balls from endangering spectators.

People who want more luxury can find it. All stadium sky boxes have been sold to companies. But there are equally good areas for rent on a per-game basis. One is a spacious multi purpose room that already has been rented for wedding receptions.

The stadium’s construction qualifies as a miracle, according to the admittedly biased Schwechheimer.

“It would normally take almost two years to complete a project this size. But it’s being done in 14 months.”

“As many as 300 people have been on the job six days a week,” Schwechheimer said, adding that the work is coming in on budget.

While the stadium itself was on schedule for the Wind Surge’s scheduled April 14 home opener — now delayed — parts of the overall complex remain to be built. A center field office-store-museum building may not be ready when the gates open.  

Foremost on the to-do list is a 700-car multi story parking facility slated to be open for the 2021 season. Parking now can be found in a lot just north of the stadium and in a residential area to the west. Some free parking is on the streets of downtown Wichita and in the Delano district.  Private parking — for a fee — will be available at places such as the ice-skating rink across the street.

Team and league

The Wind Surge will play Triple A baseball, one step below the majors, in the Pacific Coast League. That league was founded in 1904 by Branch Rickey, who later became famous as the Brooklyn Dodger executive who integrated baseball by signing Jackie Robinson.

The Wind Surge will play in the league’s American Division along with clubs located in Des Moines, Memphis, Nashville, Omaha, Round Rock (Texas), San Antonio and Oklahoma City.

Teams in the Pacific Division are Sacramento, Fresno, Tacoma, Salt Lake, Albuquerque, El Paso and Las Vegas. All 16 teams play one another each season, but more games are played against those in the same division.

Wichita will be the top farm team for the National League Miami Marlins. Last season the Marlins lost 105 games, second worst behind Detroit. That’s not all bad news, since the worst teams get first choice for new players each year. The Wind Surge, playing as the New Orleans Baby Cakes last year, finished the season with 73 wins and 65 losses.

“Most players at AAA will have already played in the major leagues or are up and coming youngsters who will be there, several of them before the season is over,” Schwekhheimer said.

Farm clubs have constantly changing rosters as players move up and down the baseball talent staircase. In New Orleans last year the team had more than 80 players over the summer.  

While Schwechheimer guides the team’s overall operations, on-field play is in the hands of manager Keith Johnson.  

Johnson played 12 years in the minor leagues, reaching the majors for nine games with Anaheim. He played three seasons in the Texas League, often facing Wichita’s last Double A team, the Wranglers. He has managed for 11 years, the last eight in the Pacific Coast League.

Schwechheimer and Johnson were among some 50 employees and their families who moved here from New Orleans, banking the draw of a new stadium and the city’s first Triple A baseball since the mid 1980s.

“Wichita has always been a baseball city,” Schwechheimer said. “When we were asked to visit, we sensed a real longing for the return of affiliated (with the major leagues) baseball. We were the only team in America mobile enough to come here, and we fell in love with the town and its people. It’s magic to be part of such a wonderful city.”