Garden City, Kansas, did not expect to have a team in the Pecos League in 2015. Government officials thought professional baseball would arrive in Western Kansas in 2016. But when the community learned in 2014 that the Taos Blizzard needed a new home, the community jumped at the chance of having a professional franchise. Though the Wind (12-36 as of press time) are struggling on the field, the team has been a hit with the community and become one of the league’s model franchises.
Home on the range
Moving to the plains of Western Kansas was something new for the Pecos League, an independent professional baseball league that is not affiliated with any of Major League Baseball’s 30 clubs. The league has primarily played in New Mexico, Texas and Arizona since its first season in 2011.
“It was off the grid to go to Garden City,” said Andrew Dunn, the league’s commissioner, during a June interview.
Garden City is significantly farther from other teams than Taos. The Wind’s closest trip is 237 miles to Trinidad, Colorado. The Santa Fe Fuego and the Las Vegas Train Robbers take Amtrak’s Southwest Chief to Garden City. Dunn said the league hopes to expand its partnership with Amtrak next year.
Three-and-a-half hours from Wichita and five hours from Topeka, the state’s capital, Garden City is the regional hub for Southwestern Kansas and has a population of approximately 27,000 people. Raising cattle, growing corn and wheat ,and meatpacking plants have been the economic backbone of Garden City and the surrounding area for nearly a century said Matt Allen, Garden City’s city manager.
In addition to its traditional agricultural base, Garden City is the region’s health center, Allen said. As commodities have boomed the past few years, Garden City has grown, Allen said, especially in retail. Strong commodity prices have insulated Garden City from the tremors of recent economic downturns, he added.
The different economic landscapes make comparing Garden City and Taos tricky.
“It’s not fair to compare Taos and Garden City,” said Dunn.
Over the past decade Allen said the city has focused on attracting more retail and entertainment options for the many young families and professionals that live in Garden City. A professional baseball team “fit right in” to the type of quality of life improvements and regional attractions he and city leaders are trying to bring to town.
In a way Garden City is using the Wind as a trial run for a larger experiment with professional sports. In December 2014, the city of Garden City approved a project plan and project district for a proposed multimillion dollar youth soccer academy for Major League Soccer’s Sporting Kansas City.
In addition to the youth academy, Garden City would also have a team in the Premier Development League, a minor league with 65 clubs throughout the U.S. and Canada. Right now 10 PDL clubs are affiliated with either MLS teams or clubs in the United Soccer League, a professional league above the PDL but still below MLS. Garden City’s PDL team would be tied to Sporting Kansas City and owned by an independent owner.
The Wind offer a preview of the landscape a potential PDL soccer would find in Garden City, Allen said.
“Having the Pecos League team here shows what that market might be and what you can anticipate for attendance and participation,” he said.
“I tried like hell to make that thing work”
Dunn said he wanted to see the Pecos League succeed in Taos. But when the league had trouble reserving a block of hotel rooms for its 2015 spring training and one of the team’s strongest supporters told him to leave town, he knew it was time to move on.
The Blizzard played 15 games in Taos in 2013 as a travel team and 36-home games in Taos in 2014. Dunn said the team received great support from Nickie McCarty, Taos High School’s athletic director. He added the Taos Sports Alliance did a good job working game day operations. However the lack of support from local hotels, government and businesses made it difficult to keep the Blizzard afloat.
“I tried like hell to make that thing work,” he said Monday (July 13).
One of the most frustrating things for Dunn was the lack of consistency in working with local businesses. He said changeover in management at local hotels and businesses made it impossible to create any sort of long-term relationship.
“The stability in Taos is about comparable to Afghanistan,” he said. “There is no stability. There is nothing.”
Though the Wind have struggled on the field just like the Blizzard did last year, the team has had more success making inroads into Garden City’s business community. Marcus Sabata, the Wind’s director of game day promotions, said it has not been hard drumming up interest in sponsorships from local merchants. During an interview in late June, Sabata said he had a stack of notes with lists of local businesses that want to be involved with the team.
“I’ve had more phone calls to me directly than I have made on my own,” Sabata said. “The interest in this team has exceeded my expectations. Getting local businesses involved has not been a problem in the least.”
One of the Blizzard’s biggest struggles was attendance. Dunn said the team never had over a 100 fans during their two years in Taos. Sabata said the Wind average about a 100 paid customers a night. Sabata said the Wind had about 400 paid fans on June 18 for the City of Garden City Employees Night, which also happened to coincide with the team’s weekly dollar beer night.
Sabata said the games have attracted a cross-section of the community and fans from outlying communities such as Scott City, Holcomb and Sublette. On a typical night at the ballpark, Sabata said he sees a mix of young children and retirees. When Allen has gone to games with his family, he said he has spotted a number of fans who have come straight from rec league baseball games. He also said empty nesters and couples looking for something new to do make up the Wind’s audience.
“We are pretty pleased with the range of people we have attracted,” Sabata said.
Sabata and his promotions team are working to create a culture surrounding the team. The team has “dizzy bat” races, mascot races, and lets children run the bases after games. During the seventh inning the team sings either “Sweet Caroline” or “Home on The Range,” the state’s official song. When the Wind make a good play, fans yell “Whoosh.”
Brandon Cooksey, a Wind player who played for the Blizzard in 2014 and is now on the disabled list with a broken hand, said Garden City fans have created a raucous environment at Clint Lightner Field, the team’s home ballpark.
“They are really into it,” Cooksey said.
In Taos, Cooksey said Blizzard players valued the cheering and encouragement of the fans who did show up, especially from the players’ host families.
Back to Taos?
Could Pecos League Baseball eventually return to Taos in some form? It’s a question Dunn said he gets asked all the time. If the time and opportunity were right Dunn said he would not rule out bringing back Pecos League ball back to Taos.
Cooksey said he loved his Taos teammates and playing at “The Tundra”— the name the league and fans used to refer to Taos High School’s Cárdenas Field. The ball does not fly quite the same way in windy Western Kansas as it did at Taos’ high elevation, something Cooksey said he misses.
But the league’s focus seems to be shifting away from small markets like Taos and toward larger markets like Garden City.
In 2016 Dunn said the league hopes to place teams in San Angelo, Texas, and Topeka, Kansas. San Angelo has a population of about 100,000 and Topeka, 128,000. The town of Taos has approximately 6,000 people and Taos County 33,000. Dunn said the league will likely leave Las Vegas, a town of 14,000, next season.
Dunn said the league is looking “for the best facilities in the region” and communities where players will not have trouble finding housing and transportation, which have been problems in small markets like Taos.
From Dunn’s view the return of baseball to Taos depends on the community’s interest.
“Who wants baseball there?” Dunn said. “I don’t see people jumping up and down asking to bring the Blizzard back. I might be wrong. But from my indicators I don’t see people jumping up and down.”