Photo by Wichita Wind Surge/MiLB.com

In 2020, the breeze will carry Marlins AAA prospects back westward. They will settle in southeastern Kansas as members of the Wichita Wind Surge. Why the relocation? Why Wichita? Why the Wind Surge? For the answers to those inquiries and more, we spoke to the franchise’s owner, Lou Schwechheimer.

Since 1993, Schwechheimer’s franchise made its home in the city of New Orleans. For the first four years of existence, the club played in the American Association before signing their first PBA affiliation in 1993. Ten years and two PCL league titles later, the club became affiliated with the Marlins. In 2017, Schwechheimer and his staff attempted to reinvigorate the club by rebranding and the Zephyrs became the New Orleans Baby Cakes. It worked.

“The year we rebranded from Zephyrs to Baby Cakes, the team went from last in Triple A in merchandise to the Top 20 of the 160 clubs in Minor League Baseball for the first time in New Orleans team history.  The Baby Cakes logo was voted best in all of Minor League Baseball in a nation-wide contest by Baseball America.

In addition to changing the team’s name and image, Schwechheimer attempted to do the same to Zephyr Field as it became the Shrine On Airline. Schwechheimer and his partners put up thousands of dollars of their own money in order to upgrade the park’s fan interaction areas in an attempt to drive attendance numbers which had been declining annually long before his arrival in NoLa.

When we first arrived in New Orleans, the franchise had faced a long, slow slide in virtually every category.  There were significant concerns as attendance ranked consistently at or near the bottom of all Triple A clubs. Ticket sales were also ranked at or near the bottom of AAA franchises.  The stadium had a number of issues that were in need of repair,” Schwechheimer said. “I am proud of the fact that we immediately sought to reenergize the franchise, pouring significant money into repairing the stadium, building new concession stands, improving the clubhouse amenities for the players, etc.”

However, all of Schwechheimer and company’s action to revitalize the team was met with equal inaction by local officials and by the stadium’s management team, LSED which last renovated the park in 2008 (playing surface only). For that reason, Schwechheimer applied to terminate partnership with the city after the 2019 season, despite there being two years remaining on the club’s lease at the Shrine.

According to Schwechheimer, because of his own expenditures in New Orleans, he was not actively seeking to relocate the club before those efforts reached fruition and before his contract with LSED expired. However, in Wichita, Schwechheimer recognized a golden opportunity, one he knew he had to seize.

”We had made significant private investment in the stadium in New Orleans, which was not owned by the team, and were not looking to relocate. However, the City of Wichita had long sought to return Triple-A Baseball to town and had the funding in place to build a Triple-A stadium. Once all of the proper permissions were secured to explore the territory, we visited Wichita and immediately realized that this was a once in a generation opportunity to create a magical environment,” Schwechheimer said. “The civic, political and community passion to bring a team to Wichita was extraordinary and a partnership was created that will secure family-friendly entertainment and serve as a catalyst for a Baseball & Entertainment Village for all to enjoy.”

Under the guidance of the stadium oversight committee headed by three members of the team’s front office, construction on the soon-to-be Wind Surge’s home ballpark began in February 2019. The design and build teams were headed by the DLR Group and JE Dunn Construction which have experience in building upward of 50 stadiums and arenas nationwide. More than being a place for his team to play ball, Schwechheimer’s vision for the park, a $75,000,000 project built on the banks of the Arkansas River overlooking the Wichita skyline, is two-fold: drive local business and create a family-friendly destination for both Wichita natives and out-of-towners, one to be enjoyed for generations to come.

“Wichita is the largest city in Kansas with a master development vision for both sides of the river. The stadium will serve as a catalyst for significant development with new restaurants, hotels, bars, a Ferris wheel, and many recreational activities for families and fans of all ages,” Schwechheimer said. “The park stands poised to take its place as one of the most iconic ballparks in all of Major League and Minor League Baseball.”

What fan interaction areas does Schwechheimer have planned for the park to ensure his vision is seen through? He highlighted just a few of his fondest:

“My favorite features are wide concourses, extra wide seats and rows so fans will sit in comfort with room to stretch out,” Schwechheimer said. “There will be fan-friendly pavilions with incredible views into ballpark and also views of river from rooftop bars and patios.”

In relocating, Schwechheimer has also prioritized his relationship with the Marlins and has welcomed them as an equal partner while building the park’s playing surface and player/coach areas.

“We are very appreciative of the Miami Marlins agreeing to join in the various design meetings to insure that the playing field, clubhouses, weight room, training and conditioning spaces, video rooms, managers and coaches facilities, player and family areas exceed the requirements of the PBA and will insure that Wichita is a great place that players will thrive in and enjoy playing on their way to the big leagues,” Schwechheimer said. “We will educate fans as to our role in the player development system, and celebrate the achievements of the Marlins players as a community when players get the call to the big leagues.  In time, we look forward to the Marlins bringing the World Series Trophy to Wichita.”

