By Mark Schremmer
Globe Sports Writer
Professional baseball returned to Joe Becker Stadium with a bang.
Kansas City’s Felix Molina blasted the game’s second pitch into the right-field scoreboard for a leadoff home run.
As part of the 100th anniversary celebration of the historic stadium where Mickey Mantle once played, a pair of independent minor league teams faced off Sunday in Joplin. The announced attendance of 670 witnessed the Wichita Wingnuts beat the Kansas City T-Bones 8-7 in the American Association exhibition.
The game marked the first time professional baseball was played at Joe Becker Stadium since Joplin was represented by the Class C St. Louis Cardinals affiliate in 1954. Sunday’s exhibition could help determine potential interest in bringing an American Association team to Joplin.
“It was a fun atmosphere,” Wichita manager Kevin Hooper said. “I think it would be a great town to bring professional baseball to. I’m a Midwest guy, so I think it would be great to add another team that isn’t too far for us. It’s a great city and a good ballpark.”
The day’s festivities included ceremonial first pitches from Ted Eberhard, who played for the Joplin Miners in 1948, and city manager Mark Rohr. Fans also had the opportunity to take pictures with Don Brown, a Mickey Mantle impersonator who was dressed in the iconic Yankees No. 7 jersey. The Hall of Famer spent the 1950 season with the Joplin Miners.
For Joplin, it was a day to reflect on a great past. In addition to Mantle, the likes of Stan Musial, Joe Garagiola, Ken Boyer and Whitey Herzog played at Joe Becker.
But for the Wingnuts and T-Bones, it was a final tune-up before the regular season starts Thursday. Wichita kept several of its big names out of the lineup, including former St. Louis Cardinal John Rodriguez, in order to see what the younger players could do.
“We’ll make our final cuts tomorrow, so it was kind of our last game to evaluate our talent and see where we’re at,” Hooper said. “We’ve got our 2, 3 and 4-hole hitters out of the lineup, and we put up 12 runs yesterday and eight runs today. That was good to see out of the young guys.”
The Wingnuts recorded 11 hits, including four for extra bases.
However, it was a Kansas City bat that made the first noise.
Molina, who played at the Triple-A level in the Twins organization in 2008, gave the T-Bones a 1-0 lead with the leadoff homer off Wingnuts pitcher Kristhiam Linares.
Wichita’s starter bounced back by not allowing another hit in his three innings of work.
“He’ll more than likely make our rotation, or he’ll be in our bullpen,” Hooper said. “We’ve got big plans for him, and we like what we see out of him. He gave up the first home run, and he kind of settled in from there. He’s got really good stuff. We just need to learn how to work it and command it.”
Kansas City added three more runs in the top of the fourth, keyed by a two-run single from Trevor Coleman. T-Bones starter Shaun Garceau was perfect through the first eight batters and allowed only one run through four innings.
After Garceau left, the Wingnuts’ bats came alive with five runs in the fifth and two in the sixth to take an 8-4 lead.
“I feel like overall we did a pretty good job of getting runners in when they got on base,” said Wingnuts outfielder David Amberson, who was 2-for-4 with three RBI. “We’ve had some pretty clutch hitting.”
Keyed by a two-run triple from Brandon Pearl, the T-Bones cut the deficit to 8-7 with three runs in the top of the eighth.