“It’s a great atmosphere here,” said Leo, who is in his 33rd season as the Larks’ manager. “Used to be, I could stand in the coaching box and look in the stands and know everybody who was there. Now, it’s a mass of people, which is fun.
“It took a lot of work to get where we’re at,” he added. “It really has become a thing to do in Hays in the summer time. It’s really fun to see people come out to the ball park, enjoy the game, see people.”
The product on the field in the early years of Leo’s tenure was hampered by limited funding, which restricted recruiting. Still, the team would often come together at the end of the summer, using “Larks Magic” to make a run at the National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita.
The Larks return three players off last year’s club that made it to the NBC semifinals. Left fielder Clayton Rasbeary enjoyed his time in Hays, America, last summer.
“It was awesome,” he said. “All the winning, and the host families were great. The guys were cool, easy to be around with.”
Rasbeary and pitcher Walter Pennington – another returner – marveled at the Hays crowds, compared to what they experienced when they went on the road.
“Hays blew everybody out of the water,” Rasbeary said. “We have the best fans in the league.”
Pennington noticed that Larks’ fans remained focused on the game, hooting and hollering from first pitch to final out.
“The fans are always into it,” Pennington said. “So much more fun playing at home. You don’t want to let the fans down.”
Off the field, the summer of 2007 was a turning point, Leo said. In the late 1980s the Larks started using sponsorships to allow free admission for home games. That helped, but the Larks were still in danger of not having the resources to play a schedule that summer of 2007. Leo instinctively knew that if there was a summer without baseball the Larks – who had been in existence since 1946 — would be in danger of folding.
A public plea for fans to come out to the park helped, as did the formation of the Diamond Club, which raised funds for the program. The program flourished on the field that summer, too, taking second in the Jayhawk League and finishing runner-up at the NBC World Series.
“It’s been fun to see the program grow,” Leo said.
The Larks play before packed stands on a nightly basis these days, with fans also taking up spots on lawn chairs by the dugout and leaning against the fence down the left-field line. Larks apparel is for sale next to the concession stand, which has Larks burgers and brats for hungry fans. If the beverage batter cooperates, fans flock to the concession stand for discounted drinks.
Chris Lee and one of his daughters drove over from Quinter for a recent game. They make it to about a handful of games every summer. Lee was wearing a former Lark’s jersey — Lance Berkman of the Houston Astros — while cheering the team on to victory.
“It’s just a wonderful way to spend a summer evening,” Lee said. “It’s fun to see these kids hustle on and off the field. They play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”
Last year, for the first time, Larks’ games were streamed live on the Internet, and every game this summer, both home and away, can be seen. The program’s website has been updated, and statistics, boxscores and the roster are just a click away. The team also has a presence on social media, with Twitter and Instagram accounts and a Facebook page.
Leo, who was inducted into the Kansas Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005 and the NBC Hall of Fame in 2015, won his 1,000th game as Larks’ manager last summer. More than a few former Larks have gone to play in the major leagues, most notably Berkman and slugger Albert Pujols. Hays has won nine Jayhawk League titles under Leo and finished second at the NBC World Series five times. Hays lost to Team USA in the title game in 1995. In 2000 and 2001 the Larks were second at the World Series both years. This is the final year Wichita’s historic Lawrence-Dumont will host the World Series.
“I think the most recent surge started about 2000,” Leo said. “I know in ’95 we made a big run with Berkman. The year (2000) we lost to Anchorage in the ninth inning; Anchorage brought in Jeff Francis, who had a decent major league career. We beat him in the quarterfinals, 1-0, 11-inning game.
“A lot of good memories at Lawrence-Dumont,” Leo added. “We never won that big ball game. We put ourselves in position a number of times; a fun position to be in.”