Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: a Chiefs theory, some Royals confidence, Vahe’s speed and more

Andy Reid after Chiefs win in Los Angeles: ‘Tyreek...he kind of got things going’

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid spread the accolades around between quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and others after the teams 38-28 win against the Los Angeles Chargers at StubHub Center.
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Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid spread the accolades around between quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and others after the teams 38-28 win against the Los Angeles Chargers at StubHub Center.

Chiefs fans haven’t been this excited over innovative offense in a season-opening win over a favored opponent on the road since ... well, since exactly a year ago.

We know what happened next.

“The first game don’t really mean nothing,” Tyreek Hill said this week, and he wasn’t directly talking about last year but I’ve been thinking about it anyway.

Here’s where I land: This team has flaws that can and almost certainly will be exposed, but is better equipped to navigate its way around the potholes that would cause another midseason dip.

It’s a theory, anyway, and you probably won’t be surprised that it’s a theory that centers around Patrick Mahomes.

I don’t want this to come off as a slam on Alex Smith, a better quarterback than many fans and media believe and who was predictably excellent in his debut with Washington — 21 of 30, 255 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in a win.

But this is a fact I’ve mentioned before and often think about: Last season, the Chiefs lost seven games, including the playoffs. They had a chance to win all but one of them with a better final drive.

Now, Smith led the greatest comeback in franchise history against the Chargers in the season opener a few years ago — remember David Eulitt’s incredible shot? — but for the most part, this was not an offense that was good from behind or capable of moving the ball quickly when it had to.

So, given those same opportunities — six games there for the winning with a better final drive — you’d assume Mahomes would do better. His skill set and vision of how to play quarterback are aligned for fourth-quarter comebacks.

With Mahomes, it’s more about whether he can have a team with a suspect defense in position to win that many games with a better final possession, and whether he has the gravitas in his first year as a starter to pull a group of grown men through the darkness — remember that the Chiefs not only made the postseason after last year’s five-game skid, but also after the 1-5 start in 2015.

When the rough spots come — and they always come — Andy Reid and the coaching staff will need to do their part, and to be sure, that credibility is a big part of keeping teams together. But at some point players have to lead, too.

So, the theory: The Chiefs are better equipped to avoid another prolonged slump because Mahomes’ talents will help them play through mistakes and inefficiencies. If this is true, they will also be more difficult to beat in the postseason, because the trains won’t need to be running perfectly on time.

I don’t know. It’s a theory, anyway. But you shouldn’t listen to me. I thought the Chargers would beat them.

This week’s eating recommendation is the pastor at Tacos El Gallo, and the reading recommendation is Robert Klemko on John Elway’s search for a quarterback.

Please give me a follow on Twitter and Facebook, and please consider signing up for the Sports Pass — $30 a year of the best sports coverage in Kansas City. And if you’re curious why we’re charging for digital access, I tried to explain here.

As always, thanks for your help and thanks for reading.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">What was it like seeing the second Chief HOF QB in person?</p>&mdash; Tyler Carroll (@tylerpcarroll) <a href="">September 10, 2018</a></blockquote>

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I wrote this in the game column, and maybe you don’t believe me because of some other stuff I’ve written about Patrick Mahomes but you and I are friends and I would not lie to you:

I expected to write about the hype getting too far in front of reality.

As you can see, I did not write that column. Instead, I wrote about him in a towel.

Most of what’s said is at least in half-jest, I believe, in the way a lot of us tend to use hyperbole for effect, particularly in the moment of a game. I still believe we’re going to see a three- or four-interception game at some point, and I say that only in part because I know there are some within the organization who believe Mahomes will both be a star AND at some point throw a bunch of picks in a game.

But I do think it’s worth noting something that’s often lost about Mahomes. It can be easy to get this gunslinging, throw-deep-first, ask-questions-later idea about him. The Brett Favre comparisons bring to mind a guy willing to throw some 50-50 balls, and Mahomes did throw a lot of interceptions during training camp.

The truth often blurs in that context. The truth is that he has some rough edges — the interception in Atlanta, the bad idea poorly executed on the deep ball to Demetrius Harris in Denver — but he’s not a turnover machine.

His last year at Texas Tech, he threw 10 in 591 passes. That’s a rate of 1.7 percent.

Deshaun Watson, for comparison’s sake, threw 17 in 579 passes his last year at Clemson. That’s a rate of 2.9 percent.

Mitch Trubisky, the first quarterback taken in that draft, threw six in 447 passes. That’s a rate of 1.3 percent.

Now, you can make your joke about Big 12 defenses, and some of them might be funny, but still. Mahomes simply does not have a history of not taking care of the ball.