What’s in a name? For Schwechheimer, a ton.

When relocation became a certainty, Lou and crew left naming the franchise in the hands of those that would be donning, speaking and connecting with the name most frequently: the fans. In order to give breath the eventual winner, the club recruited one of the best sports artists: the world-renowned Todd Radom.

“We have had over 3,000 online submissions with suggestions for the Wichita team name. We worked tirelessly to narrow the candidates to six.  Each is unique to Wichita and each tells a story,” Schwechheimer said. “Todd Radom is a genius, and has done so many remarkable logos and baseball-related projects, and I am pleased to report that our staff worked with Todd over the past several months to bring the final name to life.”

The team’s social media accounts revealed the five runners-up for the clubs name including the Line Men, the Doo-Dahs and the 29ers before finally announcing the team’s official identity on November 13.

“Wichita fans were great and we had over 3,000 name suggestions, many related to “Air Capital of the World’, the plains, wheat, the Chisholm Trail, etc,” Schwechheimer said. “We had several suggestions relative to the awesome power of the wind so decided the imagery of the power of the wind with a city truly ‘surging’ forward was the way to go.”

The market agreed and the immediate response to the logo unveil was booming. According to Schwechheimer, it is the most successful branding he has ever been a part of.

“We were involved in a new rollout in Pawtucket with Red Sox which was a very traditional classic baseball look, then took New Orleans Zephyrs from last in Triple A baseball to Top Ten in all of Minor League Baseball with the irrreverent Baby Cakes. But I am pleased to say that the Wichita Wind Surge’s first two weeks has surpassed both and is one of the most successful in baseball in terms of sales out of the gate and enthusiasm in the team store and on-line,” Schwechheimer said. “We received orders from 37 different states and a number of countries in just the first two days.”

According to Wichita native and new Wind Surge fan, Chad Downing, the new team name and logo was met with coalesced reactions. However, Downing is confident that come Opening Day, the region, being rewarded with an MLB-affiliated franchise for the first time since 1984, will be all in.

“With our new name and logo being announced, there were definitely a lot of mixed feelings, but I for one believe in the back story of the name and feel it represents Wichita very well,” Downing said. “I think that once our team runs out onto the field for the first time, my fellow fans, who may not be 100% sold on them yet, will change their minds and believe in the team. This is exciting opportunity for Wichita and our community definitely knows how to rally behind its own.”

In addition to providing Marlins AAA prospects with a state-of-the-art home facility, the venture in Wichita has already begun building Miami’s fan base well outside the borders of South Florida, a tradition that should continue with each passing generation as Wichitans introduce their children to the game of baseball.

“I’m very excited to have the Marlins’ AAA affiliate come to town. I’ve been following allowing with all of the moves the club has made this offseason and they have made me even more enthusiastic,” Downing said. “I plan on taking my family to games at the new park. My wife and I are huge fans of the game and we cannot wait to introduce it to our four-year-old.”

Overall, Downing, speaking on behalf of his fellow Wichitans, grows more and more exuberant as the Surge’s stadium continues to take shape in the shadow of the Wichita skyline. Downing said the region isn’t taking the return of affiliated ball for granted. He is confident that his fellow fans will turn out in full throat not only this season but for many years to come.

“As our new stadium continues to take shape, the city’s excitement grows every day,” Downing said. “It’s a really unique opportunity to be part of the opening season for a new team, in a new ballpark. Myself and much of the region are excited to learn about the new team and to get out to the stadium as much as we can to watch the young talent progress.”

Speaking from experience, Schwechheimer affirms that the road to success is an essential route, one that — if paved correctly — builds relationships and makes triumph that much sweeter. Looking back at the past few months, Schwechheimer attests that his staff, all while juggling the responsibility of moving their personal lives to the Midwest, have performed exemplary, going above and beyond to ensure a swift relocation and timely birth of a new park. Due to the nearly perfectly smooth path trodden, all signs point to a prosperous Opening Night on April 14.

“The magic is in the journey.  We have a vibrant young staff, great leadership with Jay Miller, Matt White, Annie Life, Cookie Rojas and Jared Forma, 40 families who have now made Wichita home, and will be hiring another 400 plus seasonal and stadium staff. So it has been frenetic and exhilarating,” Schwechheimer said. “The stadium is a legacy project which has transformed the Riverfront, spurred economic development and truly is a game-changer for the City of Wichita, the state of Kansas and the entire region.  That feeling when the players take the field for the first time in front of the home crowd makes every second worthwhile.”

The Wind Surge, headed by a class chock full of Marlins’ top 30 prospects such as Monte Harrison, Jesus Sanchez, Nick Neidert and others, will take their home field for the first time on April 14. Due to his staff’s early efforts to endear themselves to their new home both inside and outside of their new confines, the city of Wichita will undoubtedly be with them.