On Tuesday, I wrote about some ofthe memorable and outstanding players who played for the Wichita Aeros, the city’s Triple-A team, from 1970-84.
Today, I’m doing the same with the Pilots and Wranglers franchise.
The Pilots showed up in town after a two-year hiatus from minor league baseball. And they showed up big, challenging for the Texas League championship with a team full of good prospects. Baseball fans took to the Pilots that season and Lawrence-Dumont Stadium was often a happy place.
Here are 15 notable players from Wichita’s Double-A years:
Roberto Alomar, 1987 – Alomar went on to become a Hall of Fame second baseman, playing 17 years
in the major leagues and accumulating 2,724 hits and 474 stolen bases. He batted .323 for the 1999 Cleveland Indians, with 24 homers, 120 RBI, 138 runs and 40 doubles. Alomar was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2011. For the Wichita Pilots, Alomar, playing exclusively as a shortstop, batted .319 in 130 games with 12 homers, 68 RBI and 43 stolen bases as a 19-year-old.
Carlos Beltran, 1998, 2003 - Beltran is still a prominent big leaguer with the St. Louis Cardinals at the age of 36. He has spent 16 seasons in the majors and was the American League rookie of the year with the Royals in 1999. Overall, he has 2,228 hits, 358 homers and 1,327 RBI while batting .283. For the Wranglers in ’98, Beltran had 14 homers and 44 RBI in just 47 games. He spent three games on a rehab assignment with the 2003 Wranglers.
Andy Benes, 1989 – Benes was the overall No. 1 pick of the 1988 draft and when he showed up to pitch for the Wranglers it was a big-time atmosphere at the ballpark. Benes didn’t disappoint, going 8-4 with a 2.16 ERA in 21 starts for Wichita and earning a promotion to Triple-A Las Vegas. Benes was such a big deal in Wichita that summer that I went to Vegas to cover his first start. He made five in all but struggled with an 8.10 ERA. He was 155-139 during 14 major league seasons, the best of which was in 1996, when he was 18-10 for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Brandon Berger, 2000-01, 2004 - Berger was a phenomenon for the Wranglers in 2001, batting .308 in 120 games. But the big deal was the 40 home runs and 118 RBI. He looked like a sure-fire big-league slugger, but it never came together for Berger in Kansas City. He played in 81 games over four seasons, but batted only .212 with eight homers.
Jaime Bluma, 1995, 1998 – Bluma pitched at Wichita State, so it was a big deal when he worked for the Wranglers in 1995. He was 4-3 with 22 saves that season and by 1996 was a prominent part of the bullpen for the Kansas City Royals. But not for long. Arm injuries curtailed his career, which was limited to 17 games during the 1996 season, when he had five saves for the Royals. Bluma tried to work his way back to Kansas City for a few years, but was never the pitcher he once was.
Doug Brocail, 1989-91, 1994 – Brocail, currently the pitching coach for the Houston Astros, was one of my favorite guys to cover. Always friendly, always interesting. And he was certainly in Wichita long enough for folks to get to know him. Brocail was 10-7 as a starter for the 1991 Wranglers but spent most of his 15-year big league career as a reliever. He appeared in 626 games and had an era of 4.00.
Billy Butler, 2005-06 - Butler has been a productive DH in Kansas City with a .298 career average. In 2012, he was an American League All-Star and batted .313 with 29 homers and 107 RBI. With the Wranglers for 119 games in 2006, Butler batted .331 with 15 homers and 96 RBI.
Johnny Damon, 1995 – Damon, a first-round draft pick for the Royals in 1992, just looked like a star when he batted .343 with 16 homers for the Wranglers at the age of 21. And he became one, spending 18 years in the majors and producing borderline Hall of Fame numbers: .284 average, 2,769 hits, 1668 runs, 408 stolen bases. His best season was with Kansas City in 2000, when he batted .327 and led the American League with 136 runs and 46 stolen bases.
Alex Gordon, 2006 – Fresh off a standout career at Nebraska, Gordon tore up Texas League pitching with the Wranglers. He batted .325 with 39 doubles, 29 homers, 101 RBI and 111 runs as a 22-year-old. He’s been in the majors for seven seasons and was an All-Star in 2013, though his production fell off drastically in the final four months.
Zack Greinke, 2003, 2006 – The sixth overall pick of the 2002 draft, Greinke had high expectations when he reached Wichita in 2003. And for a 19-year-old, he produced, with a 4-3 record and 3.23 ERA in nine starts. Greinke encountered personal issues early in his career and resurfaced with Wichita in 2006, when he was 8-3. As a major leaguer, currently with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Greinke is 106-82 in 10 seasons. He won the 2009 American League Cy Young Award with the Royals, thanks to a 16-8 record and 2.16 ERA.
Don Heinkel, 1993 - Another former Wichita State pitcher, Heinkel’s career was near the end when he pitched for the Wranglers. In 33 games out of the bullpen, he was 2-5 with a 5.47 ERA. But it was great to see Heinkel, one of my all-time favorites. That season in Wichita was his last in professional baseball. In the majors, Heinkel pitched in 21 games as a reliever with Detroit in 1988, then made five starts for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1989, going 1-1.
Chuck Knoblauch, 2002 – This hardly counts as someone who played minor league baseball in Wichita. Knoblauch was here for only five games in 2002 and had only 16 at-bats. But it was a big deal at the time because of the time he spent with the New York Yankees. In 12 big-league seasons, Knoblauch had 1,839 hits and batted .289.
Kit Pellow, 1997-98 – Pellow, from Olathe North High School, is another whose raw power looked like it would translate to the major leagues. He played in 171 games for the Wranglers, producing 49 homers and 114 RBIs. But in parts of three seasons with Kansas City and Colorado, Pellow hit only four homers in 99 games. He went on to play professionally in Korea, Mexico and Canada.
Brad Pounders, 1987 – Knowing me, I’m sure there was a time when I predicted major league stardom for Pounders, a first baseman with a powerful bat. He spent three months with the Wranglers in 1987, when he produced 27 home runs and 89 RBI in only 79 games and 309 at-bats. That production earned him a promotion to Triple-A Las Vegas, but Pounders stopped pounding. In 52 games for Vegas, he had only four homers and 20 RBI. He never reached the big leagues.
Mike Sweeney, 1996, 2006 – I’ll always wonder what Sweeney would have done had injuries not dogged him during the last half of his major league playing career. As it was, he batted .297 over 16 seasons, with 1,540 hits and 215 homers. He had a great season with Kansas City in 2000, batting .333 with 29 homers and 144 RBI. In Wichita, Sweeney batted .319 in 66 games in 1996. He was with the Wranglers on a rehab assignment in 2006, when he played in four games.