What we saw in suburban Los Angeles was, basically, what the finished product will look like. Hopefully the biggest difference is that he’ll get a better idea of when to slide to avoid contact when he runs, but for the most part, that was pretty dang good — the decisions, the accuracy, the risk-reward calculus, all of it.

That’s not what it’ll look like all the time, at least in the beginning.

But it’s fantastically encouraging that it looked like that in his first real start, against a good defense, albeit one without its best player.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">So....not to be the Minutes Debbie Downer...but Chargers were a couple dropped td&#39;s away from leading that game....<br>Is 35+ what Chiefs gotta score every week with this secondary and lack of pash rush?</p>&mdash; Tyler Watterson (@thebiggszone) <a href="">September 10, 2018</a></blockquote>

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This is undoubtedly true, and I don’t think even hardcore Chiefs fans are denying this point.

But I would say a couple things here. Part of winning NFL games is simply not screwing up. The Chiefs used to have a coach who would judge performances largely based on how many times his team “did the things that get you beat,” and other coaches are fond of saying more games are lost than won.

Also, some of the Chargers’ worst drops came on the same drive, one in which they ended up with a touchdown anyway, so it’s hard to know exactly how many points they left on the field.

Now, all that said, yes, the defense is going to be a problem. This is not a controversial stance, and it’s part of why I thought 8-8 (though they’re already ahead of the prediction).

This is weird to say about a team that gave up 541 yards and it could’ve been more, but the defense was actually OK on Sunday. Or, at least, OK through three quarters — 12 points and 287 yards.

NFL rules require defenses to account for fourth quarters, so that stuff counts too, and a late fade was always possible with the heat and how much the defense was on the field. But that was good enough to win.

Dee Ford had one of his most disruptive games, not just with a three-point sack that pushed the Chargers out of field goal range, but consistent pressure — often with his signature speed rush, but also by engaging the tackle and using strength to rush inside.

Ron Parker was valuable. He had some misses, benefiting as much as anyone from the Chargers’ drops, but was also supportive against the run and generally in the places he needed to be.

Kendall Fuller was solid. Anthony Hitchens blew up a run play with a nifty DJ impersonation.

There were rough spots, yes, absolutely. But the expectation for this group should be realistic, especially if you agree with me that this is a soft rebuild anyway.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Are the Chiefs this good, or the Chargers that bad?</p>&mdash; Brandon Sieckman (@bsieckman) <a href="">September 10, 2018</a></blockquote>

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The Chargers presumably feel like they should’ve won, and it would be hard to argue the point with much force. My goodness, the mistakes, most of them completely unforced.

But that’s part of the NFL. Adam Teicher, who I believe has covered the Chiefs longer than anyone else on the beat, often says, “never underestimate the (um ... imperfections) of the other team.”

If this was the game that Mahomes threw a bunch of dumb interceptions, and the Chiefs lost, they wouldn’t get half-credit for doing it based on mistakes.

Avoiding those mistakes on their side and causing them on the other is basically how Andy Reid has built success in Kansas City, and if you don’t believe me here are the top five teams in turnover margin since his hiring in 2013:

1. Chiefs, +63

2. Seahawks, +46

3. Patriots, +45

4. Panthers, +31

5. Bills, +30

The Chargers, if you’re curious, are 21st at -10.

Now, one of the great advantages of having a quarterback like Mahomes, and weapons around him, is that you should be able to play your way through some mistakes that would sink a less dynamic unit.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">KC sports debuts... where did Sunday rank? (Counting this as his Starting QB debut)</p>&mdash; Jay Sparks (@sparksjay) <a href="">September 10, 2018</a></blockquote>

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Because I am my father’s son, I have to mention that Wilt Chamberlain beat Kansas’ varsity as a freshman back when freshmen were ineligible, going for 42 and 29, then dropped 52 and 31 in his first varsity game the next year against Northwestern.

Not sure which of those you would count as his debut, but that’s going to be tough to beat.

The thing about Mahomes’ day that’s so encouraging is we didn’t see anything that feels unsustainable. You know? He didn’t take advantage of an overmatched opponent, or a series of lucky breaks.

Tyreek Hill was uncoverable, but that’s going to be true many times. The run blocking wasn’t great, Travis Kelce was off and Sammy Watkins dropped an easy pass that killed a drive.

Mahomes isn’t going four-tuddies-and-no-picks every game, if only because at some point Andy Reid will call for a handoff near the goal line, but that was a representative picture of what this offense can be.

