When former big-leaguer and 1995 Lawrence High graduate Kevin Hooper takes his Wichita Wingnuts on the road, he expects the opposing crowd to be rooting against him.
When the Wingnuts, a member of minor-league baseball’s American Association, take on the Kansas City T-Bones at 7:05 tonight at CommunityAmerica Ballpark in Kansas City, Kan., Hooper’s hoping to hear a few more cheers for the road team.
“I’m excited about it,” said Hooper of his team’s first trip to K.C. since the T-Bones joined the American Association this season. “It’s a chance for me to get back close to home. That park’s a 30-minute drive from the house. It’s gonna be fun. I’m hoping I’ll get to see a lot of people I haven’t seen in a while.”
Now in his third season as manager of the Wingnuts, Hooper fully has settled into life as a manager. It wasn’t that long ago that the former Wichita State standout spent most days of the year preparing his body for the grind of back-to-back days of baseball on an almost year-round basis. Now, the preparation is a lot different.
“You gotta find that routine like you did as a player,” Hooper said. “But now my body doesn’t have to be ready to play nine innings. I just have to be mentally ready to manage nine innings.”
So which is more difficult, lacing up the cleats and playing in the smoldering sun or calling the shots from the dugout?
“That’s a tough call,” Hooper said. “As a manager, I’m definitely more mentally drained, and my body feels drained after a lot of ballgames because I’m in every pitch. When I played, if I wasn’t due up that inning, I could kind of get away from it for a second and relax, whereas when I’m managing, I’m so focused, and I’m in every pitch. I love it. I love what I’m doing, and I hope I get to do it the rest of my life.”
Whether that’s in Wichita remains to be seen. Hooper has turned down coaching offers from minor-league teams affiliated with Major League Baseball and says he’s intrigued by the idea of coaching college baseball. For now, though, managing the Wingnuts and spending his days close to his wife, Lindsey, and their two daughters, Lucy, 6, and Laney, 3, is a little slice of heaven.
“I’m lovin’ it. Lovin’ it,” Hooper said. “This is my third year here now, and I’m just loving being at home. This is good daddy time that I’ll never be able to get back.”
As for the baseball side, Wichita has proven to be the perfect place for Hooper to spread his wings and fine-tune his coaching chops. Blessed during his playing career with the opportunity to spend time around some of baseball’s brightest minds — Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, whom he played for in 2005 and 2006, and Wichita State skipper Gene Stephenson, to name two — Hooper has incorporated some of what he learned from them as well as the countless baseball lessons he learned throughout his life into his own special style of managing. His role with the Wingnuts affords him the freedom to feel comfortable doing so.
“I love the level because I get to bring in who I want, play who I want, and if somebody doesn’t go about their business the right way or the way I want, then we can move on,” Hooper said.
Every once in a while, Hooper the manager misses being Hooper the player so much that he’ll hop onto the diamond to field ground balls or pick up a bat.
“I do,” he said, emphasizing that the hands-on approach almost always happens as a teaching tool. “It’s fun. We’ll jump into batting practice every once in a while just to get some hacks in.”
Prodded for a tall tale or two about his batting-cage prowess, Hooper stayed true to his humble roots.
“I was never a home run guy,” he said. “Put the ball in play and run was my game.”
When the Wingnuts and T-Bones square off tonight and again at 7:05 p.m. Monday — an award-winning fireworks display will follow both games — Hooper’s mental focus again will be put to the test. Dozens of friends and family members are expected to attend at least one of the games, and there’s no doubt they’ll all be keeping their eyes fixed on the guy wearing the No. 1 Wingnuts uniform. Does Hooper expect the extra attention to bring added pressure?
“Joy is the word I’d use,” he said. “Any time I can have people there supporting me and enjoying what I do, that’s a pleasure for me. It’s just like when I played. You’re always excited to go back close to home and represent yourself and your hometown. I’m proud to say I’m from Lawrence and always will be. That’ll always hold a special place in my heart.”