A Change in the Wind: Wichita Faces Blowback Over Wind Surge

Wichita’s windy season is said to last from early February to late May, when the gusts change from frigid blasts to hot breaths. The windiest day of the year is historically April 4; a day when hairdos and stacks of loose papers must stand strong against gales blustering at an average of 13 mph.

Occasionally, there will be a spike in velocity that knocks out the power or rolls back a tin roof or tries to tear the awning off of the Valero gas station on Caulfield and Kemp. A fire inspector once cast a wary eye on the 1916 Wichita Fair and Exposition, concerned, per the The Wichita Daily Eagle on October 22, that the flammable structures of the event created a great risk of conflagration due to the “high, dry winds we have in the fall,” his fears rooted in both science and the fact that this very thing had happened the previous year.

So in Wichita, they are aware of the wind. They know that it blows, that it carries the cold and the heat of the plains, and that it occasionally bends a gas station in half. They do not all understand why it is the name of the town’s new Triple-A franchise, the Wichita Wind Surge, an affiliate of the Miami Marlins.

“I guess it’s windy here,” says Wichita resident Eric Pierce, “but… wind’s kind of everywhere.”

Wichita fits into a distinct level of awareness from the rest of the country: Recognizable by name, but generally, not by much else. It is the largest city in Kansas; it stands at the crossing of rivers called “Arkansas” and “Little Arkansas.” It is named after a Native American tribe that was displaced to a reservation in Oklahoma, and it is the birthplace of Barry Sanders, Gayle Sayers, Kirstie Alley, and the inventors of Pizza Hut. The ingredients are there for something that is uniquely “Wichita,” but what?

“I know the whole thing with Triple-A is that everybody’s got kind of a weird name and all that, but…” says Pierce, trailing off. “I don’t think a lot of people can get behind that name. It doesn’t represent Wichita. There are so many icons in this city that they could have used well before that was even a thought.”

Maybe the music scene? It was all big band jazz in Wichita during World War II, until the Blue Moon nightclub on South Oliver burned to the ground and the devil’s music descended on the Heartland. Since then, the scene has evolved into a more diverse sound. Pierce has grown up in it, played in it, and last year launched a local independent radio station, ICT Radio, with two musician friends who wanted the true sound of Wichita to reach more ears.

“All the radio stations around here are really commercial, they just play garbled-up crap,” he explains. “We just decided to build this thing where you could tune in and 24/7, it’s just local music, you know?”

Walking down any street in Wichita, you’ll eventually hear one of the driving — or flying — forces of Wichita’s reputation streaking overhead. The aviation industry is the reason the town’s population exploded in the early 1940s on its way to becoming the world capital of flying machines. If you’ve watched any of the town’s past minor league teams (the Aeros, the Aviators, the Wingnuts, the Wranglers, the Cessna Bobcats), you probably would have guessed this.

For a while, Wichita State basketball was considered a factory for talented strong forwards. Wichita drivers strongly associate their town with eternal road repairs. In 1919, its location in what some believed was the exact center of the country (it’s not) made Wichita a destination for couples separated by distance to meet up and get hitched, per The Wichita Beacon.

Wichita’s been a lot of things, but according to Pierce and the almost 18,000 signatures on the petition ICT Radio started, none of those things made it onto the new team’s uniform.

“This isn’t a small town, it’s not a huge city,” he says. “There is that community pride still, where everybody still feels some ownership in things around the city.”

That goes beyond a team name missing the mark and factors into how exactly the city went about getting the franchise to town. Currently, the team’s front offices are contained in a pair of trailers 10 feet away from the guts of their new $90 million stadium, which has been the subject of local debate as it waits for Opening Day. To build the Wind Surge’s new ballpark, local lawmakers circumvented a 2014 document on the sale of city-owned land that stipulated the city must obtain offers through “a time-tested request-for-proposals process,” according to Kansas.com.

They did not do that.

“We did go around, I guess you could say, the development policy that we had,” the assistant city manager told the media. “But in order to do a catalytic development, this is what had to occur.”

The whole process raised questions about the Wind Surge, their new stadium, who was paying for it, exactly what land had been sold, maintaining riverfront views, and the developers in charge of the construction. It seems like there’s always a dubious component to a town building a new stadium, and Wichita’s situation was no different, their acquisition of a Triple-A franchise marred by distrust from the public. Outcry slowed, but didn’t stop, the process, and though questions surfaced over other issues, the blowback over the Wind Surge name seems like a culmination of ongoing frustrations.

But also, it’s about the name.

“They ended up teasing people for months as they’d been building this stadium: ‘Oh, what do you guys think about this name?’ making it seem like people had some kind of say in it,” Pierce says. “They’d known all along what the name was going to be.”

This is true, to an extent. Wind Surge VP & Assistant GM Bob Moullette says the team knew what their name would be by May (the name and logo were unveiled in mid-November), and the designs and names they submitted to the public weren’t about getting approval; they were about getting attention.

“Some people loved it. A lot of people hated it,” Moullette says. “But the public was engaged throughout the entire process.”

Over the course of eight weeks, Moullette and his staff threw every creative idea they had at Wichita. With Todd Radom, the designer of the Washington Nationals and Anaheim Angels logos, and Annika Wooton, the former Miss Wichita and current Miss Kansas, contributing ideas, they went to work. They changed their logo to a wind wagon. They changed their logo to a sunflower. They rebranded as the “River Riders,” just to see what would happen.