Mahomes talks constantly of “being efficient,” to the point that the phrase is something of a crutch, but that’s exactly what he was in his first real start.

Again, at some point we’re going to see some warts. It happens to, literally, every quarterback, especially the new ones.

But before we get to that, it’s nice to see this other side.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes took the helm and lead the team to a 38-28 win against the Los Angeles Chargers in the season opener at StubHub Center.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">I was intrigued by Houston at start of training camp “so whoever has the weakest link, wherever he is, that’s where I want to be”. Did you see any of that?</p>&mdash; Greg Adams (@G4D4MS) <a href="">September 10, 2018</a></blockquote>

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Not really. Not all the time, anyway, because Dee Ford had some rushes against the Chargers’ backup right tackle.

And, honestly, I didn’t notice Houston much. Now, I mentioned this on the podcast, but there were times last year I thought Houston was ineffective watching live and then after watching the tape realized he was terrific.

So, I reserve the right to completely flip-flop on this, but it sure didn’t seem like he was a major factor. Credited with just half a tackle, and it was a nice stop on a run play, but that’s not why he’s on a $20.6 million cap hit this season.

I’ve written about the Chiefs needing to help him more this year, and when I watch the tape maybe I’ll see that Dee Ford’s disruptions came because the Chargers were selling out to block Houston. If that’s the case, this goes from a cause for concern to a cause for encouragement.

But all of the worries about the Chiefs’ defense have generally been made with the assumption that Houston would be a consistent force.

If that’s no longer the case, a weak pass rush and soft coverage from the secondary is no way to go through life.

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He’s the best available cornerback, obviously, but there are reasons he remains available.

The most obvious is health. He failed a physical with the Panthers, voiding a $24 million contract, an injury serious enough that teams were cautiously optimistic he’d be ready for Week 1.

That would have to be addressed before anything else. There have been questions about him as a teammate in the past, and maybe I’m connecting dots that aren’t there, but if you’re the Chiefs and you’re committed to “building a better culture” you might be hesitant to sign a guy like that midseason.

Free agent CB Bashaud Breeland walks into dorm at Chiefs camp at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Mo.

Breeland essentially lost $24 million this offseason. He’ll be a mercenary wherever he goes this season, and teams are always concerned about how that can affect the locker room.

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Now, all that said, as a football fit he would instantly make the Chiefs better. My hunch is that they’ll see what Orlando Scandrick is capable of as a No. 3 corner. The results against the Chargers were mixed. He had some good coverages, some good moments, but also this one:

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The Chiefs like Scandrick’s competitiveness, and a mind that’s seen 126 games at the position.

At some point, you wonder when the balance might shift, but at the moment I’d be surprised if the Chiefs made a move this week.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Are the 2018 chiefs the 2014 royals, where they over achieve and set up for success in 2019 (see 2015 royals)? If so do chiefs stand pat on defense this year to go all in next year or do they make a trade? (Maybe that #22 for LA rams is available?!)</p>&mdash; Andrew Corrao (@penguinxcrossin) <a href="">September 10, 2018</a></blockquote>

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I’m not sure the comparison works, but I do agree with the premise, that this year is a step in a bigger process for the organization.

Cap numbers are hard to project, because I can sit here and say the Chiefs can renegotiate Justin Houston after the season, but they’re also going to need to pay Tyreek Hill at some point.

That said, the cap always goes up, and with everyone so young you can imagine the Chiefs with a much improved secondary next year if Charvarius Ward OR Tremon Smith make a jump and the team adds a veteran and/or drafts someone high.

My expectation is they’ll continue to focus up front, too, to stack defensive linemen and pass rushers. A defensive front with Houston and Ford rushing from the outside, supporting Chris Jones, Xavier Williams, Derrick Nnadi and perhaps Breeland Speaks inside, you can do worse than that — and I’d expect the team to be in the market for more.

The offense is among the most dynamic in the league, particularly if Mahomes’ is speeding around his learning curve. The defense does not have to be great, in that case, just adequate.

If you look at it in that context, they’re really not that far away.

Done right, this is a fun and dangerous team this year that becomes fun and dangerous and really tough to beat in 2019.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Who would be the most unlikely TD scorer that Andy has a trick play drawn up for?</p>&mdash; Alex Fallster (@AlexTFoster) <a href="">September 10, 2018</a></blockquote>

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Andy Reid already checked this off the bucket list with Hungry Pig Right.

I mean, I suppose he could line up Dustin Colquitt as a tight end or something, just for pure sport, but we’ve already seen Reid push the boundaries of creativity into glorious touchdown trolling.

Reid’s brain is good for much more than laughs, though.

