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updated: 6/18/2012 9:09 PM

Cougars bring a lot to the plate with All-Star Game

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  • Albert Pujols celebrates with fans after hitting a home run Sunday for the Los Angeles Angels. Twelves years ago, Pujols was playing in the Midwest League All-Star Game and deemed "someone to watch." A new crop of all-stars will be in Geneva tonight for the annual classic. The Cougars organization has planned a Chicago theme to the event, complete with Wayne Messmer and Nancy Faust joining in.

      Albert Pujols celebrates with fans after hitting a home run Sunday for the Los Angeles Angels. Twelves years ago, Pujols was playing in the Midwest League All-Star Game and deemed "someone to watch." A new crop of all-stars will be in Geneva tonight for the annual classic. The Cougars organization has planned a Chicago theme to the event, complete with Wayne Messmer and Nancy Faust joining in.
    Associated Press

 
By Henry Perez
Daily Herald Correspondent

When fans file into Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva for Fanfest, which precedes today's Midwest League All-Star Game, they'll find a host of activities for all ages.

Wayne Messmer will sing the national anthem, and longtime White Sox organist Nancy Faust will entertain fans throughout the evening.

In the game itself, there's the chance to see future Major League players before they become household names. And after the last out is recorded, they will be treated to a first-class fireworks show.

In short, something for everyone. A full day of baseball with all the pomp and flair one could want from a celebration of the sport.

What the fans won't see is how much work went into staging the Midwest League's premier event of the season.

"That is the key, so that fans can just come and enjoy themselves and not worry about anything else," Kane County general manager Curtis Haug said. "We have a tremendous staff.

"We're going to put on a great show."

It has only been five years since the Cougars last hosted the game, which is customarily rotated through the 16 teams in the league. But then the renovation to the stadium bumped Kane County up to the head of the pack, and team officials signed on.

That decision set into motion a months-long process that will culminate in Tuesday's gala. While it's common for the employees of a minor league ballclub to wear many hats, that became even more true in the preparation for this game.

"It's exciting for all of us to know that the eyes of minor league baseball will be on our organization and our stadium," director of public relations Shawn Touney said.

While the main focus has been on creating a memorable experience for the fans, there's also a healthy dose of pride that plays a key role in bringing it all together. A Class-A all-star game is a national event. There are fans who make a habit of traveling long distances to attend those games, and some schedule their vacations around them. Many others will collect the all-star program or card set. National publications such as Baseball America follow and report on the player selection and results of these games.

Then there's the issue of representing your team and organization.

"Team officials and front office personnel from every team in the league, as well as all of the all-star players," Touney said. "And that's very special for us."

Major League scouts and media from across the Midwest will be in attendance, along with an expected full house. Making it all run seamlessly takes good planning.

"We did a lot of brainstorming about how to put the best product out there for the fans," Touney said.

So what did all of those meetings, the brainstorming, and long hours produce? A full day's worth of entertainment designed to create a complete experience for fans.

"What I like most about it is that we have a real Chicago theme to our presentation," Touney said.

With Messmer and the Cubs Dixieland Band performing, along with Faust, a longtime South Side favorite, Chicago fans should feel right at home.

The doors will open at 11:30 a.m. for Fanfest and anyone with a ticket to the game will be able to get in. Activities will include a chance to play catch and take batting practice on the field, a climbing wall, a trackless train, and an autograph and photo session with the MWL all-stars.

Batting practice will begin at 3 p.m., followed by an opportunity for fans to get autographs. After player introductions and Messmer's popular and distinct rendition of the national anthem, then the game gets under way.

"The talent on the field speaks for itself," Touney said. "This is a great opportunity to say you saw them play before they were on ESPN."

This year's players to watch include Minnesota Twins prospect Miguel Sano, who's been slugging his way through the Midwest League with the Beloit Snappers and is considered one of that organization's top prospects, and shortstop Francisco Lindor, the Cleveland Indians No. 1 prospect.

Which ones will become stars in the bigs? Sometimes it's hard to know. A dozen years ago Jose A. Pujols (that's how he signed autographs then), came into the Midwest League with little fanfare. He began the season by homering off Florida Marlins' top prospect Josh Beckett of the Cougars. By the All-Star Game, Pujols was considered a player to watch.

When the rosters were announced less than two weeks ago, it set into motion another series of projects the Cougars' staff needed to complete quickly. These required close coordination with MWL teams to get information needed to produce a program and a commemorative baseball card set and generate video board material.

Although the players are chosen by the league managers, there are always a few changes as all-star players get promoted to the next level. That happened this time as now former Cougar Nick Graffeo was moved up to Wilmington less than a week after being picked for this game.

Graffeo was replaced on the all-star roster by Matt Ridings, who will join fellow Cougars Jorge Bonifacio, Lane Adams, and Danny Mateo.

It all comes together Tuesday night, and Haug is confident that the memories from this game will last until the next time Kane County hosts it again.

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