KU baseball players take caps off to ‘Mom’
Cheryl Wonnell is hoping for a big Mother’s Day gift today: a victory over powerhouse Texas.
Her “kids,” as she calls them, are the nearly 40 players on the Kansas University baseball team. For 14 years, she’s served as the unofficial team mom, offering cheers, advice, hugs and a Sunday morning chapel service for players.
“She’s our mother here,” junior Matt Baty said. “If we have a problem, she can be a shoulder to cry on or a friend to talk to.”
Wonnell, who owns Creative Advertising Inc. in Lawrence, first was invited to a KU baseball game in 1991 when she was working the athlete pass gate at KU football games.
She immediately was a hit with KU baseball players and would stay to talk to them after the games. Today, many of them line up for hugs after the last out.
“She’s a genuine person and is extremely considerate of other people,” said Josh Igou, a baseball player in the early 1990s who remains in contact with Wonnell. “Any time you’re around someone who cares about you, likes you and wants to do things for your benefit, it’s a good thing. That’s becoming a rarer and rarer characteristic.”
When Igou graduated, Wonnell gave him a scrapbook of newspaper clippings that mentioned him.
“That’s one of my prized possessions that if my house was burning down, I’d want to get,” said Igou, now an insurance agent in Tennessee.
For Wonnell, the friendship with the players is nothing less than a gift from God.
She said she was immediately hooked on KU baseball after Igou invited her to a game in 1991.
In 2003, at the request of coach Ritch Price, she took her involvement to a new level by organizing a chapel service for players.
“It’s been such a blessing for me,” she said. “Sometimes I go out to my Jeep after chapel and just cry. I just feel so blessed.”
The 20-minute services are at 9 a.m. every Sunday in the baseball office when the Jayhawks have a home game. Ten to 12 players typically attend.
Wonnell, a member of First Baptist Church in Lawrence, delivers a brief sermon and asks players whether they have prayer concerns. Last Sunday, the sermon focused on positive thinking — even though the team has had a less-than-stellar Big 12 record this year.
“All I can really tell these kids is what comes from the heart — how my relationship with God has changed,” she said. “I’m really trying to walk the talk.”
With most games starting at 1 p.m., most players wouldn’t be able to make it to church beforehand.
“We don’t really get to go to church because we have to be on the field,” Baty said. “I try to hear the word as much as possible. It’s really nice to hear that first thing in the morning instead of a coach yelling at you. It puts things in perspective.”
Price said he’s well aware of what Wonnell’s friendship means to the players.
“We have a lot of religious young men, and she’s able to fulfill a need they’re not able to get otherwise,” the coach said. “I know the players have great, great respect for her.”
For players who are encumbered with school, practice, frequent road trips and the rest of college life, Wonnell has remained a constant presence.
She’s missed few games from her behind-home-plate season-ticket seat. And she tries to see the players off from the KU campus for road trips as often as possible.
Wonnell said she’s provided plenty of advice during her tenure as team mom. Most of it has centered on girlfriends, injuries or classroom troubles.
“Guys reach out to her for advice,” junior Don Czyz said. “Having her there is always nice. It’s good to have somebody to fall back on.”
Wonnell has two children of her own — a 31-year-old daughter and a 28-year-old son — but she said she’s proud to add the KU baseball crew to her unofficial family.
“I really do love them and care for them,” she said.
And for KU players — some of whom are far from home — it’s a constant presence that’s become a cornerstone for their time on the field.
“It’s nice to have somebody there who’s not family rooting for you,” said junior Kodiak Quick. “If you win or lose, she’ll give you a hug. She enjoys making people feel good.”