Kareem Hunt’s spectacular rookie season makes it easy to forget that the Chiefs’ run blocking is subpar, a weakness we saw against the Chargers. Reid’s creativity is the best antidote for that, seen most obviously by using Tyreek Hill and De’Anthony Thomas in ghost motions to buy a step or two from the linebackers so that Hunt has more room between the tackles.

The shovel passes to Hill and Thomas near the goal line Sunday were extreme examples, but the plays are more than highlights. We’ve seen this group struggle when running traditional short yardage runs — remember the Titans game a few years back? — so using space and speed helps tilt the odds to the Chiefs’ favor.

Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver De’Anthony Thomas got in the end zone and forced a fumble on special teams in his first game back since breaking his leg in Week 17 of the 2017 season.

“I feel like with that stuff, either it works or it doesn’t,” right tackle Mitchell Schwartz said after the game. “And when it doesn’t it’s pretty disastrous.”

That’s true, but it’s also disastrous to run a back into a brick wall near the goal line.

When teams know they have to cover sideline to sideline, and worry not just about a back with Hunt’s talents but also playmakers like Hill and Thomas, the Chiefs go from a bad goal line offense to a pretty good one.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">What is your take on talking about a perfect game or no-no in progress? Fans, media etc? <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#unwrittenrules</a></p>&mdash; William Ballantyne (@waballantyne) <a href="">September 10, 2018</a></blockquote>

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Oh, I’ve got takes. Two, in fact.

Take 1: the jokes can be funny, and the prevalence of frivolous superstition is one of baseball’s many charms.

Take 2: I have zero patience for anyone who takes it beyond that, because it’s all stupid, and no grown adult should be pretending to be serious that someone talking about a no-hitter jeopardizes said no-hitter.

I will say it one more time: If jinxes were real, flight attendants wouldn’t welcome you to the city when the plane is still 30,000 feet in the air.

I find these takes to be bulletproof.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">The Royals are quietly putting a together, not just a good but potentially great rotation in 3-4 years? Your thoughts?</p>&mdash; Co Gats(1-1) (@thebsan) <a href="">September 10, 2018</a></blockquote>

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Look, for those of us who believed the Royals should’ve embraced a tank, this season is going splendidly.

They’re going to lose the Bobby Witt Jr. sweepstakes to the Orioles, but picking second overall is a good spot, and look at what they’ve been able to do developmentally:

- Adalberto Mondesi has transitioned into the regular shortstop, and though he needs more consistency and a better feel for the strike zone, he’s already shown some transcendent talent.

- Brett Phillips is playing everyday, and is pretty much as advertised: a potential game changer as a defender with a bat that needs to come along.

- Ryan O’Hearn has shown remarkable power, and small sample size warnings are relevant here, but he’s young and the opposite field stuff is especially encouraging.

- Hunter Dozier has been scorching baseballs for most of the last month.

That’s four potential pieces, ages 22 to 26, and does not include the Jorges or Brian Goodwin. This is something to build around.

You asked about the rotation. I believe the Royals have something with Brad Keller, and Jakob Junis looks like a reliable rotation piece for the future who’s feeling his way through some things at the moment. Heath Fillmyer, Eric Skoglund, you can take varying levels of optimism there. Danny Duffy is not yet 30, and figures to be around if the next window opens on schedule.

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jakob Junis threw his first career complete game in Tuesday's August 28, 2018 win against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium.

My sense is that you wouldn’t be asking this particular question at this particular moment if not for Jorge Lopez taking a perfect game into the ninth inning over the weekend. He was spectacular, and he has an encouraging profile — former top prospect with a four-pitch repertoire and enough velocity.

He’s had five starts with the Royals now. In two, he’s given up 11 runs in 8 2/3 innings. In the other three, he’s given up three runs in 20 innings.

Guys like that are generally good bets if they’re young, with enough athleticism and aptitude to make the necessary corrections.

The Royals’ hope is that the best part of the next window’s rotation is only getting started in pro ball. Organizationally, they saw a hole in their portfolio of pitchers, which is why they went so heavy on it in the most recent draft.

If they can get even one of those guys to click, yes, this can be a good group going forward.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">I&#39;m struggling to rank Drew Lock in context of Mizzou&#39;s QB&#39;s in the Pinkel/Odom era. He was so awful early on, but now looks he may have the potential to sling past Chase Daniel as a pure passer. He&#39;s gotta win some big games first tho, right?</p>&mdash; AJ (@AJTrueSon) <a href="">September 10, 2018</a></blockquote>

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Here’s something I believe a little more every year: You should hold off as long as possible before making anything close to a definitive statement about a college athlete.