“[There was] one thing we had said that we did not want to do,” Moullette says. “Most teams will put out a fan vote. What we wanted to do was come straight out the gate and say it wasn’t going to be a vote, it was going to be some names that we considered that could possibly be it.”

The opportunity to start a new brand in a new community is a rare one in sports, and Moullette was eager to follow the team from New Orleans to Wichita in order to do so. In November 2018, Moullette and the rest of the New Orleans Baby Cakes staff (including their mostly-nude demon baby mascot) found out that they would be moving to Wichita at the end of the 2019 season. Moullette came out to Kansas with a small contingent to check things out and returned in January for meetings with 300 people from all over the community.

“The two things we heard loud and clear were ‘please do not stereotype us to Wizard of Oz,” Moullette says, “and the aviation theme — we love it, but that’s been played out.”

Putting aside those two very large avenues, Moullette and his team still squeezed three thousand names out of Wichita, asking questions like, “Is there a common theme? What are people particularly picking? And what do some of these things mean?”

A wind surge, which is much more commonly known as a “storm surge,” is defined by NOAA as “the abnormal rise in seawater level during a storm, measured as the height of the water above the normal predicted astronomical tide.”

Wichita is about 1,500 miles from the nearest seawater. But Moullette says the name didn’t come from the weather abnormality; rather from members of his focus groups who mentioned the “wind” as an element of the region. In fact, “Wichita Wind” was the name of a minor league hockey team in the area during the early 80s, necessitating an additional word. They found one in people’s descriptions of the town’s modern outlook.

“They thought Wichita was ‘surging’ forward as far as becoming a ‘must-visit, must-live’ city,” Moullette says. “So, we wanted to honor the past, but also focus on the future and the term ‘Wind Surge’ came into play. Wind [being] old, Surge [being] new.”

When the “Wind Surge” name and logo was revealed, columnists mocked it. Pierce started his petition. Kirstie Alley was pissed.

“People argue that we’re ‘surging’ forward, or whatever,” Pierce scoffs. “That’s true, but that’s not the word I would use… that makes [it] sound like the beverage.”

Despite Pierce’s petition, it became clear the name “Wind Surge” wasn’t going anywhere; the team’s Senior VP Annie Life made it seem like the debate was over in an email: “Debate?? Heck no… no debate… we are the WIND SURGE!!”

And they certainly are the Wind Surge, as all the merchandise in the souvenir shop indicates.

Like many cities on the map as America opens up into its flatter, wider states, Wichita is not immediately adjacent to a major league franchise, and the closest to them, the Royals, aren’t going to be worth a three-hour drive for some time. Wichita has long relied on its local minor league product, as well as college and semi-pro teams, to intimately engage in America’s pastime.

But it’s not a great time to be a minor league baseball team. Forty-two teams are on a proposed elimination list floating around baseball at the moment, and may disappear entirely if MLB has its way. That means 42 towns would have baseball taken away from them, or at least see their baseball changed substantially, and lack an easily accessible place to see it in person. Wichita isn’t on the list, but the debate stirred over something as simple as a name shows how much a town with a minor league affiliate can care about its team, about its culture, and about how it’s represented, because being represented is kind of the point.

Wichita is in a period of growth; people are shopping local and buying local and building local. They want to know where their taxes are going and they want city officials to follow the law. And as far as baseball goes, it’s always been a pillar of the town.

“You go to New Orleans and talk about baseball to someone, they kind of look at you like… ‘ooookay…’” Moullette says. “If you’re talking about football, it’s different. Now here, you can have a really great baseball conversation with a lot of fans. So I would say being in the midwest and having the [National Baseball Congress World Series] being here for so long, baseball is definitely rooted in this town.”

The NBC World Series and Wichita State baseball, Pierce says, have been big draws. The lower level minor league teams the city has seen have been relatively hit or miss as far as popularity. And when Opening Day comes, Wichitans will roll their eyes and probably pack the house, because they like baseball, because it’s their team, and as a Triple-A affiliate, it’s almost certainly the closest they’ll get to a major league squad.

It’s difficult to come up with a universal definition for a “baseball town.” There’s places where it’s the only thing to do, and where it’s the thing they’ve always done; towns where it could have worked, where it should have worked, and where it never had a chance. But Wichita doesn’t have to be whatever a baseball town is to want to be represented accurately. Still, they’ll show up on Opening Day, Pierce says, because the Wind Surge is Wichita’s team, even if they’re wearing a name a lot of people don’t like, because baseball belongs here, just like it belongs anywhere that people want to watch it.

“I just think it’s something that should always probably be here, because it’s always kind of been there,” Pierce concludes. “People might say that they wouldn’t miss it, but I feel like once something’s gone, you’re really gonna notice. It’s like the ocean you know? If you live at the ocean, maybe you don’t go there all the time, you’re like, ‘whatever.’ But people from Kansas, they think the ocean’s like this amazing thing, that they only get to see it a few times maybe in their lives. I just think people would really miss it if it went away.”

Justin has contributed to FanGraphs and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.

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If I lived in Wichita I’d be bummed I wasn’t getting the Demon Baby mascot, which looks amazing. I would have just kept the mascot and figured out a name that went with it.