Kansas basketball was a good example last year. Midway through that season, the idea of Devonte Graham having his jersey in the rafters seemed like a biiiiiiigggg stretch, at best. By the end, it was a no-brainer.

It can feel a little different with Lock, because he’s so familiar — he’s played every game at Mizzou, a starter since midway through his freshman season.

But he’s still growing into the position, and depending on the next 10 games (or more) we’re going to remember him much more for what we still haven’t seen than anything in our memories at the moment.

As a college player, Chase Daniel is going to be tough to beat. Lock’s junior season actually measures well against Daniel’s statistically — more yards, more yards per attempt, better touchdown-to-interception ratio — in a tougher league but it was never about statistics with Daniel.

That’s the part that Lock might need to catch up with. Daniel had those moments, none bigger than beating Kansas at Arrowhead in 2007.

I do think Lock is a better pro prospect than Daniel. Better athlete, better arm, better body. Blaine Gabbert had some NFL scouts fooled, and I’m sure we’ll hear about that when it’s time to judge Lock as a draft prospect, but there are throws he’s making that I’m not sure Gabbert was capable of.

So, well, basically yes. I co-sign. He’s got all the potential in the world, but if we’re talking about quarterbacks in Mizzou’s modern era, he’s got to win some big games.

Here are five things to know before the Missouri Tigers travel to West Lafayette, In. to take on the Purdue Boilermakers.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Through 2 games in the CFB season how much has your opinion changed on the 3 local schools?</p>&mdash; scottwildcat (@scottwildcat) <a href="">September 10, 2018</a></blockquote>

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Not much.

Mizzou’s been encouraging, but the test was always going to start this week — at Purdue, then Georgia at home, then at South Carolina and at Alabama. If Mizzou wins two, it’s a good sign. Win three, and it’s a great sign, and the point where my opinion of them would change.

Kansas snapped the longest road losing streak in FBS, and that’s a moment that group will have forever, but let’s be honest. The team still stinks. They’re actually favored over Rutgers this weekend, but will be an underdog in every Big 12 game.

K-State is the one where maybe the opinion is changed. They shouldn’t be struggling that hard with an FCS school, and I wouldn’t have expected them to beat Mississippi State — but I did expect them to compete a little better. The next test will be at West Virginia on Sept. 22. If that’s another blowout, K-State has serious problems.

Here are five things to know before the University of Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners take on the Kansas State Wildcats.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">everything&#39;s fixed with KU football now, right?</p>&mdash; JT (@TarH2O23) <a href="">September 10, 2018</a></blockquote>

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I mean this with great sincerity: The worst outcome for KU is if the team is just barely good enough to keep David Beaty.

If there really is a culture change coming, and we’re going to see the results of three years’ worth of bricklaying, then great. Beaty inherited enough of a mess that it’s not unreasonable to believe it just took this long to see a result.

It would be amazing to see Beaty succeed. He’s a positive person, and it would be an incredible turnaround story.

But, let’s be honest. Jeff Long should not stop thinking about his next coach.

Here are five things to know before the Rutgers Scarlet Knights take on the Kansas Jayhawks.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">So was Vahe fast or not</p>&mdash; Pete Sweeney (@pgsween) <a href="">September 10, 2018</a></blockquote>

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I’ve played basketball with the man, and he’s got some movement to him. You guys know Vahe was a college receiver, right?

He likes to downplay it, quoting a coach who told him he was either too short for his speed or too slow for his size, but playing football at Penn is something done by badasses.

This is probably low praise, because look at me, but I would not want to race Vahe.

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Love it! One of my favorite memories as a kid was road trips with my dad to minor-league games. We did Omaha a bunch, Wichita a few times, Springfield, maybe some others that I’m now forgetting.

When the Wranglers left, I was way more bummed than I had the right to be, living three hours away with other minor-league options.

But those trips are something I’ve long looked forward to doing with my kids, sort of keeping a tradition alive, so it’ll be cool to have another spot we can check out. I dig minor-league games. Probably been to 20 or stadiums. You’re close, it’s light, it’s cheap, it’s fun. It’s baseball.

The main thing you need is stuff around the ballpark. That was probably the Wranglers’ biggest failure, and by the looks of the plan, something Wichita is correcting if it gets another team.

(FILE VIDEO) Wichita mayor Jeff Longwell announced on Sept. 6, 2018, that Wichita would be the new home of the New Orleans Baby Cakes, a triple A affiliate of the Miami Marlins. A new ballpark would be build for the team.

This week, I’m particularly grateful for “Ozark” being back. What a show.

Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.